Porcupine Tree, "Phase III"
Porcupine Tree, Voyage 34: The Complete Trip
I feel like it hasn't been very weird around these parts lately, so let us fly the freak flag again here at Pound for Pound. This means following Another path that emerges out of the Freezone, Porcupine Tree's "Voyage 34"; an excerpt of that song appeared on that excellent compilation and was reputedly "a big hit in the ambient/chill out club scene of the early 1990s (when it was originally issued as two 12 inch singles)." It turns out that it is actually an excerpt of 1 song in a 4-song suite, so obviously I had to explore the whole shebang. This is definitely more of an acquired taste, combining prog rock and ambient techno, so it may not work for many of you. It seemed worth sharing, as at the very least it showcases just how unexpected and strange the chill-out room could get.
For those like me that don't know, Porcupine Tree was an English rock band, which began in 1987 and disbanded in 2009. For a band that I didn't know much about beyond this single, they have an enormous discography, with 73 official and 75 unofficial releases. The group actually began as a hoax by British musician Steven Wilson and Malcolm Stocks, as they "fabricated a detailed back-story including information on alleged band members and album titles, as well as a "colourful" history which purportedly included events such as a meeting at a 1970s rock festival and several trips in and out of prison." From there, Wilson began to make music to back up the story, releasing his initial home recording experiments as Tarquin's Seaweed Farm on cassette in 1989. In 1991, Wilson would sign with Delerium Records, who would issue the band's second LP, Up The Downstair, in 1993.
Up The Downstair was originally intended to be a double album, with the second disc being a 30-minute track called "Voyage 34." Instead, it was released as a 12" later that year, with a second 12" coming out the following year that featured a remix by the trance group Astralasia and one by Wilson himself. It is the latter two tracks that became popular in the chill-out rooms, which makes good sense, as they have a dreamier, more ambient sound than Parts I and II, which center more on Wilson's guitar flights and rock grooves. In a 2012 Rolling Stone India interview, Wilson gave the background behind Voyage 34:
The whole point about Voyage 34 was it an exercise in genre. In that sense it stands apart from the rest of the catalogue. I don’t know what it was like in India, but back in the early Nineties, there was an explosion in ambient music, a fusion of electronic music and techno music with the philosophy of people like Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. I thought there was an interesting opportunity to do something that would bring progressive rock and psychedelia into that mixture. I wouldn’t say Voyage 34 was a technical exercise, that makes it sound like a science project, but I was a one-off experiment in a particular genre in which I knew I wouldn’t be staying for very long.
It's an odd, off-putting quote to be honest, which is only made worse in the second paragraph, where he states about ambient music that "Even at the time, I think that sort of music was already passing. Music that is too attached to a trend very soon starts to sound very dated. I was always interested in existing outside the bubble of whatever was hip, and that kind of music was very briefly hip. Voyage 34 sits inside that bubble. I’m still very proud of it. It was a unique piece of music, but of all the catalogue, it’s one of the pieces which relates most closely to the era that it was created in." The mixture of opportunism and arrogance is not a good look, but I will put away my personal feelings and stick to the music!
In short, if you can imagine someone mashing up those Tim Leary records we posted awhile back with cheesy prog guitar solos and The Orb, you have a good start on what to expect. Like the Leary stuff, there is this running thread of a guided journey through an acid trip, which is made explicit by LSD-referencing vocal samples. As Wilson tells it, "I was given a tape of a guy having a bad trip in the Sixties. It was an anti-LSD propaganda album and it was perfect to from a narrative around which I could form this long, hypnotic, trippy piece of music." For those interested, you can check out the anti-LSD documentary that Wilson sampled, which is narrated by Dr. Stanley Cohen and, bringing it all full circle, features Dr. Timothy Leary, as well as Allen Ginsburg, Ken Kesey and Aldous Huxley's wife Laura. The trip concept extends to the music structurally, as the first half is more aggressive and turbulent, much rockier if you will, while the second half is calmer and more expansive, trancier if you will again.
Above is the 2004 remastered edition of the 2000 release on Delerium Records that compiled both 12"s onto a single CD. The samples cover both the rock (Phase II) and trance (Phase III) sides. While "Phase I" feels like a prog number with the occasional ambient passage cut and pasted in, "Phase II" more successfully combines the two. This one builds out of a droning soundscape with water drop-like percussion, over which our boy Tim Leary and an anonymous head discuss the LSD pilgrimage. Around the 5-minute, guitar, bass, sequencer and effects come in to give some form to the proceedings; the best moments come when the guitar chords are left to hang in the air, creating a dubby, expansive space rock sound; when the guitar takes center stage, soloing over the synth background, it sounds like more like a cheesy kosmische number. It drops and peaks over the course of 17 and a half minutes. That earlier quote captures the problem with these two songs, as it feels often like someone who thinks that their genius can overcome their complete lack of understanding of genre. Wilson didn't really know about ambient, but wanted to take advantage of its hipness. Truthfully, I feel like the closest the dude has come to an LSD experience was listening to that documentary; the music is so controlled and composed that the acid comments feel like they are meant for another song.
"Phase III" shows that Wilson should have actually tried to understand the ambient bubble, as the trance group Astralasia produce a wonderful 19 and a half minute drift into the cosmos. What really stands out on this track is the treatment of the vocal samples; as opposed to the untouched, 50s science lecture ironic vibe, the group chops up, echoes, repeats, morphs them, creating a truly haunting and psychedelic space. Especially cool is the way that closing line of Phase II, "Is this trip really necessary?" emerges at the beginning of "Phase III," fragmented and whisper-y, as if we are about to truly find out if this LSD experience is worth it. The first 6 minutes or so are a hesitant stretch, as repeating bell phrase, vocals, chimes, keys emerge out of a droning black hole background. When the hi-hats kick in, you start for launch. Again though, the group lets this tension stand, not rushing to bring the kick drum and sequencer in. Once they do though, it feels so good and you can just sit back and chill the fuck out. Good stuff.