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Porcupine Tree - Up The Downstair CD (album) cover

UP THE DOWNSTAIR

Porcupine Tree

 

Heavy Prog

3.92 | 731 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

JLocke
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Well, for me this album is very special, because it was the first '90s-era PT album I ever gave a listen to. This is clearly not IN ABSENTIA or FEAR OF A BLANK PLANET, rather something very different. How different, you ask? Well, if you are used to hard-rocking radio tunes in the vein of ''Shallow'' or ''Halo'', you will be surprised at this content, and possbily even very dissapointed in the early Porcupine Tree work. I, however, found it to be just what I was looking for.

You see, I have retained the strong belief for sometime now that Porcupine Tree in is fact not a Heavy Progressive Rock band, and are instead a Psyechedelic/Space-Rock act capable of going many different directions within their genre. This album further helps to support that. Steve Wilson's own brand of musical mastery can stay psychedelic, yet go on a slightly different path from time to time while enevr truly deviating from the original idea behind Porcupine Tree. At the present point in his career, Wilson is delving into the Hard Rock/Metal side of things a bit, but his band is still making quality modern space-rock, as far as I am concerned. Why, then, is Porcupine Tree categorized incorrectly on this site as 'Heavy Prog'? I think the most obvious answer is that based on the band's latest three studio efforts (IN ABSENTIA, DEADWING, and FEAR OF A BLANK PLANET), the music seems to be going along those lines, but in UP THE DOWNSTAIR we are able to see that the band is in fact much more than just a hard rock band with progressive tendancies.

This particular album demonstrates the capability of Wilson's composition and playing techniques to take the listener somewhere that feels like it could never be located on this planet, and while the Pink Floyd influence is very prominent from time to time, there is enough originality to be found here that will hopefully allow even the most die-hard Floydian to accept Porcupine Tree as the modern day Psychedelic rock act. On this release we get a little bit of everything; from soaring soundscapes via atmospheric keyboards to hard rock jam sessions with groovy distorted guitar to the now signature-PT acoustic guitar ballad, there is nothing on here that wouldn't appeal to any listener. Something there for everybody, basically.

I happen to have heard the remastered double-album edition, so that is the one I am going to review. I understand that the only real differences between the two are that Gavin Harrison performs drums here in place of the original Wilson-programmed machines, and also, the STAIRCASE INFINITIES EP is now part of the album proper. So this review should be helpful and accurate, whichever version you happen to find yourself listening to.

Here we go:

''What You Are Listening To'' is an introductory ambient track that features keyboards and backward- recorded instrument playing preceeding a rather humorous voice introduction.

''Synesthesia'' (Yes, I did spell it correctly) Is the first actual song on the album, and while the vocals may sound a bit monotone, I like it. It is probably the most straight-forward track on the record in terms of song structure and presentation. The guitar work on this is as usual amazing-- a true testimate to Wilson's talent, as he wasn't bringing in accomplished guitar playes as guests at this point in the band's career; it's all him. The second solo in particular is very spacey and I find myself escaping into the wonderful musical world he has created with his sounds every time I hear it. Not a bad way to start out another great PT record, is it?

A flawless segue, and we are off into another great interlude in ''Monuments Burn into Moments''.

''Always Never'' is the first song I actually enjoyed the vocal work on the first time I listened to the record. Very mellow, but accompanied by a heavier counterpart during the crunching chorus. More soundscapes, more weirdness, more space-rock! At a minute forty-two, an absolutely mind-blowing guitar riff breaks in, inducing my first 'head-bobbing' moment on UP THE DOWNSTAIR. Truly wonderfull work by Mr. Wilson. Halfway through the song we are treated to a great ambient interlude using keyboards and a very atmospheric bass line courtesy of Colin Edwin, who was then only a friend of Wilson's who guested from time to time on his records. Amazing drum beats follow that, along with some flanged-out guitar chording. It all comes back around again exactly at the five minute mark where Wilson proves that he is a master sound-painter, nomatter how paltry his guitar playing skills themselves may be. Truly, he may play simply, but the solo that he plays at the end of this song sends more emotion into me than people like Vai or Petrucci ever will. Quite honestly, the emotion that the man can evoke from people through his instrument rivals even Gilmour, which is saying alot indeed. Everything calms down before the title tracks comes out of nowhere . . .

''Up the Downstair'' Is a song that hit me in the face with it's beauty and intensity from the very first listen. It's always goood when something like music can jump out of it's confinements, slap the listener about for a little while with a surprising twist, then somehow manage to keep everything feeling concise and complete by the track's end. The title track does that and more. Yet more ambient keybord sounds through the use of beeps, voice-mimicking and a whole lot of attitude. Richard Barbieri makes a guest appearance here lending his gifted fingers to Wilson's cause. Incidently, Barbieri's wife, Suzanne, provides some spoken word elements to the song. Otherwise it is completely instrumental. Two minutes in and it starts to sound liek something one would hear on an Ozric Tentacles album. At the mark of two minutes and thrity-seven seconds, the keyboards solidify that similarity, yet this doesn't feel like a blatant rip-off; I assume this is because Steve Wilson has the capability to be inspired by something, yet mold it into something of his own, unlike a certain other band, who I could mention, but I won't because I'm a nice guy, and even pompous, self-indulgant garbage has it's fans. At three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, the guitars come in, introducing an element that has remained in the band to this day: repeating, catchy grooves that are so contagious that I find myself humming and head-bobbing to them even days later. The section of the like found at that point in ''Up the Downstair'' is no exception, and it returns at five minutes forty seconds to give the song that groovy punch once again. My God, I just ADORE these moments in Porcupine Tree's music, and I am glad that Steve Wilson still has the ability to write this sort of stuff today!

Finally at six fifty, the madness stops and the song gets fairly quiet again. It seems that Wilson has an uncanny ability to know just when to stop and when to keep going, so nothing seems to go on for too long, but I also feel satisfied with how long the repeated riffs do last. It takes true musical genious to be capable of such accuracy and timing. Wilson is just the man for that. Before long, the synth effects come barreling in again and the music becomes a wall of sound that is most effective when one is lying in their bed at night with the light off, the heaphones on and the sound up. Indeed, this is the circumstance that should be practiced for every Porcupine Tree album listening session, at least the first time. The same can be said for the other luminaries of this genre, classic or modern, such as Tool, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, etc. These guys, along with Porcupine Tree, make music that isn't so much meant to be heard, but to be experienced. To truly understand the weight and granduer of this epic music, you must be surrounded by it; ewngulfed by it. Headphone listening makes certain things on this album and indeed this entire genre 'pop' or 'stand out' where as with normal everyday car listening the minute details would not be heard. Yes, there is a method to Wilson's madness, and when one comes to fully appreciate it, there is nothing else on the planet that can compare to a Steve Wilson opus. It isn't just doodling, my friends; it is mastery. Finally at around nine minutes and twenty-three seconds the music sounds very eastern in vibe, and then the remaining twenty-four seconds of song help calm the listener with some voices through the use of the keys. There you have it, the title track of a magnificent album that is just as magnificent even if heard on its own (Which I have done on occasion).

''Not Beautiful Anymore'' reminds me somewhat of some of the stuff I have heard off of the Robert Fripp album, ''Exposure''. I suppose it is because the track utilizes sampling and sound-clipping to mesh freshly recorded music with previousely-recorded dialogue from a presumably unknown, obscure source. Here, there is a girl talking about how sex isn't necessary while under the influence of a certain substance. Very, very strange, and nothing like the Porcupine Tree we all know today. But not necessarily better or worse; just different. The bass playing here is great, as well as the spacey guitar work. It is a shorter track (only 3:25 in length), but it isn't a song that compelles me to hit the '>>|' button in the slightest. A good track, a solid track. Best song Porcupine Tree has ever done? Never, but it is worth listening to.

''Siren'' may be just another tracked used to segue the parts together, but it is actually a song I would most likely enjoy listening to on its own from time to time; it has that sort of atmospheric quality to it that makes it have meaning on the album, not just another throwaway interlude like you will find on most other Space-Rock albums, sadly.

''Small Fish'' is simply beautiful, with great clean and acoustic guitar work from Wilson, great vocal work from Wilson, and a great, heartfelt, moving distorted guitar solo by, you guessed it, Wilson. I especially like the moment in the solo at one minute and fifty-nine seconds. Just . . . great. Wonderful. Wordsa cannot dexribe this man's brilliance. Ever. Period. If this song (this entire album, for that matter) doesn't prove that Wilson IS Porcupine Tree, nothing will. It is clear to me now, even more surely than before I listened to this record, that Steve Wilson is another one of those rare artists who can do anything at all they try and be at least moderately successful at it. Many experimental musicians have tried to do do different things throughout their career, yet only succeeded at a few of their attempts. Wislon is a different breed altogether; his musical timing and foresight when composing his works are things that many of us may strive for, but never achieve. I have no doubt that he was born with this amazing talent already within him. You can't study to be a musical genious; you either are or you aren't. Wilson is clearly the former.

''Burning Sky'' is the second what you might call 'epic' on the record, and already at the point of the song where the time displays one minute and three seconds, I am already treated to more amazing trippy guitar playing. What Steve Wilson does in his music is impress and mystify the listener with very little; he makes you feel like you have been transported to unexplored worlds and through his music you feel that you are lucky enough to see these places through sound. In actuallity, the man may be playing three notes over and over again, but the attention he payes to those three notes, and power they hold, are what makes the 'grand' or 'epic' experience seem real; it has never been and never will be how many notes a person can play in the fastest amount of time. Music is an artform, not a sport, and Wilson's music is the ultime ride for anyone who is willing to take, because the simplicity somehow manages to awe us, despite the seeming limitations of the instrument's range. The same can be said of Pink Floyd, I think, in that it isn't so much 'where' the musician plays on the instrument, but 'what' he or she plays, and what he or she can make the listener feel emotionally.

At six minutes and nineteen seconds, the song becoms something almost out of a dream, with a wonderfully out-of-this-world guitar solo, and before too long, the accompanying clean/flanged guitar gives that dream-like quality some true life. At seven mintues and eleven seconds precisely, the amazing-yet-simple riff from the song's beginning comes back into play to once again make a potentially messy track have some structure and direction to it. At eight minutes three seconds, Wilson begins a solo that lasts for what seems like an eternity, and it actually gives me the chills when I listen to it. Truly powerfull work. What follows is some great distorted guitar riffing not disimmilar to the harder-edged works that would crop up in Porcupine Tree tree history later on. Then the lead guitar comes in again with a very funky flange effect. A series of strong guitar chords set the stage for the ultimate outro of the song, which features (on the reissue, anyway) a sprawling drum roll that gives this song some real 'might'. Dreamy keyboards lead the song out to it's finallity.

''Fadeaway'' Is the original edition of the album's last track, and serves that purpose well, I think, as the keys, guitars drums and vocals all work really well here to give the album some sense of closure. Genuinely beautiful guitar work to be found here, as well, and it actually reminds me more of Steve Rothery then David Gilmour. strangely enough. Wilson's voice really is a wonder to hear, and it surprises me that he originally did not intend for himself to be the frontman of Porcupine Tree, but I am very glad nonetheless that he chose to take the mic, because Porcupine Tree simply wouldn't be Porcupine Tree without him lending his vocal talents as well as pretty much every other talent. You hear how a band sometimes really 'gels' among its respective members, well, I don't know what you would call it, but Steve Wilson really 'gels' with himself doing everything on his own here, and while having a full band to play the live work for him is a nice conveniance, I have no doubt that if he would leave the band for some reason, the msuci would never reach the high point that it is now at ever again. Wilson is too important to PT, and this album, which is basically a solo album with a few odd guests, proves that the only person really wiriting the music and concepts for the band even now is Mr. Wilson himself. He was just as great then as he is now.

Overall, I can't find much wrong with this album, and I know that what a person needs to to in their review of something is include the good and the band point so the final rating will feel more realistic and 'fair', but to be perfectly honest, this album is truly THAT good. It is now the second Porcupine Tree album out of the ones I heard to truly be flawless. I guess the bottom line is, can I give this thing anything less than five stars?

I feel that I can fairly give this album four stars, because after all, I want my overall reviews list to seem as realistic as possible, and there are only so many albums out there truly deserving of the five star rating, and even if UP THE DOWNSTAIR is another Steve Wilson masterpiece (which it is), I feel that the bulk of Porcupine Tree's work will turn out to all be masterpieces, and to rate all of them five out of five would be unfair to the masterpieces that stand out even from those. IN ABSENTIA is one such album; it has elements such as narrative, production, and musicianship that is even further above par than most other masterworks. UP THE DOWNSTAIR is frankly not such an album; while it hold my interest from beginning to end, and each track is perfect, there is actually nothing about it that makes it very distinguishable from the other PT works, at least for me. So, any bad songs on it? No, but is it really worthy of five stars? Probably not.

So there you have it: UP THE DOWNSTAIR is a perfect album, who's only flaw is that it never felt like a true complete 'album' per se, and rather each song sounded like they could have come from anywhere else. Great music, but not necessarily an epic. I hope my reasoning for the slight contradiction between review-and-rating is explained in this final paragraph. It is full-on Space-Rock, no doubt about it, and I would not reccomend this entry to anyone wanting to turn their friends on to Porcupine Tree. There just isn't enough accessability there to appeal to the casual listener. However it IS in fact now tied with FOABP as my second-favorite PT album thus far. But that is a personal opinion, and should not be taken as a good enough reason to listen to before the modern PT material.

JLocke | 4/5 |

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