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Porcupine Tree - Up The Downstair CD (album) cover


Porcupine Tree


Heavy Prog

3.90 | 971 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
3 stars Upon receiving a gift certificate from a certain unnamed company's website that I don't normally patronize I did some comparison shopping and only found a few music selections that weren't ridiculously overpriced. This was one of those items. I was floored by the greatness of "In Absentia" and "Deadwing" so I wasn't averse to picking up more stuff by Porcupine Tree but, from reading the reviews on this site, I knew that this was going to sound totally different from those two. After all, this album was created about 15 years ago when Steven Wilson was in his early twenties and in a very experimental stage of musical growth. In fact, according to the liner notes, this was recorded before there was even a performing band at all so I have to admit that my expectations were somewhat low. I'm glad to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. The two CDs are full of music that is short on vocals and long on instrumental passages. That's not usually what I prefer to listen to but I found the overall creativity and lack of pretense very refreshing. Steven Wilson wanted to create large-scale "soundscapes" and he succeeded quite well.

I like a little humor mixed in with my prog so the droll, authoritative voice that introduces the first CD ("Up the Downstair") with "What You Are Listening To" is a perfect way to set out on this psychedelic journey. "Synesthesia" is a peppy little song that belies the dark, macabre lyric that glides beneath. It's probably the most infectious song of the whole set. (Before I continue I have to say that Gavin Harrison's new drum parts that he added for this 2004 re-release really lift these songs into the 21st century. He has quickly become one of my favorite drummers in the world.) "Always Never" reveals the lack of confidence that Steven admits he had in his young voice in those early years. It features an airy beginning with lyrics that are barely mumbled before a rock guitar riff comes into play. After a quieter spell the guitar plays an extended lead as the tempo speeds up until the end. "Up the Downstair" reminds me of music one would expect to hear at an ultra-hip fashion runway show, complete with the dominant disco-like downbeat. There are lyrics being softly spoken by a female voice underneath that gives it an avant-garde flavor. Gavin plays his tail off when he's called upon to turn up the excitement and the whole thing ends up in a gigantic wall of sound. Normally I wouldn't pay much attention to an instrumental like this but there's something very engaging about this cut and I like it more every time I hear it. It's like some kind of guilty pleasure.

"Not Beautiful Anymore" also features a woman talking before an up-tempo guitar effect dominates the tune. There's not much going on here but it's over before you know it so no harm done. "Small Fish" demonstrates why this band is so often compared to Pink Floyd. It has a melancholy, leisurely pace and a very subdued vocal with harmony that is an obvious derivative of Pink Floyd's unmistakable sound. It's most likely a sincere tribute and it's not bad but I'm thankful it's the shortest song on the CD. "Burning Sky" takes off with a repeating guitar pattern that moves across various keys before the spacey keyboards arrive. Harrison's straightforward and powerful drumming makes this instrumental rise above the ordinary. A different riff arrives to usher in an excellent guitar lead from Mr. Wilson before the whole pattern starts over again. It's a fun tune. "Fadeaway" ends the disc on a beautiful note with a gorgeous backdrop of sound backing a mournful slide guitar. In this instance the restrained vocal is perfect for the sad, forlorn lyrics. Once again GH's drums punctuate perfectly placed accents on the way out. He is a joy to listen to.

The second CD is "Staircase Infinities," an EP from the same era. These songs are mostly leftover pieces from the "Up the Downstair" sessions but they fit in well as a bonus disc. The first thing you notice is the absence of Harrison and it's not easy to adjust to the electronic drum samples. It doesn't ruin things but it brings the dynamics down a notch or two for sure. "Cloud Zero" is a guitar jam with a few pauses followed by a space-music fade out. Nothing special. "The Joke's On You" is a better song. A nice acoustic guitar starts it off, then Steven's thin, unsure voice sings some obscure lyrics before the stronger, full chorus kicks in. (His vocal ability has come a very long way since then.) "Navigator" is a curious composition based on an arrhythmic loop that features an organ. It's very simple with no discernable changes and it creates an uneasy, eerie ambience. "Rainy Taxi" is absolutely beautiful. The phased keyboard and acoustic guitar make for a dreamy, precipitous atmosphere and it's the best tune on this disc by far. Wonderful mood music. "Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape" has a bit of everything. A throbbing bass drum accompanies cosmic sounds, then tom-toms start a slow build up. The snare kicks in with the lead guitar as the song's tempo quickens, taking us to a noisy and frantic finale where the beat slowly decays into oblivion.

I have to reiterate that if you only know this group by their more recent albums this may not be right for you. These songs are what gave them the label of psychedelic/space-rock prog and they are cerebral and indulgent for the most part. I'm amazed by how much I like them but I do. However, it isn't an album I will slip into the changer as often as "Stupid Dream." I still prefer the incredible music this band is making now but it is interesting to know where their roots lie.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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