HippyDave vs Music, Part #4

One day in 1992, I was wandering around the shelves of my local independent record store, Complete Discery. It was a Saturday: I frequently wandered into town on Saturdays after lunch to go there. I had a habit of picking through the shelves at great length, waiting for something to pique my curiosity. The store owners either tolerated my lengthy sojourns in their store, or were pleasantly amused at my constant quest for something new and exciting, so I was on good terms with all the regular staff by this point.

Always especially interesting was the singles sales rack, a whole shelf stacked with singles  – CDs, vinyls and even cassette singles (remember them?) – with heavily reduced prices; anything between 20p and £1 was the norm. Many’s the time I found something intriguing on that shelf. Sometimes I wandered home with a whole bag full of singles, choosing to spend the average CD album price of around £11 on sales rack singles rather than a full album by a single artist. That day was to prove fruitful: I picked up the CD EP of Porcupine Tree‘s Voyage 34. This blog entry isn’t about Porcupine Tree, though; I mention Voyage 34 here simply because it was the start of the breadcrumb trail that would lead me to an album that became a huge personal favourite, but is sufficiently obscure that it has almost passed from history.

I hadn’t heard a note of Porcupine Tree back then; it was the psychedelic sleeve art, and the pleasingly comical faux-philosophical cover sticker (“What are the uses of Porcupine Tree?“) that also promised 34 minutes of music. The price? A princely 50p. I was so sure that I wouldn’t find anything more interesting that day that I set straight out for home without searching through the remaining racks. Sure enough, Voyage 34 turned out to be a real treat: a two-track, 34 minute conceptual EP that fused vaguely Floydian, slightly cosmic rock with snippets of dialogue sampled from an informational record released in the distant past that offered a stark warning about the dangers of psychedelics, specifically LSD. It was an instant favourite, and I played it to death. However, I didn’t hear any more about Porcupine Tree for years, and assumed that Voyage 34 had been a one-off, a glorious shot in the dark, and that Porcupine Tree had been an invented alias for some already-known musician.

Flash forward four years. It’s now late 1996, and I’ve just got bought my first PC and got myself online. The web was an instant source of information about all sorts of things, and I don’t mind telling you I got addicted to this unprecedented flow of information fairly quickly. Back then, I was paying for my phone usage by the minute, and I clocked up some truly alarming phone bills between 1996 and 1998, before flat monthly fees were slowly introduced. Thankfully, by this point I was working full-time and, since I was still living at home with my folks, had low enough overheads that I could always cover the phone bills, which I actually took over paying.

I had taken the train into Worcester one weekend to pick over the record stores as I occasionally did – the trips to Birmingham being less fun without my wing-men – and was wandering around HMV when I did a double take as I passed the new release shelf. Sure enough, there was a CD with the words Porcupine Tree emblazoned on the sleeve: an album named Signify. I proceeded at warp speed to the checkout and then to the train station, keen to hear what this band/artist had been doing since Voyage 34. Imagine my surprise, upon getting it home, upon discovering a little flyer inside the sleeve that informed me that the band had released three previous albums that I had known nothing about. Naturally, upon playing Signify and discovering that it was even more interesting than Voyage 34 had been, I went out and found all those previous albums in short order. But I digress – because, as I say, this blog entry isn’t about Porcupine Tree.

Flash forward again to 1998. By now, I was a member of the Freaks mailing list, an email-based forum for fans of Marillion and their ex-frontman Fish. Much to my amazement, another member of the list had posted a message to the list asking if anyone else was familiar with Porcupine Tree, and if they had enjoyed Signify as much as he had. I replied, saying that I’d picked it up and loved it, and the discussion continued. To my mixed delight (at the idea of more new music to explore) and horror (at the undoubted expense), I discovered that the driving force behind Porcupine Tree, a guy named Steven Wilson, had a handful of other musical projects. Encouraged by my correspondents, I wandered over to the website of Porcupine Tree’s distributor, Delerium Records, and looked to see which of the projects they had albums by. I spent a lavish amount on that first order; so much so that I actually went nearly a whole month without buying any other music (that was a long time for me back then; in fact it’s still fairly long). I had bought six or seven albums; one of which wasn’t even originated by one of Steven Wilson’s projects. One of the things I most enjoyed about Porcupine Tree was the unusual use of keyboards and synthesisers: it was a swirling, psychedelic, yet modern and keenly atmospheric sound that I still feel was one of the key elements of Porcupine Tree’s signature sound as the band moved forward. Much to my amazement, I had discovered that the musician responsible was Richard Barbieri, late of 80s popsters Japan, fronted by David Sylvian. I had also discovered that he had worked on another project with some well-regarded musicians, including Steven Wilson, under the name Indigo Falls. Impressed with Barbieri’s work on Porcupine Tree’s albums, and appreciating the idea of Wilson’s guest appearance on his bandmate’s album, I thought it sounded interesting and had added it to my already groaning virtual shopping basket. I checked out my order, wincing at the total price but feeling that sometimes you had just had to bite the bullet, and thought no more about it.

That is, I thought no more about it until the order arrived. There wasn’t a single album in that haul – I think it was eight or nine albums in total – that I didn’t take to. I had expected to enjoy the No-Man records the most (Steven Wilson’s longest-standing musical project, one that had been active longer even than Porcupine Tree), and although I loved the three No-Man records that were in that batch and still love them today, the record that blew me away was – you guessed it – the Indigo Falls album. I put it on expecting some nice ambient noodling, something that would make for nice easy listening when I was in the mood. By the end of the second track, I found myself sitting on the floor of my room with tears running down my face.

It was completely unexpected. I hadn’t even been listening that closely to the album at first – I’d stuck it on whilst I was answering some emails, but part-way through the first track I found myself disengaged from what I was typing and soon moved into my prime listening position, sitting on the floor between my stereo’s speakers. The next thing I knew, I was sitting there weeping, just blown away by the unaffected emotion of the album. I stopped it and started the album from the beginning once again – always a sign that something special was happening. The album – simply called Indigo Falls – is like being hugged to death; it has some steel, and some ice, in its make-up, but it’s so beautifully atmospheric and otherworldly that the best word I can find to describe it is “bewitching”. As expected, Barbieri’s wondrously atmospheric keyboards were a principal ingredient, but he was ably assisted by the assembled cast. The real surprise, though, were the vocals: female vocals, pleasingly reminiscent of Kate Bush at times (you’ll remember that I had been a complete Kate Bush fanboy for nearly twenty years at this point). Their source? None other than Barbieri’s wife, Suzanne. Her vocals are astonishing throughout, none more so than on that second track, World’s End, which is the track that really sucked me in.

I played the Indigo Falls album to death. I still play it regularly now. The biggest tragedy, personally speaking, is that – for whatever reason – there was never a sequel; sales were disappointing and the album quietly disappeared without trace and was never re-pressed or re-issued. I am Indigo Falls self-declared biggest fan. As unlikely as it seems, nearly two decades on, I still harbour a wish that Richard and his wife sit down one day and decide to make the sequel. I even had a dream about it once. No, really: I dreamt that I met Richard at a Porcupine Tree show, and he invited me round for a cuppa the next day, whereupon he played me the demos he and Suzanne had recorded for the follow-up. I even dreamt the music. I can’t remember anything about the music now, but when I woke up I woke with the vivid impression that I had heard something that was, once again, purely magical.

So here’s World’s End in all its glory. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always have. And to Richard and Suzanne Barbieri, if they’re listening… I’m happy to pop over for a cuppa any time ;-).

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