Incredible Expanding Mindfuck - "Arcadia Son" (Headphone Dust 2001, (UK) IEM2)
Incredible Expanding Mindfuck - "IEM Have Come For Your Children" (Burning Shed 2001, (UK) No cat. no.)
Bass Communion - "Bass Communion (III)"
From Aural Innovations #18 (January 2002)
Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson is one of the few musicians that we write about here at A-I.com that actually makes music his sole occupation. So it's not surprising that he has the time to keep many different projects afloat at once, and it almost certainly helps him to make ends meet. Although now that Porcupine Tree has landed a major label contract (with Atlantic/Lava Records), perhaps he'll be less tempted to consider other forms of employment. Whatever happens with the main act, it seems likely that with time to kill and a studio at home, Mr. Wilson will continue to exercise his less mainstream musical curiosities with projects like IEM and Bass Communion. The year 2001 has seen three new releases come about from the two entities, all printed in limited quantities and only made available through a very few selected dealers.
IEM started out five or six years ago as an outlet for some instrumental krautrock-inspired jamming, with the CD version of the self-titled vinyl release appearing in 1998. Beginning a trend that IEM has certainly continued, the liner notes for that CD were completely barren of any information, including who actually played on the album. With the new pair of CDs, we are still given pages and pages of lovely black and white photographs, but still only a word or two about what's inside. But yet, the "band" (as it were) is now revealed to have a four-piece core of Wilson (guitar, keyboards, electronics), fellow PTree vet Colin Edwin (bass), ex-Henry Cow Geoff Leigh (alto/sop. sax, flute), and ex-Bark Psychosis Mark Simnett (drums). The guests include Foel Studios chief (perhaps the site of certain Arcadia Son recordings) Dave Anderson (presumably appearing on bass), Peter van Vliet (guitarist/vocalist for the Dutch band The Use of Ashes that once toured with PTree), and one Jennis Clivack (?).
'Arcadia Son' first appeared on LP (Gates of Dawn), and the CD here contains the identical (yea!) 46 minutes of music, divided eight ways. Four of the tracks are little brief snippets of stuff that hardly amounts to anything, whereas the other four are extended pieces, and so only these ones really matter from a perspective of relative time spent. Unlike the debut IEM CD, most of the music here is not of the hypnotic-kinetic type but rather more experimental, forward-thinking music. "We Are Not Alone" is a quality jam featuring plenty of cool, eerie synth sounds and warbly bass tones... there are voices here, manipulated to mimic alien visitors (hence the title), but no singing per se. Next, "Cicadian Haze" takes flight upon a bed of bongos and the cicada's chirping, a relaxing space-out episode colored with lots of flighty flute passages. The title track keeps things going strong, another eight minutes of psychedelic madness, with numerous synth effects, wah guitar, backmasked sounds, and other studio trickery playing upon the basic single-chord motif. So far, with the addition of Leigh's flute (which is prominent throughout), the whole work is like an aural trip to Giza to view the pyramids... quite a meditative venture to this point. The finale (or Side Two), "Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House," is a partial return to the old IEM m.o., with Simnett now picking up the pace with crisp, busy drumming and Leigh now doing his thing on a nasally soprano (?) sax... still very Middle Eastern. At 20 minutes, the piece has plenty of time to explore and there are plenty of spacey synth passages, and the occasional psych-wah guitar freakout from Wilson. If you've heard extended versions of "Voyage 34," you know what sort of thing I'm talking about. In essence, 'Arcadia Son' is a more advanced piece of music composition than the IEM debut, and it's darn enjoyable to listen to as well. Out of all of these, this is the one to snag first.
'Arcadia Son' sounds like an album that was intended to be made and released... I'm not too sure about the other two. Both come across like things that were put together simply because there was enough stuff laying around to come up with a full CD's worth. 'IEM Have Come...' kicks off with a mammoth 35-minute take on the "Arcadia Son" jam, taking the same single minor-chord motif and seeing if they can make it into something interesting for that amazing length of time. (Try putting this one onto vinyl, Mr. Wilson!) At the very end of the piece, your attentive ears might pick up a faint voice saying "Yeah, that had some nice moments." OK, I agree, and in fact looking back over my notes I count 21 different transitions along the way. Out of the blue at four-and-a-half minutes in, you first hear the base musical statement, echoing loudly out of Wilson's guitar as Gilmour would do with "Crazy Diamond." Over the next half-hour, you hear it appear again and again, sandwiched around some slurred, chanted vocals, swirly effects and incidentals, glissando guitar, 'calliope flute,' you name it, it's in there. It kinda gets boring after about 10 minutes or so - if you're wearing headphones though, you hear more of the stuff happening in the distance and it's a more enjoyable affair (you can go 20 minutes without checking your watch maybe).
The other tracks are left untitled, all instrumental pieces that provide some memorable moments also. Leigh is present here mostly on the high-pitched nasally sax (which again makes me think he's on a soprano, or at least, alto sax). Think "Snake Charmer." Movement Three is the most interesting work, with Wilson inventing something that I'll call 'doppler-wah' guitar. It's a slow-paced but more dynamic piece that gets freaky more than once. The last five minutes is the quiet denouement, with choral-type atmospheric sounds against the plucky tones of a hammered dulcimer. 'IEM Have Come...' is a disc that I can also recommend, though it's not as consistently strong as 'Arcadia Son' and so its increased length actually works against it. In any case, I hope the IEM project continues (and I hope also that we see the as-yet-vinyl-only 'An Escalator to Christmas' appear on disc sometime soon).
Bass Communion is Wilson's ambient side-project that he handles almost entirely himself. This third offering (again untitled) is a very ltd. ed. CDR release in a simple cardboard sleeve with only a handstamp indicating the artist and the label's logo (Burning Shed). Inside you find a single slip of paper with the titles and some other basic info, and then learn it's a compilation of leftover material from earlier sessions dating back to 1995. So no suspicion necessary... it is what it says it is. There's eight tracks here, totalling just over an hour, three of them combined under the header "Three Pieces for Television." It's fairly well known that Wilson does do soundtrack work for television (and even commercials!) in the UK, and this sounds like stuff you might hear in a suspense/drama show. "Sonar" does indeed come across like the soundtrack to a Sub vs. Sub war game, and "Grammatic Fog" a Hitchcock scene that winds up at a storm-beaten lighthouse. The latter is a very strong two minutes of eerie, echoey music, though we already heard this piece in extended form on Bass Communion II (soon to be re-released actually, this time with a different bonus disc... sigh).
Four of the tracks are 10 minutes in length or longer, and it seems like each piece was stretched out in order to give a film director lots of extra stuff (with only minor changes) to choose the exact bits that fit best with the scenes that they might have been intended for. I don't know whether this is actually true (only the one title there indicated that it was used as a soundtrack), but lots of the stuff here seems needlessly long. The code-titled "43553E99.01" piece is 13 minutes of noodling on some unusual stringed instrument (sounds like maybe a zither?), mixed in with a bunch of piano tinkling and some chimes here and there. Not so much a musical piece... more like a Kitaro soundcheck. "Sickness" (from 1996) is a similar hodgepodge of noises (some faux vinyl static... I've heard enough of this, thank you) and long, slow synth-bass tones. The strongest original piece is the finale "Reformat Spiders" (1998) which features Theo Travis on flute, playing whole tones on a bunch of different tracks that are assembled into some semblance of melody by piecemeal. All in all, this Bass Communion is far less successful as a stand-alone musical document than the surprisingly good Bass Communion II was. Now if he'd just stop changing the damn things every time he re-releases them!
For more information you can visit the Burning Shed web site at: http://www.burningshed.com.
Headphone Dust releases are available here also.
Contact via snail mail c/o Burning Shed, c/o 135/137 King Street, Norwich UK NR1 1QH.
Reviewed by Keith Henderson