Porcupine Tree – Up the Downstair Review
Steven Wilson’s British prog-rock band, Porcupine Tree’s second studio album, Up the Downstair, was first released in June 1993. It was originally intended to be a double album set including the song “Voyage 34”, which was instead released in 1992 as a single. Steven Wilson has stated that the title of the album came from a line in this song. With its four songs, it is the band’s shortest studio album lasting only 49 minutes. Having apparent inspirations from Pink Floyd, the Orb, and the Ozric Tentacles, Steven Wilson created “a psychedelic masterpiece… one of the albums of the year,” according to the Melody Maker. This album continued the fusion of electronic music and rock with a pinch of good old acid to create this professionally acclaimed psychedelic and progressive rock album.
Even though it may look like a solo work from Steven Wilson, it has featured guest appearances including two of his future bandmates: Richard Barbieri and Colin Edwin. Also, this album had a re-release in 2005 that contains a new mix along with recorded drums by Gavin Harrison instead of electronic drums played by Wilson himself.
Line-up / Musicians
Steven Wilson (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, drum programming)
Suzanne Barbieri (Vocals on “Up the Downstair”)
Richard Barbieri (Electronics on “Up the Downstair”)
Colin Edwin (Bass on “Always Never”)
Gavin Harrison (Drums (only on the CD from 2005 Expanded Version, replacing the original samples))
Win Machielse with Wrap Me Up Designs
1. What You Are Listening To… / Synesthesia / Monuments Burn Into Moments / Always Never (13:50)
What you are listening to are musicians performing psychedelic music under the influence of a mind-altering chemical called…
We all know what that chemical is called, and after this album, we all know what it can do. The minute-long intro to the album, “What You Are Listening To…”, accompanies the listener’s dive into Porcupine Tree’s heavily psychedelic “Up the Downstair” with a killer hook and haunting synths. Next up is “Synesthesia,” a song about a dead soldier. While a space-rock melody plays in the background of the song, Steven Wilson sings “It’s only a number / It’s only a death / Another soldier died in action / The telegram regrets.” The lyrics in this album are honestly not as well developed and tight as the later Porcupine Tree albums. What makes this song interesting is the music. Since this album was recorded when Porcupine Tree was still a one-man band, Steven Wilson played every single part of it himself. How one person can compose and record some groovy drums, a supportive bassline, a guitar solo, and many synths required for the Floydian psychedelic sound on his own is beyond us.
The bridge between “Synesthesia” and “Always Never” is a 20-second “song” called “Monuments Burn into Moments.” It’s quite hard to decipher what the sounds are all about. They seem like reversed guitar or synth clips, and they remind the listener of flipping through pages of a book. The “moments” mentioned in the title may be referencing the text on the pages of the book. The ending of it sounds like a vacuum pulling all the air out of somewhere, and it transitions perfectly into the slower and milder “Always Never.” The lyrics, “I love you sometimes / always never” show a person confused about their feelings for someone. Entering with a strummed acoustic guitar and a tasty bassline usual of Steven Wilson, the song feels like an indie song. When the guitar riff and drums come in, we can see that the foundation of Steven Wilson’s work in “Deadwing” was set back in 1993 in this song. Of course, through the end of the song, Wilson decides to show off his guitar skills with an epic solo. I would recommend listening to this song’s 2005 re-release as the solo is more satisfying to listen to with the drums re-recorded by Gavin Harrison that highlight and support the solo.
2. Up the Downstair (10:14)
The title track of the album, Up the Downstair, starts with a series of creepy sound effects and a high-pitched, almost children-like, tender voice (which belongs to Suzanne Barbieri, the wife of the band’s keyboardist Richard Barbieri) giving a monologue that highlights the psychedelic aspect of Porcupine Tree’s sound, and that probably feels a lot better on drugs. The monologue itself is filled with cryptic meanings and rather ambiguous word choices and placements, which reminds the lyricism of Jon Anderson from Yes.
The song itself, apart from the monologue bits, is instrumental and opens with a catchy bass line accompanied by a simple drum loop. Considering that Steven Wilson isn’t a drummer and that the original drum tracks were made electronically (before Gavin Harrison), we know not to expect much from the drumming in the album. The sound effects now give more of a space vibe, and with the small touches of the monologue, this track proves to fall on the experimental side of Steven Wilson’s vision.
The song doesn’t stop introducing new parts and eery sounds, but it all seems to rely a lot on repeated patterns and simple looping techniques. But unlike most looped songs of today, Steven Wilson has a unique taste that propels the song into a more psychedelic atmosphere and gives meticulously crafted spaces in-between where the listeners can close their eyes and explore their own minds through the music.
The last section of the song is a mostly-electronic build-up, which leads to a somewhat weak ending and makes the listener question if it was really necessary to include this bit. The song, overall, sounds like it was done with pretty much only computers and lacks the musical depth that newer Porcupine Tree albums have (where there are more people other than Steven Wilson himself). It could’ve been a piece of video-game music or just a way for psychedelic fans to relax their minds. But maybe, this experimentalism is what made Steven Wilson, that we know and love today, take the bold risks and creative decisions that changed the progressive rock scene forever. Who knows?
3. Not Beautiful Anymore / Siren / Small Fish (7:08)
Consisting of three very distinctive parts, this song creates great pacing between the fast and slow parts. The first part, “Not Beautiful Anymore” is centered around this woman and her love. It starts off slow with a monologue of the woman. She describes the perfect partner in the world. Her love for that person isn’t superficial. She is not here just for sex. She overcame this shallow understanding of love. With this songwriting, Steven Wilson showed that he has a refined perception of love and capable of writing about complex emotions. He proved that he is not an ordinary songwriter who writes about shallow feelings.
And just touch their cheek, or hold their hand And it’s the most beautiful thing in the world You don’t need sex under LSD because, Because you’re so satisfied with just holding hands That going for more than that isn’t beautiful anymore
Then, out of nowhere, her emotional monologue gets interrupted by energetic drumming that creates the fast tempo for this part. This quick change in tempo manages to surprise the listener and grabs their attention. The powerful and dynamic riff comes in and creates a very energetic mood for the song. This mood is probably representing the woman’s heartbeat when she is holding hands with the one she adores. Suddenly, the woman enters the scene talking about her emotions, silencing the loud guitar, and creating a transition to the second part of the song, Siren. Siren is a small part (only 0.52 seconds) so it can be considered as a transition. It starts with synth sounds that give the feeling that you are drifting in the ocean. Sound of the water, wind blowing, squeaks in the boat… That all leads to “Small Fish”. Contrast to the first part, Steven uses more acoustic sounds in the third, and last, part. The tempo is slower. Voice is soothing. This energetic song about a genuine love turns into a relaxing song about the death of a fish without being noticed. This is the genius of Steven Wilson on the pacing of the song. This song has lots of ups and downs but all of it is handled in such a manner that everything flows smoothly. And the clean guitar solo enhances this point. This incredible solo comes in the middle of this part and shows the beauty in simplicity and that every note counts. With Wilson’s soft and kind vocals, the song ends and proves that even though it is the shortest song on the album, it is not the simplest.
4. Burning Sky / Fadeaway (18:02)
Starting off with a tidal orchestra sound effect, Porcupine Tree combines this effect with a synth overtone – setting the expectancy of the song to the same level of obscurity and abstract expressionism. Then the sound slowly leaves itself to the rhythm, changing the listener’s focus. The next riff on the song reminds us of the track “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project, using the same kind of delay effect. Throughout the song, we get to see the experimentalism that has been building up upon the inspirations from the ambient and rock music artist, creating enough space to show their creativity. Throughout the song, we are able to hear the mellow Pink Floyd influences in the soloing synth sounds, which is Steven Wilson’s favorite band. As we hear the synth-action followed by the heavy-guitar riffs and solo parts, we can get a glimpse of what the group will become in the future(the heavy sound of the album Absentia, etc.). Porcupine Tree shows with their early works how minimalist approach leads to taste and more satisfying experience-same with what the ambient music artists of the ’70s created. The TOOLian psychedelics combined with Pink Floydian musical style, creating the absolute perfection that Steven Wilson imagined on his own, under the name of “Porcupine Tree”. Everything comes together again when we hear the same chord progression that we’ve heard at the beginning of the song – giving us that feeling of satisfaction and spares us the time to proceed with what we had listened for the last eight minutes.
The second part of the song, called “Fadeaway”, starts with a smooth transition from the first part “Burning Sky”. Tidal orchestration again takes place, with a tic-toc voice(considering the name of the song, it may mean that time “fades away”). Coming up next, Gilmour-ish sound again take our soul and make us feel all desperateness and loneliness that the main character of the song feels with the lyrics that come beautifully mellow due to Steven Wilson’s one of a kind voice.
I sat in the room with a view The girl in the photograph knew Can’t you see? Why is she laughing at me?
The character is out of control, seeing and feeling things that aren’t real – due to his hopelessness and sorrow – he slowly “fades away”. The musicality doesn’t fall apart from the beautiful lyricism, setting up the tone of the song with intense ambient synthesizers and acoustic/electric guitar. The song slowly “fades away” with the repetitive melody that we won’t easily be able to forget – a perfect ending for an album that is certainly one of a kind and a masterpiece of its own genre.