While introducing a song from Up the Downstairs at a 2005 Porcupine Tree show in New York, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Steven Wilson quipped that the album was recorded at a time “when the band consisted mainly of myself and a drum machine, before that drum machine and I had a falling out over musical differences.” Recorded during the summers of 1992 and 1993, and originally released across two EP’s (now available on a single disc), Voyage 34 is the Porcupine Tree project that directly preceded Up the Downstairs, and therefore firmly represents the “Wilson studio project” phase of Porcupine Tree’s career, rather than the tight-knit four-piece rock band that it would solidify into in the mid-to-late ‘90’s. Anyone who purchases Voyage 34 expecting the mostly conventional song formats and catchy alt-rock/nu-metal of more recent releases like In Absentia and Deadwing – or vocals, for that matter – will be in for quite a surprise.
Conceived in four phases ranging in length from 13 minutes to 20 minutes, the Voyage 34 sessions form an extended tone poem – or “concept album”, in more conventional prog-rock terms - about the LSD experience, inspired by and incorporating fragments of narration from both pro- and anti-LSD propaganda records, artifacts from the height of the psychedelic era. “Phase 1” is the only piece driven by a relatively linear (though sparse) narrative, and can be thought of as Voyage 34 proper, since it is framed around a ham-fistedly contrived US government cautionary tale concerning the first “bad trip” of a young man after 33 positive experiences with the drug. The vocal samples in the other three phases seem to be drawn primarily from a record put out by disgraced Harvard psychology professor turned LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, including a young woman discussing her experiences and Leary himself issuing puerile statements about his “new indigenous religion”. The fact that both the pro- and anti- quotations Wilson dug up from these old records seem quaint and ludicrous is probably an indication that he wasn’t trying to issue a statement, just organize his trippy long-form instrumental experiments around an interesting and expansive theme. Particularly in the later phases, many of the shorter vocal samples are repeated in different musical contexts, faded in and out of the mix, looped, and heavily processed, and these suggestively hallucinatory vocalizations comprise some of the eerier effects in the work.
Loops? Vocal samples? Yes, one of the more salient inspirations on this release is the often trancelike dance music crafted by ambient techno pioneers such as The Orb, and much of it bears more resemblance to the stuff late-night club kids and ravers were swaying to at the time than it does to anything put out by their brethren in the modern progressive rock movement. Nevertheless, the rock influence is there, and crops up prominently right in the first phase. There is a section that employs rhythmic guitar self-accompaniment using a delay effect, very similar to what David Gilmour did in “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 1”. Most of this is underscored by a thudding techno beat and groovy bass line, but a few minutes later Wilson illustrates a more intense portion of the trip with a heavier and more driving brand of space-rock, featuring some soloing reminiscent of Edgar Froese’s atmospheric guitar work in late-‘70’s Tangerine Dream, as well as passages that would not sound entirely out-of-place on a Rush album. However, the dance/techno underpinnings are still there, most notably in the persistent beat and a burbling synth ostinato that rises and falls in prominence.
Without cataloging the exact sequence of aural climates contained within, or all of the tools Wilson employs to evoke and explore these, here are a few things you can expect to find along the way in phases 2-4 of the voyage:
- in phase 2, a rhythmic figure that at first sounds like it’s building up out of water droplets. This crops up in various sections of the piece, which also revisits a few of the more overt rock ideas from phase 1.
- in phase 3, a passage featuring a simple high-pitched sequencer pattern, long keyboard swells, shimmering acoustic guitar, and barely intelligible processed vocal loops. The introduction of elements like high-hat, a throbbing bass line, and a steady beat gradually evolve this into a long and trippy dance segment.
- in phase 4, some dark and dense ambient synthesizer moments, which tend to evoke visions of various lonely and haunting places, such as deep caverns and watery vistas shrouded in mist.
Voyage 34 propels the listener through a variety of vivid pulsing dreamscapes and the occasional nightmarish vision, all crafted by a budding wunderkind with an impeccable sense of sonic texture. Being a big fan of Tangerine Dream and the like, this is something that really hits the spot for me at times, particularly when I’m in the mood to lie half awake while background music gently transports me toward peaceful alien realms that range from wondrous to slightly disquieting. If you’ve already been turned onto Porcupine Tree by the soaring guitar rock of an “Even Less” or the pop hooks of a “Shesmovedon”, you will not find much that is similar on this trip, so ponder the preceding description and check out the samples to make sure that Voyage 34 won’t be a bummer for you.
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