In 1995, the band released its third official album, an exemplar of the kind of ethereal space rock that would win over fans of Pink Floyd’s post-Syd Barrett and pre-The Dark Side of the Moon period
Today, Steven Wilson is widely known –and acclaimed – as one of the busiest and most creative figures in music.
Though he came to wider notice as a kind of progressive rock hero, helming remix/remaster projects for some of prog’s most beloved albums, he has always been about much more than art rock. His muse is simply too expansive to fit into a single genre classification.
All that said, a quarter century ago, Wilson was working safely under the radar. Though he created Porcupine Tree as a kind of inside joke – it wasn’t initially a real band; merely a label for the music he was making on his own – by the mid-1990s it had evolved into a proper quartet that played on the records and toured to enthusiastic audiences.
And the kind of music that Porcupine Tree at that time made might not square up with the preconceptions of later-day listeners who were drawn in by the prog-metal textures of the band’s final three studio long-players, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, the EP (but album by any other name) Nil Recurring from the same year, and the band’s powerful swan song, 2009’s The Incident. In 1995, Porcupine Tree released its third official album, The Sky Moves Sideways. Unlike later hard-edged efforts, that record is an exemplar of the kind of ethereal space rock that would win over fans of Pink Floyd‘s post-Syd Barrett and pre-The Dark Side of the Moon period.
In interviews, the reliably voluble and articulate Wilson always had – and has – plenty of value to say. He’s always enthusiastic about naming his influences, be they Beach Boys or/and Scandinavian death metal. “Each of those things has changed the direction of the band in a natural, organic way,” he told me in 2010. But he has generally bristled at Pink Floyd comparisons. Still, while there are numerous similarities between the music of pre-fame (read: non-charting) Porcupine Tree and the Floyd, The Sky Moves Sideways succeeds on its own merits.
Not to make too much of the similarities, but Sideways is built around a single, lengthy composition with several movements, split into two sections. That approach may remind some listeners of Wish You Were Here, with its milt-part “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” But while there are structural similarities between the two, Wilson isn’t aping Pink Floyd with his compositions.
The stuttering percussion that characterizes large swaths of “The Sky Moves Sideways” Phases 1 and 2 come courtesy of Porcupine Tree’s first drummer, Chris Maitland. (Previously, Wilson had used a drum machine and/or played the percussion parts himself.) Though he would be dismissed from the group in 2002, he had been – and would continue to be – an occasional Wilson collaborator. Maitland can be heard on recordings from No-Man, I.E.M. and Blackfield, all Wilson side projects. While Maitland’s work doesn’t have quite the distinctive character of his successor Gavin Harrison (currently of King Crimson), it can be argued that his style – with shades of Nick Mason – is perfectly suited to the Porcupine Tree material of the 1990s.
The extended title track set pieces on The Sky Moves Sideways alternate between glacial, near-liquid soundscapes and energetic, throbbing passages; the former owe a debt to Tangerine Dream and other krautrock influences, while the latter have more in common with rave-oriented acts like The Orb. Theo Travis – another perennial Wilson associate – adds some compelling flute work to “The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 1.”
Throughout the album, Wilson’s gentle, precise acoustic guitar nicely balances the electronic textures of the album. There are plenty of soaring lead guitar passages, but it’s the pastoral vibe of the acoustic on cuts like “Spiral Circus” (the fourth part of “The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 1”) that helps unify the album.
Another dollop of sonic glue is provided by Richard Barbieri (formerly of art-rock group Japan); his majestic keyboard work is rarely if ever showy, and he’s not at all about dazzling solos. Instead, his role on The Sky Moves Sideways is to provide an atmospheric bed upon which the arrangements can comfortably lie.
That does, however, give him comparatively less to do on aggressive, guitar-driven numbers like “Dislocated Day,” a fiery track that preview the more metallic direction Porcupine Tree would (sometimes) follow in the future. Launching with a telephone ringing – Perhaps Mr. Floyd calling for Mrs. Floyd again? – but his Mellotron-styled sounds contrast wonderfully with the blistering instrumental riffage that serves as that track’s chorus. Wilson overdubs multiple guitars, each playing its own solo, and the result sounds more like an argument than anything else.
The nature of the music on The Sky Moves Sideways gives bassist Colin Edwin comparatively little to do as well: while he’s an instrumentalist of the first order, there’s often not a great deal in Wilson’s compositions here that lends itself to low-end fireworks. While that would change significantly on future Porcupine Tree albums, on Sideways Edwin simply does his job extremely well.
“The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” finds a melancholy Wilson singing in a whisper while evoking an English folk vibe. As the song unfolds, other instruments enter, and the arrangement becomes even more deeply textured. His solo is a thing of beauty: bluesy but certainly not blues. In the song’s final moments, the band tears the roof off – with Maitland laying down an insistent beat – capped off by an riff that is far catchier than one would expect of an odd time-signature piece. Said riff could easily go on for an extended period, but to Wilson’s credit – he’s as good an editor as he is at most anything else to which he puts his mind – he cuts it short.
“Prepare Yourself” is a brief guitar solo laid atop a spare backing, but it’s a tidy linking instrumental that brings the listener to the second extended piece, “The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 2.” Opening with more of a soundscape than music, it inevitably invites comparisons to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” But once again, Porcupine Tree is its own thing: the nearly 17-minute piece contains within it some of the group’s most memorable work. The section subtitled “Is…Not” features some great soloing and dreamy, wordless vocals from Suzanne J. Barbieri. Wilson plays multiple guitars; the song is almost a showcase of his different textures, but – again to his immense credit – the different styles fit together seamlessly.
As “The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 2” winds toward its conclusion, some of the earlier instrumental themes are reprised, And Wilson takes another opportunity – several opportunities, actually – to peel off some soaring solos. Admittedly, as often as not, those solos may remind some listeners of David Gilmour, but Wilson also executes some more distinctively dissonant corkscrew playing, the likes of which would have never surfaced on a Pink Floyd record.
The final minute of The Sky Moves Sideways features some watery sounds that evoke more than a passing reminder of 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the debut release from the David Gilmour-led era Pink Floyd.
The Sky Moves Sideways appeared in different versions – different song sequence and track divisions – for its U.S. and UK releases. One of the best Porcupine Tree cuts of all time, “Stars Die” was not included on the British release; it’s a highlight of the U.S. record, and indeed of the band’s entire catalog. Like the two albums before (and two after) it, The Sky Moves Sideways didn’t chart, but in the wake of Porcupine Tree’s belated success, the album would be reissued in an extended form. The second disc featured a single-track alternate version of the title number, “Stars Die” and a 20 minute improvisation called “Moonloop,” a track that showed Porcupine Tree to be as effective a jam band as anyone.
AUDIO: Porcupine Tree “Moonloop” (unedited improvisation)
Though thankfully that’s not a direction they would pursue: as interesting as Metanoia, 1998’s album of improv pieces is, Wilson has all but disowned it. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s already some stuff out there which I would consider to be very peripheral, which I would rather was not out. ‘Metanoia’ is one,” Wilson told me in 2011.
After The Sky Moves Sideways, Porcupine Tree would return in less than two years with another record, Signify. A more band-focused release, it would feature greater creative input from Edwin, Barbieri and Maitland.
In retrospect, ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ can be viewed as Steven Wilson’s last “solo” work prior to 2009’s Insurgentes. But there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that his fingerprints are indelible whether the project is released under his name, one of many side-project labels (cf. Bass Communion, Storm Corrosion etc.) or Porcupine Tree.
“Every time you make a new record, you run the risk of basically losing your existing fan base and not necessarily regenerating a new one,” Wilson told me in a 2019 interview. But if that’s the gamble he’s taking, the trajectory of his career – from Porcupine Tree to present day – suggests that he’s winning.