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Music Review: No-Man – Schoolyard Ghosts

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One thing you discover rather quickly about Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson is that man, is this guy prolific.

It was at about this time last year that I was introduced to Porcupine Tree's music, courtesy first of the British progressive rock band's album Fear Of A Blank Planet. Intrigued to say the least, I began checking out some of the band's earlier material. Once hooked, I soon discovered that they had a rather large back catalog (particularly when you consider their near unknown status in America), and that acquiring all of the albums would be a sometimes difficult, and even more expensive task.

Over the months it took, the task would however prove well worth the time, trouble, and money spent. PT's resident creative mastermind — guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Steven Wilson — is to my mind at least, one of the truly great talents in music right now. Yet he remains nonetheless sadly undiscovered for the most part.

Still, it didn't end there.

It seemed that Wilson had a number of side projects to consider as well. In addition to the expected solo releases, these included the ambient Bass Communion recordings, and at least two other bands, Blackfield and No-Man.

So one year after discovering PT and Wilson, right now I've been working on catching up on his work with No-Man.

Fortunately I've had some help this time around from my friends here at BC (thanx, Pico!). But in diving head first into the various — and varied — musical horizons of Wilson, one thing has remained remarkably consistent. As prolific as Wilson is, on each of his different projects the artist shows yet another newly discovered side of the full breadth of his artistic vision.

No-Man is no exception. Essentially a duo consisting of Wilson and vocalist Tim Bowness, No-Man's sound is often as light and airy (well, at least most of the time) as Porcupine Tree's can be dense and heavy. Many of Wilson's songs with No-Man also have a lush, romantic quality about them — none moreso than the gorgeous "Days In The Trees," from the album Lovesights – An Entertainment.

At the same time, No-Man's musical palette is by no means constricted by romantic pop.
One of the weirder, yet most gorgeous-sounding moments on that same album comes on one of its shortest tracks, called "Reich." On this track, a teenage girl quite innocently recites her memory of what would appear to be the loss of her virginity, backed by a simple chord progression played on electric piano. It comes off as beautifully haunting, not unlike some sort of dark Victorian tale of tragic romance.

Elsewhere in No-Man's work, you'll find elements of everything from willowy pop to avant-jazz woven within a framework of what could best be categorized as electro-pop.

No-Man stick to this sound for the most part on the just released (in the U.K. anyway) Schoolyard Ghosts. Simply put, this is a beautiful album. But it's also one where they continue to stretch out, and expand things musically.

On one of this album's focal points, the twelve-minute "Truenorth," flutes, xylophones, and a gentle-sounding acoustic guitar float in and out of an orchestral arrangement that is quite simply gorgeous. Bowness invokes the simple understated lyrics, "you survive yourself," behind a light arrangement of piano and swelling strings. The mood then shifts, as Bowness sings of a "sweet surrender to the night," and a choir begins to rise. The guitar takes on a darker tone, the drums take a turn towards the tribal, and the strings turn to angelic voices. It is one of this album's many striking uses of counterpoint, with equally striking shades of both darkness and light.

On "Pigeon Drummer," Wilson cranks the guitar up some though, as the song begins with a blast of prog-rock anchored in the sort of time changes that come straight from the playbook of Red-era King Crimson. Shifting abruptly from light keys, church bells, and soft, electronically treated vocals to these sort of loud, frenetic blasts of sound, the effect is actually quite startling. And also, quite brilliant. Porcupine Tree (and occasional King Crimson) drummer Gavin Harrison more than fills the Bill Bruford role here.

Of course the romantic pop is here as well. "Wherever There Is Light" features a particularly lush arrangement where the strings rise straight up to heaven, as an english recorder and steel guitar plays alongside the gentle refrain "wherever there is light, she follows." The presumably mellotron-generated strings allow for an equally soothing ebb and flow on "Song On The Surf," washing themselves gorgeously over Bowness' vocals and Wilson's layered guitars. The effect is like waves on a beach.

Seriously, you can easily get lost in this album.

And then you have "Mixtaped." At about eight minutes, another of the album's standout tracks. In stark contrast to some of the more romantic tracks, the immediate feeling here is one of longing, melancholy, and regret. I'm still not exactly sure what the lyrics are about, outside of references to how the "mixtapes came and went" and how "you'd kill for that feeling again." Anyway, there's still no mistaking the intent of the droning, reverb-drenched guitar and the lazy, dirge-like shuffling of the slow jazz beat.

Schoolyard Ghosts is at present available only in the U.K., but can be ordered right now online. There are also reports of a U.S. release (check Amazon) coming on June 10. The U.K. version comes in a nice double-disc package, that includes a 5.1 mix for those of you with high-end DVD equipment.

For those of you who do, the investment would be well worth it.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Pico

    If you didn’t make the case for No-Man, I don’t know who could. Very well done, Glen.

  • Glen Boyd

    Coming from the guy who had as much to do as anybody I can think of with turning me on to No-Man, and Wilson himself for that matter, I take that as high praise indeed. Like I said in the review, many thanx Pico!


  • Tom Johnson

    Good stuff, Glen. Really glad to see you liked it. I’m still digesting this one, but I think I’ll be putting some thoughts out on it soon, too. It’s just too good to not talk about and spread the word. They deserve much wider exposure.

    On a side note, I really hope the rumors of a live DVD being filmed at one of the few shows they’re playing later this year are true.

  • Glen Boyd

    Thanx Tom. Last I heard there may be live DVDs from both No-Man and PT this year. No-Man are supposedly filming a show in England, while PT are going to do the same at one of the final shows of the never-ending FOABP tour (I wanna say I heard Portugal).

    Got both my fingers crossed we see both (especially with no new PT coming out this year).