It’s honestly a wonder that I haven’t written about this album sooner. It contains everything I love, both within its music and along its meta-narrative. The Sky Moves Sideways was released three time: once in Europe, once in America and once as a remaster. Each album contains different versions of a proto-drone track, versions which are unique to it and were produced using an original 40 minute recording of a live band. It contains Gavin Harrison with Porcupine Tree working on early material (on the re-master), one of my all time favorite musicians. And, most of all, it’s the turning point between Porcupine Tree as just Steven Wilson and their conception as a band. Thus, it contains the psychedelia of his earlier works while still being recognizable as an album. It has a strange accessibility to it alongside some truly weird and disconcerting elements.
Lastly in the list of its endearing qualities is the fact that it has been forgotten, somewhat. In the brilliant light of future Porcupine Tree releases, it lacks the historical distinction of On the Sunday of Life, Porcupine Tree’s debut album. Thus, it got waylaid, lost to the uncaring eyes of retrospective listeners. However, it is a brilliant album, containing much of what will make Porcupine Tree great after it but also a lot of the charm and egotism that was lost in the transition into progressive rock icon-hood. Often compared to Pink Floyd‘s Wish You Were Here, it is both cool, emotional rock and expansive, mind-bending esoteria, multi part tracks and radio anthems rolled into one.
The opener of the album is also the title track or, to be exact, its first “phase”. “The Sky Moves Sideways – Phase I” is one of the most ambitious things that Steven Wilson has ever written and recorded. Its parts (I. “The Colour of Air” II. “I Find That I’m Not There” III. “Wire the Drum” IV. “Spiral Circus”) move between dense, drum heavy monoliths to drawn out, expansive passages replete with flutes, lonesome guitars and a morose ambiance that’s hard to shake. It begins with Wilson on vocals, utilizing his then trademark melancholy to full effect. Where today there is an edge to that melancholy, a hidden power, here it is fully resplendent in its abjection and loss. This is also one of his most convincing lyrical moments, drawing a beautiful emotional landscape to set the tone alongside his signature, urban dystopia:
“We lost the skyline
We stepped right off the map
Drifted in to blank space
And let the clocks relapse
We laughed the rain down
Slow burn on the lawn
Ghosts across the lawn
Swallowed up the storm
In the dream dusk
We walked beside the lake
We watched the sky move sideways
And heard the evening break”
The second part is where those drone/noise influences come in. The guitars sing loops in the background while the bass/drums crash into each other with frightening tenacity. On the remaster, this segment most bears an early Porcupine Tree flair which would repeat itself rarely, if at all. This part takes up the majority of the track, fading slowly into the third part. This mingling is ushered in by beautiful flute, piercing through the static and calling in the last part. This picks up on the singular sadness of these flute segments and ends with acoustic guitars, calling back to the opening lines.
The track which immediately follows it, “Dislocated Day” is pure, early-era Porcupine Tree. The guitars are tinged with the metallic distortion which would later be associated with the band but still wild and rampant as it will never be again. On the remaster, you can first hear Harrison’s genius here, lending his robust and secure drum tone to the arrangement. This makes “Dislocated Day” an oppressive continuation to the more abrasive parts of the first track while still allowing it to maintain it’s rock n’ roll momentum. This is exactly what we mean when we say “early-era Porcupine Tree”, before a more contained and refined sound was introduced. Everything has spikes on it, a static edge born right out of the grandiose mid-90’s in which it was recorded.
This early energy is, however, completely absent from the following track, one of the most beautiful moments in the entire Porcupine Tree discography. “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” is, in many ways, the most indicative of what was to come for Porcupine Tree. It opens with Wilson’s singular voice backed by soft guitars and drums. It takes its time in building up speed, exploring its ideas in a few different ways: first, a guitar solo/bridge expands on the musical ideas of the beginning. A backing track contains to repeat them while the more pompous notes of the solo inject them with power. Quickly though, the background begins to unravel: snippets of samples of trumpets, circus sounds and general calamity usher out the quickly disintegrating, final moments.
This is why the track is so indicative of the future of Porcupine Tree. That formula, the slow beginning leading into later chaos, is the latter Porcupine Tree sound. It blends everything we love about the band, the ability to hit both quiet and loud notes, to pick on diverse places of aggression, introspection, melancholy and hope. It remains, to this day, one of the most moving and convincing iterations of the sound. Perhaps this is because of the unique place it has in the album, positioned alongside the wilder, more abrasive ideas that make up the rest of the thing.
Speaking of those ideas, “Moonloop” is next. This track’s history is unique and convoluted. Beginning with a forty minute, live-recording from the early days of the band, it was then cut to its original size. On the US release, it was cut in half once again, only to be expanded (with different parts than the original) for the remaster. In all iterations however, it most channels the Pink Floyd comparisons. The guitar tone screams David Gilmour and the compositional approaches are pure Pink Floyd. It is a long, long track informed by a central bass line which carries it all the way to the end, to the last four minutes.
Relentless in its dedication, fierce in its tone, this bass line is the backbone of “Moonloop”. On top of it, drums, guitars, chimes, synthesizers build a massive landscape. All of this is in preparation of the final moments, where the sounds coalesce into an extremely groovy and moving final segment. The guitars begin the deconstruction, their tone slowly more and more frayed. The rest quickly follows suit, with the drums becoming more and more hectic while the synths pick up in size and centrality. Finally, it all comes crashing down with an ever repeating, ever faster line that lastly swallows itself in glorious static and guitar death-jerks.
Skipping over the short interlude that is “Prepare Yourself, one which was dropped on the US re-release, we arrive at the mind-bending realms of “The Sky Moves Sideways – Phase II”. The first part “Is…Not” is full, psychedelic majesty, channeling more 70’s influences like Yes in their weirdest. It last for about four minutes, finally giving way to one of the most memorable transitions of Porcupine Tree’s career. The larger than life guitars, the amazing synths, the female-led choir which instantly calls The Dark Side of the Moon to mind, all elevate what could have been “just” a weird intro to new heights. “Off the Map” is the name of this segment and so it is, drifting as far as it does from the album that’s come before it, preferring wild, untamed power to the controlled elegance of all that came before it.
All of this comes to culmination with the end of the track, signalling also the end of the album (except for some added content and a very important track we’ll soon get to). The vocals from “Phase I” are repeated backwards; the guitar climbs to ever increasing heights, once again channeling the gilded touch of Gilmour. The whole thing slowly comes to a head, built over the 15 minutes runtime of the track, almost as long as the first part. Finally, the music is released as catharsis, blazing across the ears like the proverbial shooting star. In its wake, we’re left with samples of the ocean, deep drums extolling resignation and defeat and static to remind us of the chaos that has come before. Over those, the bass stands morose, strumming some final chords atop the bottomless, oceanic samples. The sky has become the sea and we have drowned in it.
Only to find, on the other side of the CD, a rare and special track. “Stars Die” is the name of that track. On the US re-release, it’s on the first CD even before “Phase II”. On the UK release, it doesn’t even exist. But on the remaster, it is granted a special place which has always captured my heart. Among alternate versions and improvisations lies “Stars Die”, one of the best tracks ever released under the Porcupine Tree name and one which speaks volumes about future albums like Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia. The mix of deep bass and acoustic guitar, the role of Wilson’s vocals, the structure which weaves between chorus and verse, only to smash on the iconic third part.
Like the entire album, it is a primal and nascent form of many things which are to come. However, it also stands on its own, forgotten as it may be. “Stars Die” might have lived past the album but the release itself has somewhat been expunged from the Porcupine Tree “to listen” list. This is an error; it is a beautiful and touching album which contains clues to the DNA of this band. Not only that, it stands on its own merits as some of the rawest, most psychedelic material the band have released. Take this chance to revisit it, while we languish in the “hiatus” that has been forced upon us and hear within it countless echoes and foreshadows of progressive rock today.