Prog’s Only Stupid Dream: Porcupine Tree - “Tinto Brass”
A groovy and at times thrashy jam whose roots date back to the title track of Porcupine Tree’s 1993 release Up the Downstair, “Tinto Brass” shows what happens when four brilliant musicians get together and just play. What this has to do with a Italian erotica director, however, I still don’t know.
We left off last week with the post-nuclear apocalypse landscape that is “A Smart Kid”. Though the sole earthling to survive the destruction didn't leave much room for hope, about 50 seconds into “Tinto Brass” it’s quite clear Porcupine Tree haven’t carried that loneliness with it. At this point near the album’s conclusion, it’s a wonder there isn’t a song about just giving up. All of the various versions of isolation and frustration sung of on this LP—disillusionment with the music industry, being beaten by love, or even the pain of losing a child to a tragic murder—are potent enough to give the impression that there’s not much left to say on Stupid Dream. With all these British proggers point out as wrong, what could there possibly be left to rail against?
Fortunately, “Tinto Brass” is a nice break from the melancholia of the songs that precede it. As Stupid Dream’s sole instrumental (excluding the 28 second fragment that is the title track) its breather effect is noticeable right away. One can only sing songs of depression for so long, although the lyrics of Steven Wilson are a testament to his ability to write about the dark side of life. In a storied career comprised of a plethora of records, side projects, and producer credits that even the most prolific of musicians would have a hard time matching, Wilson has yet to give up on the melancholy. (As mentioned in my post on ”Stranger by the Minute”, there are but a handful of “happy” songs in Porcupine Tree’s discography.) But while this track is a nice respite from the lyrical matter of the record, it certainly doesn’t let up in heaviness. “Tinto Brass” merges Porcupine Tree’s newfound interest in heavier guitar riffs and their earlier, long-form jams. The song plays something like an updated version of “Up the Downstair”, the title track of the band’s 1993 sophomore release. Both share a funky bassline, some memorable guitar riffs, and some enigmatic spoken word material.
The track begins rather ominously. A warped choir effect plays for a few seconds, followed by a deep, loud bang of a drum. Then, the voice that mysteriously listed off numbers at the end of “Even Less” returns, this time listing off the filmography of the Italian director Giovanni “Tinto” Brass in Japanese. What Brass has to do with the propulsive instrumental the song develops into I’m not sure, but it certainly makes for an intriguing opening. (Then again, as the long run of the TV show Lost proves, humans seem to have a tendency for unexplained lists.)
This brief bit of spoken word is then cut off by yet another one of Chris Maitland’s killer drumbeats, which begins to kick things into overdrive. The next instrument to enter is none other than the flute, played by Theo Travis. After his brilliant turn on “Don’t Hate Me”, his presence here is a welcome return. He provides flute lines throughout the duration of the track, while also maintaining a repetitive, flutter-tongued riff that serves as one of the rhythmic backgrounds. Shortly after Travis’ entrance, the final rhythmic bedrock is laid with Colin Edwin’s smooth bassline. These three musicians have set the scene for a real sonic explosion.
And explode it does. With the conclusion of a flute solo and some synth atmospherics, Wilson’s distorted guitar kicks in, playing a straightforward power chord progression that raises the temperature up by several degrees. The quality of the distortion isn’t the metallic sort, the kind that would be later heard on 2002’s In Absentia (written and recorded after Wilson’s producing stint with Swedish prog metal maestros Opeth), but more of what I like to think as “thrash-pop”. It’s both friendly on the ears relative to other distorted tones and thrashy enough that it stands out in terms of heft relative to the band’s prior material. This “thrash-pop” is also done on “Even Less”, “This Is No Rehearsal”, and to some extent “Piano Lessons”.
When that outburst cools down, the prominent instrument is Edwin’s bass, which guides “Tinto Brass” to its conclusion. In the end, this may not be one of Stupid Dream’s most insightful moments, or even one of its most musically impressive, though it is up there in the latter category. (“Don’t Hate Me” is tough to top.) But what it does show is how strong the interplay between these four musicians is. In my mind there’s no doubt that the Maitland-era Porcupine Tree peaked with Stupid Dream, and “Tinto Brass” is one of many documents to the group’s ability to bounce off of each other. This cut, like “Don’t Hate Me” before it, reveals Porcupine Tree to have the grace, improvisation, and intensity of a great jazz ensemble, despite their through-and-through identity as a psychedelic-tinged progressive rock outfit.
And hey, if they are a prog band, they do need to have a jam track, right?