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No-Man: "Mixtaped"; "Speak"; "Schoolyard Ghosts"

img  Tobias

The world of regular mortals alone is filled with plenty couldawouldashouldas, but rock bands seem to attract unfulfilled promises like super-sized electromagnets pulling in giant scraps of steel. „I wish they become famous before they die“, designer Carl Glover sighs towards the end of „No-Man Returning“, the documentary-part of this 2DVD-set, and he's not joking: Over the course of their two-decade-long career, No-Man have been everything from the next big thing to a lost cause and even their most optimistic followers, fans and friends still regularly have their doubts about the future prospects of the project. Increasingly, Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness have withdrawn into a niche of their own, where business rules and the regular passing of time have no home and no one has a right to demand anything of them anymore. As Richard Smith's documentary now shows, it was all for the better: A wilful defiance of accepted standards may well be what prevented one of the most headstrong and unconventional songwriting duos of recent years from breaking apart at the seems.

To uncover where the story began, Smith goes all the way back to the time of the early tracks later compiled on the album „Speak“. The title to that release will serve as a theme to his approach, as „Mixtaped“ is not just an homage to a band he obviously loves, but also a tribute to an era when artist-portraits were about more than just pasting together a string of glossy promo videos. And so an impressive part of the movie is made up of extensive interviews with past and present members of the band, their circle of colleagues as well as contemporary witnesses. While some of the DVDs which have landed on my desk over the past months have occasionally featured more „unused scenes“ and „bonus material“ than official footage, Smith hides nothing from his audience. He knows both Wilson and Bowness are eloquent, self-critical and honest and have a lot to tell. So when they talk, he listens carefully and respectfully. When his camera catches them at Wilson's home-studio in London, he remains in the background like a silent visitor, observing the band as they work on the material of their acclaimed „Schoolyard Ghosts“ album, discussing concepts and arrangements.

The relaxed mood of these domestic scenes is offset by the adrenalin-rush of a timeline that takes the audience back to the late 80s, when Wilson was still selling self-compiled Progrock-samplers and Bowness answered one of his newspaper-ads in search for a singer. Their first sessions together will lead them to experiment with tapes and ambitious arrangements and eventually result in a disastrous pub appearance on the one hand and a glorious victory at a battle of the bands on the other. Footage from this period shows a stern and ambitious band with Wilson still playing Keyboards and sporting a colourful outfit of questionable fashion-value. It is only after Guitarist Stuart Blagden (a mate and former band-colleague of Bowness) leaves to pursue different goals that the structures of the group become more solid, their sound more recognisable, their impetus all but unstoppable. By the time they record their breakthrough single „Colours“, they have shrunk to a core trio with Violinist Ben Coleman and are ready to face the pit of the media's Colosseum.

It is aptly in this phase that „Returning“ develops its strongest momentum. With „Colours“ (a cover version of a Donovan-hit from the 60s, which they completely make their own), the band not only record a slice of pristine Pop gently propelled by contemporary daisy-age-hip-hop grooves and infused with a subtle sprinkling of darkness and the Avantgarde. They are also openly displaying their appetite for success, provocatively releasing their interpretation of the song a breath's length before the Happy Mondays have had a chance to publish theirs. As a documentarian, Smith can not avoid dedicating himself to the trivia of this phase, which saw No-Man signing with leading label One Little Indian and being whispered about in record executives' board meetings. But he also uses the opportunity to allow the band to speak out about the difficulties of maintaining the balance between commercial success and artistic integrity. On their second single, „Days in the Trees“, this balance still tilts towards the latter, with sampled breakbeats replacing the more traditional arrangement and even resulting in a possibly more powerful artistic statement. On other occasions, though, as Wilson and Bowness freely admit, they, too, are finding it had to decide between what is right and wrong anymore.

It may seem like layman's psychiatry, but the key to understanding the entire CV of the band lies in the early years. „We would do what we do as well as we could regardless of the environment“, Bowness smilingly relates in reference to the aforementioned pub gig and this will turn into a creed. After their knocks at the doors of stardom remain unanswered, No-Man discard their dreams of fame and glory to record „Flowermouth“, an album with all the potential of turning into their ruin: Fragile textures and sensitive songwriting are woven into a wondrous dream-world inhabited by guest stars like Robert Fripp, Lisa Gerrard as well as Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri of Japan (whom the band had hired as a rhythm section during their „Colours“-phase). Nothing could conform less to a Zeitgeist possessed by ecstasy and psychedelica than this quiet monolith and the album indeed remains hardly untouched by the mainstream media. Against all odds, however, it will sell more copies than any of its predecessors and lays the foundation for a cult following. It also encourages them to continue trusting their instincts regardless of what the outside world may think. Even though a five-year silence will ensue after follow-up „Returning Jesus“, the band seem stronger than ever.

Woven into the fabric of this chapter are various songs from the „Speak“-sessions, which were, in effect, created during what Bowness calls a wonderful and „precious time“. Looking back, those days still seem like an idyllic phase spent with „endless talks about music and literature“. To him, it was also an incredibly productive period, which captured what they were about musically with absolute clarity: „By 1989, excited by the possibilities of what we'd come up with, we made the inevitable decision to move to London and take the band more seriously. As interesting as what we did next was, there was no doubt that a certain innocence had been lost.“

These quotes are taken from the informative liner notes to the Vinyl edition of „Speak“ (out on Tonefloat) and it is not hard to understand what he is referring to. Rarely over the next decade will No-Man sound as direct, uninhibited and unfiltered as here: A weightless and woozy version of Nick Drake's „Pink Moon“ as well as a ghostly, hypnotically circling rendition of „The River Song“ by Donovan point toward the inestimable influence singer/songwriters have had on the duo and also explains for an unexpected harmonica-solo and the nostalgically close-miced vocals, which Bowness seems to almost whisper directly into the audience's ears.  Short, yearning instrumentals, meanwhile, lend a cinematic quality to the band's minimal, yet spacious sound.

It is not just the cover versions, though, but actually the original material which attracts most attention here. „Heaven's Break“ is a weightless piece of uplifting dream-pop driven by Steve Reich-like Marimba-patterns, while a similarly trance-inducing, yet much more meditative pattern is beating underneath „Riverrun“, on the coda of which Bowness gently sings himself to sleep, repeating the same lines over and over again: „Come with me, run with me, see the way the river runs.“ With darkly simmering folk noire ballad „Night Sky Sweet Earth“, the band gathers experience in extending beyond the usual limitations of the pop format, while „The Ballet Beast“ is perfectly conclusive in its one and a half minute briefness. On „Life with Picasso“, meanwhile, Bowness proves his talent as a songwriter in his own right, keeping its blissed momentum going over an unchanging key note. Surely, he was right: Even though No-Man may have been under the impression that they were still searching for their own voice, they had long found it. And these twelve tracks, some of them recorded in an hour or two according to Wilson, drenched in the bittersweetness of the evening's twilight, are merging into an album statement that easily holds its own against their later, much more refined oeuvre.

Watching Wilson and Bowness sitting together in the here and now sometimes seems improbable considering the wild ride they've been through since those naive childhood times. But is also reveals a lot about why they still consider each other perfect creative partners. There is a soft flow of energy and a lot of unspoken agreement between them as they record the basic tracks to „True North“. It is almost touching to see them side by side like an elderly couple, talking about their youth and helping each other out with facts about specific dates and background stories, about who contacted who and who came up with what. When they talk about difficult decisions, their tone remains conciliatory and they demonstrate great understanding for the disappointments they have caused others. Much more than just a creative partnership, No-Man is a space of refuge for them, the one place they can always return to and a bond which will persists whatever happens to all of their other projects over the years.

And yet, one can't help but feel that the phase which follows „Flowermouth“ is anything but a happy one. Still, it is filled with decisive events and decisions: There is an acrimonious split with Ben Coleman, there's the rise of Porcupine Tree to international stardom, there's the departure from touring and the „Wild Opera“-album, on which Wilson and Bowness intensify their relationship with Electronica. And the difficulties of these years may just have led them back to the heart of their art, to „Returning Jesus“ and „Together we're stranger“.

„Returning“ ends in 2007, when the band release what many on this documentary consider their most accomplished effort yet: „Schoolyard Ghosts“. With its occasionally progressive outlines, conceptual coherency and spacey flow, this record discreetly draws them towards Porcupine Tree. Even thematically, the two bands have never been closer, with Porcupine's angry „Only apathy from the pills in me“ („Anesthetize“) being answered by a more resigned „The schoolyard ghosts, the playtime fears/ You take your pills, they disappear“ („True North“). Outwardly, it is an album composed exclusively of ambient ballads padded out in fairytale-arrangements of Glockenspiel, Horns, Oboes and Mellotron-choirs. Underneath the surface, however, there is an undeniable majesty in how a miniature symphony like „True North“ moves from Theo Travis' harbinging Flute flutter-tonguing to the naked truth of its main section, where lyrics about „g string sirens“ and the „heated calls of the subway“ are counterpointed by the calm and peaceful flow of the music.

„Schoolyard Ghosts“ is an album filled with impressive arrangements – orchestral strings, subtle drum computer rhythms, even harsh metal riff discharges and industrially disfigured feedback on „Pigeon Drummer“ – without ever becoming a pastiche. Here, the band have come full circle, a fact acknowledged by the concept of „Mixtaped“, its cover a colour-version of the image used for the special edition's bonus 7inch, its title derived from the album's closing track, a spaced-out trip at the border of noise and silence.

And yet, this is not where the story ends. It continues on the second disc of the DVD-set, which captures Wilson, Bowness and band live at their gig at the Bush Hall in London. Just as with the Düsseldorf-concert (which I attended at the time), the repertoire spans a bridge between some of their earliest tunes and most recent compositions and includes signature tracks like „Returning Jesus“ next to surprises such as unexpectedly groovy „Time Travel in Texas“ (off „Wild Opera“). The mission of that tour always seemed to be to create a coherent and unified sound for all of these pieces and truly, there is a concentrated and solemn mood lingering in the air throughout their performance. Thanks to its introspective ambiance, the production creates an accurate acoustic snapshot of where No-Man stand right now. This balanced sound, doesn't quite fit the picture of the documentary, which has rightly gone at lengths to demonstrate the diversity and extremity of the band's output. Still, that is only a minor stain on an otherwhise intriguing filmic achievement. And it should be fitting that Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness have more important things on their mind than worrying about the past. There's still a chance of becoming famous, after all, and they would hate to see it squandered before the die.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: No Man
Homepage: KScope Records
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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