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Customer Discussions > Classic Rock forum

Another Porcupine Tree thread

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Initial post: Nov 27, 2011 7:17:37 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 27, 2011 7:21:17 PM PST
OK, so after being encouraged by several members of this forum (AlexMontrose in particular, but one or two others as well) I decided to re-explore the PT catalogue, listening to all of their albums in chronological order, including those I had not heard (just for the record, the ones I had heard up to this point had been "Up The Downstair", "The Sky Moves Sideways", "Signify", "Deadwing", "Fear Of A Blank Planet" and "The Incident"). I have now heard (or re-heard, as the case may be) the first four albums through "Signify" and am ready to give my thoughts; most of these will be directed to AlexMontrose, but anyone can respond of course. And just for good measure, I listened to each album twice through headphones, just to make sure each one could sink in properly (although I realize some albums take more listens to digest).

First off, I need to reference the earlier debate I had with AlexMontrose regarding the "importance" of the group to rock history. That debate was for that particular thread, which was voting on the 100 most important rock albums of all time. I did not think PT were especially important in the overall flow and development of rock history; AlexMontrose disagreed. However, I stressed at the time and I stress now that my view of the group's "importance" (read "influence", "mass commercial impact" and "breaking new genre ground"--I think the group have had some minor impact in all of those areas, but not to nearly the same degree as Alex) is very different from my thoughts on the group's overall musical quality. I was already a fan of the group--not a rabid one, but I do think they're one of the top fifteen best outfits of the last twenty years, and that's just from the albums I had heard up until then. A group doesn't have to be 'important' at all to the evolution and development of rock, to be able to craft five-star albums.

With that out of the way, I was going to review the albums track-by-track but now realize that will make my longwinded posts that much longer, so I'll try and suffice with detailed but succinct summaries of each album I've heard so far.

ON THE SUNDAY OF LIFE (1991): Of all the PT albums I knew this one would be the most derivative, since I'd heard it was comprised of material that Wilson had recorded under the jokey guise that it was some legendary late 60s/early 70s psychedelic/space-rock outfit. However, I must also mention that psychedelia is my favorite musical genre, and I welcome anyone who attempts to reach back to the creativity and trippiness of that era (again, the 'derivativeness' doesn't really count as a negative in my assessment of quality, unless it's a soulless carbon copy) . The era is harder to *reliably* replicate than one might imagine, though, so there are pitfalls galore in any such attempt.

The verdict? I must say, I was extraordinarily delighted to find that I loved "On The Sunday Of Life". Wilson takes equally from late 60s UK psych-pop (Barrett-era Floyd, Tomorrow, Traffic etc) and early 70s progressive/space-rock (mid-period Floyd, Gong) along with the spaciest Canterbury prog elements (Caravan, Egg) to create music that is right up my alley. The genre re-creations are so masterful, one might actually be tempted to believe some of it actually came from the period. The highlights are thick in number but I was especially impressed with the "Third Eye Surfer/On The Sunday Of Life/The Nostalgia Factory" bit, "Nine Cats", "And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun" and what I gather is a live favorite, "Radioactive Toy". This music is complex, trippy and totally faithful to the feel of the original era; parts of it even seem more proggy, complex and sonically adventurous than the more celebrated later albums. Best of all, it's not just the *sound* of the era he has down, but the quality of the songwriting is already very high (and that was something the original 60s/70s artists had in abundance, that tends to be missing from a lot of later re-creation attempts).

The only weaknesses I see here involve the length of the album, which at 75 minutes stays its welcome just a tad too long, and there's a few songs where Wilson adopts a high-pitched, twee mannerism to his voice that was common in some of the UK psych of the time, but which seems too self-consciously jokey and unnecessary here. Otherwise, though, I was highly impressed and the second listen only improved on the first. This is one of the best exercises in genre-copying I've ever heard (easily outstripping otherwise-notable 80s retro-psych acts like Plasticland and The Dukes Of Stratosphear), and the genres he chose to replicate just happen to be my favorite the moment I give it an A- rating.

Ok this post is already getting too long, so I'll break up the reviews to one post per album. "Up The Downstair/Staircase Infinities" is next!

Posted on Nov 27, 2011 8:07:39 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 27, 2011 8:10:10 PM PST
UP THE DOWNSTAIR (1993): This album had been tied with "Fear Of A Blank Planet" as my favorite PT effort, and re-listening to it now has not changed that opinion much. It certainly belongs to the same uber-psychedelic early phase as "On The Sunday Of Life", although now that I've heard the debut, I can see some small evolutionary changes. The biggest improvement is that Wilson has dropped the twee vocal mannerisms that marred a few of the cuts on "Sunday". "Downstair" also drops the Canterbury jazz-prog elements of its predecessor in favor of a (then) modern trance/techno element, and although I miss the Canterbury influence, the electronica is mixed in well with the album's primary rock base. The overall effect is a more serious, straightforward attempt at creating a psychedelic classic which is faithful to the past while also updating the sound, without compromising either angle.

Listening to this album again was, as usual, a great experience. At 48 minutes it is the perfect length, and nearly every song is a gem. It has what is arguably one of the best openings in album history (the transition from "What you are listening to..." to "Synesthesia"). Wilson's vocals are probably my favorite of any PT album; the twee voices of "Sunday" are gone, but there's none of the mopiness of some of the later stuff, either. "Always Never" and "Fadeaway" are particularly strong and memorable tracks, two of my favorite in the whole catalogue (at least what I've heard so far!), melodic yet acid-drenched at the same time. Everything else is also superb, bar perhaps the title track (which would be great at five minutes, but at double that length the numbing repetitiveness of its techno-inspired beat wears thin..still, I'm sure that's exactly the quality that would make it a hit at raves! lol). The album really should be listened to as a whole. Overall I give the album another A- grade; that makes Wilson two for two so far...

I can't leave "Downstair" without mentioning the remixed re-release from a few years ago. I believe it to be the definitive version of the album; the sound is smoother and Gavin Harrison's newly recorded drums are a welcome addition that give it a more organic band feel, even if it really isn't. The "Staircase Infinities" disc of instrumental outtakes from the sessions is good, although there tends to be a sameness to a lot of the tracks. My favorite is "Cloud Zero"; "Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape" builds to a wonderful frenzy but--most annoyingly--begins to cool down again just as things were getting good! "Rainy Taxi" also needs mentioning as it is more than simply Floydian influenced--it's a virtual carbon copy of their 69-72 sound. That issue, however, would come to the fore on the next album...

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 27, 2011 8:28:28 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 28, 2011 5:44:36 PM PST
AlexMontrose says:
Ohhh geeezuz Topper. I was hoping you would do ALL your reviews at once. I honestly was looking forward to the longest post in Amazon history... and I for one would have loved it !!

But...I must say this post is a hell of a start. Not because you liked ON THE SUNDAY OF LIFE so much but because it was so well written. The fact that you picked up on the extraordinary songwriting skills of Wilson at such a early stage in their career really impressed me more than what song you like more than the others. But I enjoy that too ;)

Anyway you're going to end up being more familiar with their earliest works than I am. At least every single song on the albums. I've heard most if not all of their first 3 or 4 releases (plus the compilations, EP's) but maybe not every single song.

So I'm glad you enjoyed Sunday so much. That's a good "problem" to have because when I think of the period of PT where I really started to love them it pretty much would be mid/later 90's (although there certainly were albums I liked better than others during this period) and beyond. And I'm more partial to that style than their earlier, more trippy one. Although I do like much of that too ! So it's interesting that Wilson and PT delved into a style right from the get go that was right up your alley and it will be just as interesting or more so to me when you hit their mid-late 90's period.

As you move up through their albums the songwriting remains nuanced, complex, moving, emotional, exciting and so much more but has a very different soundscape. Yet, when you really get to know all the layers of PT you will still hear, recognize earlier Wilson trademarks in their later albums. One of the pleasures of truly great songwriting is the artist takes his already immense talent with music and keeps finding ways to amaze you, song after song, album after album, year after year.. Artists like that don't come along very often.
I think you will find as you keep going there is no limit with this guy.

And I'm just going to make one comment/observation about this and how it ties in with our earlier debate about the 'importance' of PT's music. Great music is important. Whether it came out in 1972 or 1991. It doesn't matter to me how much Floyd influenced 20 other bands or if someone believes so and so "sound just like Floyd". What matters is how good the music is of each individual band. We don't listen to bands because we're thinking owwww, this is going to be important...

PT, as a band, came out years after the "Classic rock" era and let's just say we all would acknowledge that the iconic bands of that period were extremely important in the evolution of rock. PT is important now.....because their music is as good as many of those bands. So........;) That's why, IMO, they are hugely important in annals of rock music/prog music, ALL music. Not of course during the "classic rock" period... they didn't exist...but in the continually progressing, organic beast that is rock music and music in general. "Important" music doesn't have an expiration date.

Posted on Nov 27, 2011 8:39:33 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 27, 2011 8:51:24 PM PST
THE SKY MOVES SIDEWAYS (1995): I remember liking this album when it first came out but thinking it not as good as "Downstair"; the Floyd influence was at its peak and I remember thinking "it's a good Floyd copy, but why do I need to listen to this when the original is still better?" On re-listen, I really tried hard to divorce the obvious Floydian touches from my mind and appreciate it for what it is...and it seemed to have worked, because the listen went better than I thought it would. I still think the album is weaker than the two before it, but I like it more than I did.

The lengthy, mostly instrumental title track which is split into two halves and separated by more conventional "songs" (can we say "Wish You Were Here", anyone? Oh wait, I'm trying *not* to make those comparisons...tsk tsk) is actually better in the single 34-minute version included on the remixed re-release; there are only a few differences but they matter to these ears. Anyways, the sound and production on "Sky Moves Sideways" is superb, almost luxurious; in this instance the album is definitely an improvement on its predecessors. The first section "The Colour Of Air" utilizes the new production skills to great effect and although certainly reminiscent of Floyd, it's a beautiful piece that stands in its own right. I can't say the same for "I Find That I'm Not There", which is just too close to Floyd for comfort. The pace changes for the more upbeat, trance-y "Wire The Drum/Spiral Circus" bit, and although engaging there's *something* about it I can't pinpoint...I feel oddly detached from the music, it just doesn't move me like it should. When the song returns for "Is...Not", we're back to more Floyd, and while there's interesting bits there it just goes on way too long (and lack of patience is not a failing of mine; I can happily listen to "Thick As A Brick", "Ommadawn" or yes, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" in their entirety and still want more). The closing "Off The Map" features some nice guitar work, although I prefer the closing on the alternate version with the female vocal.

The more song-like tracks in-between the title track are good, but all kind of sound the same to me; "Stars Die", "Dislocated Day" and "The Moon Touches Your Shoulder" have the warm acoustic guitar textures, lush sound, mellow melodic turns and soaring electric guitar work that characterize Wilson's unique take on the Floyd sound, but it's becoming increasingly formulaic here, and too many of these songs in a row negates their impact. They are all enjoyable tracks, but I find my mind starting to wander at yet *another* epic Gilmour/Hackett styled guitar good as these are, I begin to yearn for more variety...less formula and more soul.

In short, "The Sky Moves Sideways" is an album I'd like to enjoy more than I actually do. When I look at the ingredients, it makes for a tantalizing brew, and parts of the album do live up to that expectation; as mentioned, the re-listen went better than expected and I'll probably end up extracting bits like "The Colour Of Air", "Stars Die" (the best of the 'songs' here) and "Off The Map" for my ipod. Unfortunately, other bits feel clinical, formulaic and repetitive (and, yes, overly derivative), even as the music itself strives for warmth and emotion. I was reading the Wikipedia entry for "Sky" and apparently Wilson also feels that he went too far to please Floyd fans with this album, so I know I'm not alone in this assessment. All that being said, I know I sound super-critical of the album but it's still fairly well-made (and brilliantly produced) music in a genre I enjoy (hey, I *love* Pink Floyd! There's also a lingering Gong influence, too, which is never a bad thing), so the album still gets a decent "B" grade.

Posted on Nov 27, 2011 9:35:34 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 27, 2011 9:38:06 PM PST
SIGNIFY (1996): this album clearly marks a transition between the early psych/space-rock phase of the band and the later more streamlined, "song"-oriented prog material. Apparently it is the first full band album; it is also the album I considered weak enough at the time to stop buying PT albums for the next ten years. I didn't hate it, but I only heard it once. I have now re-listened the album twice, and guess what? Like "The Sky Moves Sideways", it's a bit better than I originally remembered. That being said, it's also still easily the weakest of the albums I've so far heard in in this chronological listening project.

First, what's good here. The good material stands out so clearly from the rest that the songs are easy to pick out: "The Sleep Of No Dreaming", "Sever", "Every Home Is Wired", and "Dark Matter". Good songwriting on all of them, and you can see Wilson retreating from the Floyd sound he finally ran to the ground on the previous album, in favor of other influences and his own idiosyncratic style (is any of this "important" to the overall development of rock? I still say no, at least at this point in the game). "Sever" is one of the most original-sounding songs yet, and "Dark Matter" is one of their best, a tight distillation of the best of their sound up to that time. Had the album retained the quality of these songs throughout, I would be a happy camper.

The bad news: it doesn't. Especially disappointing are the instrumental tracks, which contain none of the fire of the work on "Sunday" or "Downstair" or even the placidly lush "Sky". "Light Mass Prayers" has got to be one of the most boring compositions I've ever heard, even by ambient standards. "Idiot Prayer", with its oh-so-90s techno/Middle East fusion is all atmosphere and no substance, even though Wilson tries to liven things with some Hillage-ish guitar work. "Waiting Phase 2" and "Intermediate Jesus" follow the same formula as "Idiot Prayer"--dull ambient-ish intro, building to a climax with some now-patented trippy guitar work, then dull ambient-ish outro. "Intermediate Jesus" at least is interesting in its middle section, as a good drum groove is found to bolster Wilson's soloing, but then unfortunately abandoned after a couple of minutes.

The group's sound just isn't as interesting overall. "Sunday" and "Downstair"--and even "Sky"--had a very hardcore LSD-soaked vibe to them, with lots of creative new sounds being explored. "Signify" seems to settle for the same ambient-ish New Age synth sounds that were de rigeur in the mid-90s, and trance-y percussive beats that didn't appeal much to me then and sound pretty dated now. There's also a bit more bombast to the harder rocking sections, even on the good songs. Wilson's vocals are transitioning, too, into the somewhat more melodramatic, "mopey" tone I mentioned earlier; it's not terrible, but I can just imagine the tortured white boy college freshman alone in his darkened room, contemplating what's screwed up about society. It was a stance very popular in the 90s and I actually liked a lot of the alternative rock of that decade which dealt in that attitude (The Smashing Pumpkins are one of my favorite bands), but with Wilson, I feel like he's straining just a little to sound 'important' when his natural state (at least, the one I got used to) was that of the wide-eyed college freshman who was tripping balls. I don't want to judge the next three albums I haven't heard yet until I actually do hear them, but so far only on "Fear Of A Blank Planet" do I think the attitude he's aiming for with this vocal style gelled with lyrics and music powerful enough to couch them.

Overall grade: B-

Posted on Nov 27, 2011 9:52:27 PM PST
BigBadAzz says:
Great in-depth reviews, Michael. Good to hear your insight on these glorious recordings!
This might be a bit premature, but have you heard any of Blackfield's albums? The band is basically a Steven Wilson side project featuring himself and Israeli singer-songwriter Aviv Geffen and their own backing band. Just as lush and arresting as PT's material, they've released three albums so far between 2005-2011 (their second album, the imaginatively titled Blackfield II, being the best of them IMHO). Definitely worth a listen or 10 once you've made your way through the rest of PT's back catalogue.
BTW, my fave PT albums are In Absentia and Deadwing. If you liked Deadwing, you'll love IA too!

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 6:25:45 AM PST
That's some good reading, MT. I don't have anything to add yet, but wanted you to know your efforts are appreciated.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 28, 2011 6:39:04 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 28, 2011 6:39:32 AM PST

Thank you for the indepth reviews on each album (thus far). PT has quickly become one of my absolute favorite bands. Since learning of this band (was it only a few years ago!?) I've since ended up owning everything released including Steven Wilson's solo albums. I'll say that Lightbulb Sun remains my favorite album. I don't feel like I have anything to add at this time (I've always had trouble trying to capture how I feel about songs/bands in words) but am enjoying the posts of all here.

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 6:19:35 PM PST
Captain Ogre says:
You have been assimilated!

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 7:05:07 PM PST
BigBadAzz says:
What's your personal ranking of most-to-least favourite PT albums?
My order is as follows:
In Absentia
Stupid Dream
Lightbulb Sun
The Sky Moves Sideways
Fear of a Blank Planet
The Incident
Up the Downstair
On the Sunday of Life

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 9:59:17 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 28, 2011 10:02:15 PM PST
Thanks everyone for your kind words regarding my reviews! I didn't know they'd be that well-received...perhaps longwindedness pays off, after all. :)

@AlexMontrose: I do agree that all great music is important. Perhaps I was being more of a stickler for things like "influence", "breaking new ground" etc in the earlier thread as part of my definition of "importance", because I wanted to keep the vote from becoming just another "vote for your favorite/best" type of list. If there *is* to be a difference between "best" and "most important", I wanted to delineate what that was at that time. It was just my Virgoian obsessiveness asserting itself, again. ;) But I do think that all great music is important, and that importance is timeless (given that the music is able to stand the test of time). It's easier to tell which albums withstand the test of time the longer they've been around, which I believe is why there's more of a consensus on the classic 60s/70s acts than on newer artists from the 90s/00s--just look at how widely the top 30 lists diverged from person to person starting with the 80s! But sure enough, more time will pass and people will be able to look back and tell which of the 90s/00s bands were great/important/what-have-you. I think the 90s are already an easier decade to judge than they were in, say, 2002 (and notice how "Up The Downstair" made my 90s list!).

Anyways, I've been a bit preoccupied these past few days so I've only been able to hear "Stupid Dream" once. When I've heard it again, plus "Lightbulb Sun" two times over, I'll post those reviews in tandem. Should be in the next day or two. In the meantime, if anyone wants to give their own take on the first four albums I've just reviewed, feel free!

@BigBad: I haven't heard any of Wilson's side projects or solo work but probably will give them a sample after I have finished on PT. As for ranking the albums, I will probably post my ranking when I've finished hearing all of them (I still haven't even heard "Lightbulb Sun" or "In Absentia" yet!).

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 9:45:59 AM PST
WIN a FREE Vacation to Jupiter Island!

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 9:53:58 AM PST
That acid laced popsicle "On The Sunday Of Life" is my most played PT album.
Though I mix it with a dash of "YHD". Super groovy!

"Twee mannerism" ~ it helps to remember that he was only 15 and 16 when he made "LSD" and "Jupiter".

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 9:58:12 AM PST
FLAMING HEAD SÉANCE is my favorite of theirs.
I do hope you are going to use these post as album reviews.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 10:06:37 AM PST
"Why do I need to listen to this when the original is still better?"
Because you can only hear the original so many times.
The 2 are good to play back to back.
How come you don't mention the Moonloops?
To me those are the best instrumentals they have ever done.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 10:15:39 AM PST
Sorry you didn't like Signify. I totally dig it's haunted house vib on all those songs you don't like. So what PT albums do you not have?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 10:23:45 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 29, 2011 11:56:24 AM PST
AlexMontrose says:

When Topper is done with all the "proper" albums there will probably as much he hasn't heard as what he has. But I or we can hit him with that later :)

Signify is definitely a transition but again there were probably bonus songs, ep's, etc coming out that might have given a clue. Wilson usually provides us with a few songs here and there telling us where's he's at these days. There's in between collections of songs that should probably be heard later.

I do think Topper picked out the best songs off Signify. Dark matter the #1 standout and I liked Sever too. I liked the new dark vibe for PT and the rest of the album was interesting... but the songs weren't great. Want to listen to about half of it again though...

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 10:36:59 AM PST
AM, I see you never posted on that best PT album thread. Where do you rate Signify?

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 10:46:20 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 29, 2011 12:10:40 PM PST
AlexMontrose says:

For me Signify would be in the lower middle of all PT albums but that's not a bad middle. Interesting where they were at that time and I like the haunted house vibe too. Some good music on Signify, it's an okay album.

Edit : Well I heard it all again and while still liking the vibe and a few songs I would have to say it moved down a notch. I'd give it a C.

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 4:29:58 PM PST
BigBadAzz says:
SA & AM:
Signify has never been one of my personal fave PT albums either (second lowest IMHO - see my album rankings 9 posts above). I do really like Sever, Dark Matter & Every Home Is Wired, however I find the rest of the album to be just so average.
Moonloop though is a fantastic spacey jam! I love the guitar riff towards the end - very reminiscent of Floyd's The Narrow Way Part 2/'Meddle' era

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 8:48:01 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 29, 2011 8:49:01 PM PST
@AlexMontrose: I do realize there's plenty of non-album material after I'm done with the albums. At least the reissue of "Up The Downstair" came with "Staircase Infinities", so I've heard that. The rest...well, let me just finish the primary catalogue first. :)

As for "Signify"...could it be? Could it really be? AlexMontrose grading a Porcupine Tree album *lower* than I did?! Shocking!! As for the darker 'haunted house' vibe, I have mixed feelings. On the good songs it works well, on the bad songs not so much. So in this case the quality of the compositions affected my judgement over the atmosphere. I just didn't see the instrumentals having the same oomph as the earlier ones. "Third Eye Surfer" and "Not Beautiful Anymore" vs. "Light Mass Prayers" and "Waiting Phase 2"? No contest, IMO. It also looks like most of us agree on what the good tracks on "Signify" are...I knew I wasn't crazy in finding a clear-cut difference between the tracks that stood out and the rest...

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2011 9:02:07 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 29, 2011 9:06:35 PM PST
AlexMontrose says:
Hey...if you graded every album "higher" than me, then mission accomplished. Mmmmmm ;) ? But that's not going to be possible......
Is it ? ;)

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 9:13:05 PM PST
@AlexMontrose: what was interesting was that I was expecting to get the most flak from you for being critical of "Signify". You had told me the group started getting more interesting for you in the mid-late 90s, so I assumed "Signify" would have been the start of that. I suppose you meant "Stupid Dream" (review coming soon!!). But not only did you agree with me, you graded it even lower...perhaps we'll agree more often than I thought. With the whole issue of "importance" less of an issue, it might clear some air. Does this mean we'll agree on the later albums? We'll find out soon...

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 9:21:28 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 29, 2011 9:32:10 PM PST
AlexMontrose says:
Re : You had told me the group started getting more interesting for you in the mid-late 90s, so I assumed "Signify" would have been the start of that..

Well first.. never assume. We know that. And second you might have missed the part I edited in right after I said that. I added that there certainly were albums I liked more than others during that period.

Re : ....I suppose you meant "Stupid Dream"

Maybe :) It's not easy to put enough good/great songs together so you can say......that's a terrific album.

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 10:04:12 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 30, 2011 12:39:02 AM PST
BigBadAzz says:
I'd say that PT's discography can be generally divided up into three specific stylistic phases:
1. Psychedelic/ambient-prog (1989 - 1995): Early pre-debut work until The Sky Moves Sideways
2. Prog/pop (1997 - 2000): From the transitional Signify until Lightbulb Sun
3. Alternative/metal (2002 - present): From In Absentia until The Incident
Personally I prefer the latter phase, followed by their mid-period work, and least of all the former period. I find albums such as In Absentia and Deadwing to be more sonically and melodically satisfying as opposed to the experimentalism of their first works, although I still do find much to enjoy in those early releases.
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