A friend of mine, a porcupine

This week’s journey into the video vaults is a montage I prepared to Porcupine Tree’s epic, overblown ballad ‘Even Less’.

‘Even Less’ is a song with a history: Emily first introduced me to it some eight and a half years ago when we were staying with her parents for a week at the tail end of August. She had a few CDs in the car but the only one she ever got round to bringing in while we were staying there was Stupid Dream, Porcupine Tree’s fifth album, released just before the turn of the millennium. We listened to it every night that week, holed up int he back bedroom of an old house in rural Shropshire, surrounded by cows and sheep and a babbling brook. This repeated listening granting me a sense of familiarity that I’d not had for any album for some time, seeing as it was a period in my life when I would buy cheap CDs by the bucketload and then never have time to actually play any of them.

But something about Steven Wilson’s tour de force through his own head – and in particular the opening track, a song we heard more than any other as we never fell asleep while it was playing – resonated deeply. The lyrics are wonderful, but it was the sound with which I really connected: great clashing power chords, swooping synths and a substantial amount of moody, atmospheric piano. The harmonies alone – although less prominent on this track – are astounding. It’s reminiscent of Pink Floyd in a way that some of their other stuff is not (although don’t let Steven hear you say that; he finds the Floyd / Tree comparison particularly grating), and perhaps that’s why I liked it.

It wasn’t until early last year that I realised that this particular track – a song which seems to defy textual explanation or analysis – would work beautifully as a montage. I should explain how this comes about. I listen to most of my music in the car, at full volume when I’m unaccompanied. My journeys to and from the office are brief, but it’s the only uninterrupted thinking time I get during the day, and it’s good for decompression. Gary Numan suggested that “Here in my car, I’m the safest of all / I can lock all my doors” (that’ll come back to haunt us in a few weeks, actually, but not yet) and I feel a sense of control behind the wheel – irrespective of what’s going on outside – that doesn’t permeate the other areas of my life. Driving time is thus important. I will time journeys so I can hear a particular song or two songs that I want to play that day. And when I am in the middle of a song I particularly admire, I’ll have images floating through my head. Sometimes they’re abstract, and sometimes they’re quite specific.

On this particular morning, as the tuning orchestra that begins ‘Even Less’ permeated through my second-rate Vauxhall-supplied speakers (I’m not really an audiophile, and you can tell the true strength and worth of a song, I’ve always found, by how it sounds on bad radio), the images that came to mind were from Doctor Who, and specifically anything to do with Tennant’s run. Tennant is the master of the brooding stare. Just watch the thing. No, wait. Finish reading this first, and then watch it. You’ll see what I mean. There are lots of world-weary looks, blank and vacant, with eyes fixed somewhere in the distance at something just behind you. Here was a Doctor who had the weight of the universe resting squarely on his raincoat-clad shoulders and wanted everyone to know it. Oh, he could laugh with the rest of them; of course he could. But he spent much of the second half of his stint in the TARDIS seeming old, rather than young (there is a danger that Smith is now, prematurely, going the same way, and I fear that it may be to the show’s detriment if he makes the full transition). No, the Tenth Doctor was brooding, and melancholy, and seemed to fit the mournful elegiac tones of Wilson’s epic balladry.

This sense of the grandiose extended to the orchestration, which is bold and powerful, so I found the actual montage easy to construct: big, bold effects-laden action sequences (chiefly epic explosions) for the instrumental choruses, and then quieter, more introspective moments for the verses. And then a rogue’s gallery and a collection of some of Doctor X’s finer (and sillier) moments to finish off – my rule is it has to fit, irrespective of how much I actually like it (so many of my favourite moments are missing, and there’s a fair bit from ‘The Waters of Mars’, which I can’t stand). But despite the wealth of Tenth Doctor content, sifting down to a stylistically consistent mix was comparatively easy. The song’s minimal lyrical content helps (for reference, if you’re doing a montage of any sort it is to your advantage to pick a song that doesn’t have much singing in it, or at least contains a decent solo). There’s quite a lot of matching words with images – some work, and some are tenuous, but I am quite pleased in particular with the little dig I made at Davies’ pre-occupation with religion at 3:50.

I started this last February and did it in bits, finally finishing it on a cold afternoon in March while I recovered from a sickness bug. And then YouTube screwed up the encoding. I see now what I did: the volume levels were too high and the result is a lot of clipping on the bottom end. Even if you mute the sound, the version on YouTube is far from perfect – there are a couple of split-second (practically subliminal) images that I’d failed to remove when I was putting the thing together, with the result that it feels rather rough around the edges. I’d really rather not showcase that, but if you desperately want to compare you can see it here.

I fixed it, but I’m a great believer in scholarly integrity (a decade in academic publishing will do that to you), and the YouTube upload already had a fair number of hits and some positive comments, so I decided to leave it as is rather than remove it. An improved version – a Vimeo embed – is presented below. I’ve done better, more consistent montages, but this remains, some ten months later, one of my favourite pieces of work, largely because cutting it together was so much fun. I still wish I understood the song, though.

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