No-Man
Schoolyard Ghosts


4.0
excellent

Review

by Mendigo USER (21 Reviews)
September 27th, 2008 | 34 replies


Release Date: 2008 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Beautiful Songs You Should Know

Trying to determine No-Man’s style someone might finally come up with the term “Progressive Pop”. But the fact that the music is neither really pop nor is it really progressive gives a sense of how hard No-Man are to categorize. Yet they aren’t unusual in any way, but welcome and well-known like an old friend, a wonderful combination of genres like singer/songwriter, post rock, progressive rock and art pop, including hints of ambience and even some jazzy undertones.
All of that is created by the long-time duo of Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, who are writing music together since 1986 - a year before Porcupine Tree was even formed. As time went by the original quartet named No Man is an Island shortened its name to No-Man and lost two of its members. Yet the project expanded from the initial sample-based pop music and established a formula that’s still ongoing: Tim Bowness provides lyrics and vocals while Steven Wilson is supplying most of the instrumentation and arrangements. Who actually writes the songs isn’t revealed, but rumours want it that Tim Bowness is to blame for most of “Schoolyard Ghosts”.

Though the album contains performances of about a dozen guest musicians the music itself is very low key, unrushed and almost minimalistic for most of the time. The songs are carried by only one or two instruments in the foreground that are backed up by studio wizardry and various instruments laying layers of sound over the original structures. The arrangements are superb and the flawless production has its share in turning the album into a wonderful listening experience as well. Yet the most obvious thing to state about No-Man’s style is that it’s slow. And melancholic. The album is full of playful details to make it seemingly endlessly listenable, yet the structures themselves are evolving in slow-motion. The opener All Sweet Things might be suitable as the exemplary “Schoolyard Ghosts”-song: centered around piano and acoustic guitar, the song keeps adding layers of sounds, distant noise, orchestration, choirs and slow electronic drums, without ever sounding overburdened. And above all that Tim Browness’ soft voice lingers. Just before all of that fears to eventually lull the listener, a simple tone scale played upwards on a glockenspiel breaks with the structure, without destroying it, turning a beautiful opener into one of the album’s masterpieces.
The album draws its power both from moments like the tone scale in All Sweet Things, as well as slow repetition of patterns and adding of new layers of sounds. And every of the song has its own moments, its own patterns. But the incredible beauty and atmosphere the opener awakes is only matched on the 13-minute epic Truenorth, the album’s cornerstone. Tim Bowness stated in his online diary that “All Sweet Things and Truenorth are perhaps the pinnacle of the band's achievements...” and while I’m new to the band, it isn’t hard to believe. The longest song centered in the middle of the album is like a soft counterpart to Porcupine Tree’s Anesthetize, also divided into three different sections that could exist on their own, but when added together form a coherent unity. Flute and acoustic guitars are woven into an orchestral string arrangement by Dave Stewart, carried out by the London Session Orchestra. And the electronic rhythm the song finally culminates in gives a wonderful contrast to its gentleness.

Quite naturally the rest of the album has its problems next to two masterpieces of that calibre. But like my Tim Bowness citation goes on: “All Sweet Things and Truenorth are perhaps the pinnacle of the band's achievements with most of the other pieces not far behind.” And that’s true as well. Songs like the orchestral ballad Wherever There Is Light, Song of the Surf, the closer Mixtaped and Pigeon Drummer are all addictive and overwhelmingly beautiful. And the two “weaker” songs, the mainly acoustic ballad Beautiful Songs You Should Know and the electronic Streaming, are still very enjoyable far from mediocre as well.
So “Schoolyard Ghosts” seems like a beautiful atmospheric album without rough edges? Pigeon Drummer proves all that wrong: the most Porcupine Tree-like song on the album is torn apart by two noisy percussive explosions, done by King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto. While the album stays calm for the rest of its running length, the fact that No-Man aren’t afraid to blow up their songs throws a shadow of uneasiness over the rest of “Schoolyard Ghosts”. An uneasiness that finally finds its peak during the closing track: Mixtaped starts of slow, lonely guitar chords awaking memories of Talk Talk. But soon the subtle drum fills intensify and become more chaotic and combined with guitar feedback they create an atmosphere in which the seemingly figurative line of “You’d kill for that feeling again” suddenly seems intensely frightening.

While taking a completely different musical road, thematically “Schoolyard Ghosts” can be seen as a more optimistic counterpart to Porcupine Tree’s “Fear of a Blank Planet”. Both albums are dealing with youth in some way, but while Porcupine Tree draw a pessimistic, cynical picture, No-Man’s approach is more hopeful. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be amazingly melancholic, sad and sometimes almost bleak. Exemplarily for the differences and similarities between Porcupine Tree and No-Man might stand the mentioning of “pills” in All Sweet Things. Prominently featured in the lyrics of “Fear of a Blank Planet”, they served as one of the indications of a degenerated youth, here they seem to be interpreted the other way round, as a threat of losing childhood: “The schoolyard ghosts, the playtime fears / You take your pills, they disappear / The people that you've known”. Lines like that or: “And as she takes the sun away, / She asks how you feel today. / The sky has turned pavement grey, / The remnants of her body spray / Still lingers on your shirt.” from Song of the Surf are more depressing than enlightening, yet they do not have the outright bleakness recent Porcupine Tree lyrics have when dealing with similar themes. And there are more than just sparks of hope to be found: “I want to give you / All the beautiful dreams you can bear, / I want to show you / All the possible ways we could care” Tim Bowness sings on Beautiful Songs You Should Know - a title that simultaneously is the perfect summary of “Schoolyard Ghosts”: You should know those songs indeed.

Quite like Steven Wilson’s most famous band Porcupine Tree have recently gotten the recognition they had deserved for a long time, it is left to hope that projects like No-Man will as well. But sadly it doesn’t seem like that yet. Though that might just be another layer of melancholy that adds up to a wonderful album.



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user ratings (70)
Chart.
3.8
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
Mendigo
September 27th 2008


2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I've been writing on this review for quite a long time now. I hope it hasn't become too long.

PayneTiger777
September 27th 2008


4409 Comments


This sounds really interesting and I think I would want to check it out. Any band that is being compared to Porcupine Tree always gets my attention. Nice review.

Doppelganger
September 27th 2008


3124 Comments


I listened to No-Man a long time ago when I was in my SW fanboyish craze and wasn't too impressed, but this interests me greatly.

Mendigo
September 27th 2008


2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

well, this is actually quite different from Porcupine Tree, though it's still recognisably Steven Wilson.

Mikesn
Emeritus
September 27th 2008


3709 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Ok album, but kind of boring at times.

Nice review, but divide up the paragraphs please.

Doppelganger
September 27th 2008


3124 Comments


nah I wasn't necessarily obsessed with PT as much as anything associated with Wilson

Mendigo
September 27th 2008


2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I was more like refering to paynetiger's post, that someone who likes Porcupine Tree doesn't have to automatically like this one. should have mentioned in the review that it's one of those albums that's gonna be called boring by many ;)
and the paragraphs were divided like I wanted them to be (background - music - lyrics), but now I've added two extra interspaces for aesthetic reasons.

Doppelganger
September 27th 2008


3124 Comments


aight. From descriptions of this it almost sounds like Blackfield.

Mendigo
September 27th 2008


2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

sadly I haven't listened to Blackfield yet

Hewitt
September 27th 2008


371 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

I've tried to get into No-Man before being a fan of Porcupine Tree and SW's other side projects, but I haven't been able to. I really do not like the vocals on the two No-Man cd's I've heard.

IsItLuck?
Emeritus
October 17th 2008


4927 Comments


you should write reviews more often

204409
Emeritus
October 17th 2008


3996 Comments


seconded.

Bleak123
October 17th 2008


1902 Comments


very good review indeed. pos.

Mendigo
November 21st 2008


2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

been a while, but by now I have listened to Blackfield's debut, and actually it doesn't really sound a lot like this one. Both have that certain Steven Wilson-style to them, but they're nevertheless completely different, this is much slower and more based on slow post rock stuff. it also has some beautiful pop-melodies, but it's not even half as catchy than Blackfield (in a good way).

Mendigo
November 21st 2008


2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

you could say this has about as much in common with Blackfield as with Porcupine Tree which is about as much as Blackfield has to do with Porcupine Tree and this one and Porcupine Tree has to do with Blackfield and No-Man and probably Steven Wilson's first solo album which will hopefully come out next year. Capishe?

BallsToTheWall
January 5th 2009


44805 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I don't listen to too much Steven Wilson but this album is incredible.

OmairSh
October 3rd 2012


11924 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Great review. This album really is a step up from the last one. Steven can do no wrong, and his partnership with Tim bears some delicious fruit.

AStableReference
October 3rd 2012


2071 Comments


No-Man are often overlooked, sadly. I guess that's because it's more of an outlet for less progressive influences.

OmairSh
October 3rd 2012


11924 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Yeah that's true, No-Man require a little more patience than PT, but I'm glad each of Steven Wilsons projects is different, it keeps it interesting. And its great that many instruments are used, it really adds to the freshness of the album.

OmairSh
November 15th 2012


11924 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Summary



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