Review Summary: After a terrible debut, Porcupine Tree redeem themselves with an extremely trippy psychedelic album filled with a memorable atmosphere and superb instrumental tracks.
At this point in the band's career, Porcupine Tree was still a one man band with the occasional help from other musicians. The problem with being a one man band is that it could easily show on albums like "On the Sunday of Life" because of its poor production and overall lack of a cohesive feel. However, on "Up the Downstair" no one would ever realize that it was mostly Steve Wilson performing the music. The album as a whole possesses an incredibly epic nature due to it's fully realized production and perfect blending of progressive, psychedelic, and space rock music. It's a unique record and another fantastic entry into Porcupine Tree's impressive discography.
The record starts out pretty humorously with a voice basically informing us that we are about to listen to a psychedelic rock album. It then transitions into "Synethesia" which is the first actual track on Up the Downstair and a damn good one at that. It starts the record off on an musically cheery note with a rapid fire piano melody and an upbeat rhythm that is infectiously catchy. In contrast to the upbeat music, the lyrics are actually quite sad dealing with how a mortally wounded soldier is sending a letter back home. The musical brilliance continues into "Always Never" and the song showcases some truly excellent guitar. It's unfortunate that the same cannot be said about the lyrics because that are quite cringe worthy. In the chorus Wilson exclaims "I love you sometimes/always never" and lyrically the song tries to be deep and complex, but it only comes across as nonsense. Thankfully the music saves the song from being a total disaster and once we get into the latter half on the album it rarely falters. With the exception of another unnecessary interlude in the middle section, it's nothing but smooth sailing after "Always Never."
Much like one of its latter successors, Signify, Up the Downstair places an emphasis on atmosphere and these brilliant atmospheric sections are best showcased in the record's two epic gems, the title track and "Burning Sky." Instead of utilizing the beautifully ominous atmosphere of Signify, the title track has a vibe that is brooding and epic. It combines elements of space rock, electronica and progressive rock music gracefully. Wilson's voice is not necessarily bad, but his voice occasionally does not have the ability to carry the weight of the song and in this instance it certainly helps that the title track is entirely instrumental. "Burning Sky" also contains the same elements, but it is only made better by some of Wilson's best guitar work to date. Some of his riffs are extremely complex like at about the one minute mark, but then some of them are simple yet overwhelmingly effective like at the 3:43 mark. Trust me, your head will be bobbing up and down. And the breathing into the microphone during the song's trippy atmospheric break" Nice touch Wilson.
The album also has it's beautiful moments like "Small Fish" which basically acts as the calm before the storm that is "Burning Sky." However, "Small fish" is nothing compared to the album's very Pink Floyd like closer "Fadeaway." Listen to this psychedelic track and you will in fact fade away with it. The song's scope is so vast and there is no better word to describe it other than soothing. What a way for Wilson to redeem himself after the mess that was his debut album. Unlike On the Sunday of Life, this album has structure, a vision, and most of all, it is a blatant showcase of his staggering musical charisma. It foreshadows how Wilson will be in the music industry for many years to come.