Review Summary: A masterpiece in modern psychedelia.
Firstly, the fact that this has a 3.8 average is a travesty.
That being said, Porcupine Tree's fourth album Signify is a modern masterpiece in psychedelia. Everything about it just exudes a raw feeling of musical passion and pure trippy atmosphere: the soaring, expertly written vocal harmonies, engulfing instrumental pieces, unsettling samples, and puzzling abstract lyrics all combine to create an unstable yet mesmerizing 62 minutes of "romantic and relaxed music" that you'll definitely be able to enjoy for more than "a couple of hours".
Those quotes, from musique concréte opening piece "Bornlivedie" can easily define the album with just a few sentences. The opening sample speaks the truth about this album: it relaxes you, lets you retreat into the inner recesses of your mind, and just let it all go for an hour of your time. The way this album takes a hold of you almost seems unreal. Nothing else will matter while listening to Signify. In fact, you might become completely dead to the world around you, because the album has forcefully yanked you into another world all its own: a vivid, beautifully twisted landscape complete with the swirling melodies and tortured voices wrapped within the record.
From the moment the opening ambient scope transitions into the jarring, heavy-hitting riff of the instrumental title track, you'll know this is not your average progressive record. The title track, a quasi-cover of Neu!'s "Hallogallo", reveals the magic gift of musicianship that each band member possesses. Wilson's heavy fingerpicked riff perfectly coincides with the tight bass line and drummer Chris Maitland's mind-blowing double-bass blasts in 9/8 meter. Not to mention the atmospheric keyboard work being done in the background by the always reliable Richard Barbieri, whose bone-chilling leads and soundscapes glue together the dreamy instrumentals on tracks like "Every Home Is Wired" and "The Sleep Of No Dreaming".
A common criticism of Porcupine Tree is Wilson's lyrics. If you are such a detractor of the band, then you're in luck: this album is more than half instrumental. However, when Wilson's vocals do show up, they arrive with their signature trademarks: soaring melodies, wall-of-sound multi-tracking, and a rather impressive vocal range. The best example of this is album standout "Sever", a psych-pop masterpiece complete with an unsettling bass & keyboard intertwining during a verse complete with rather creepy lyrics. However, all this darker atmosphere is washed away by the wave of the heavenly chorus, containing a wonderful guitar hook and some of the best multi-tracked harmonies Wilson has recorded to date.
The rhythm section makes this record. I've already talked about Barbieri, but I don't think bassist Colin Edwin is more impressive anywhere else in PT's discography than he is on Signify. Each song is based on some sort of solid foundation laid down by Edwin's bass, which sometimes even takes the forefront. His bass line on "Intermediate Jesus" links in great with the demented acoustic and jazzy drum work by Maitland, but I can't really talk about the bass on this record without mentioning "Idiot Prayer". A 7-minute instrumental piece, mostly led by laid-back keyboards and some soothing wind instruments, the song crescendoes twice during its duration to an almost dance-esque beat which contains Edwin's best bass line on the record, maybe of his career. The effects he implements are magnificent and lock in perfectly with the reverbed and layered drum beat. Chris Maitland explores his jazz influences on the record, as evidenced by his swung beat on "The Sleep Of No Dreaming" or the nightmarish jazz spiral of "Intermediate Jesus". His drumming spans all different types of genres, such as metal ("Signify") dance ("Idiot Prayer") and even containing some tribal elements ("Waiting Phase One"). Waiting is the album's centerpiece, with the first phase being a dark space-pop song which was the band's first attempt at a single (I believe it sold moderately well) while the second is a spiraling soundscape exercising Barbieri's influence on the record's sound. All in all, it's 10 and a half minutes well spent on the journey of Signify.
Many people often cite "Sever" and "Waiting Phase One" as the two most worthwhile cuts off the album, however in my opinion this is only where the brilliance begins to shine through. In my opinion, nowhere are this album's majestic qualities more visible than on the last three tracks. "Intermediate Jesus" is by far the best instrumental on the album, and since the album is more than half instrumental, it's a contender for the best song in general. The chilling vocal samples of a maniacal preacher (seems to be a theme for creepy songs nowadays) only add to the slow-building, claustrophobic atmosphere of this masterwork. Maitland's drum work is top-notch, and the slow fingerpicked line that occasionally shows up in the background (go to 0:18 in the song to see what I'm talking about) is pure bliss. Barbieri is on point as well, gathering some rather unsettling samples and adding a solid backbone to the jam session. The following track, "Light Mass Prayers" (contributed by Maitland) is a moody, ambient piece that bridges the gap from the midsection of the album to its stunning conclusion. The track gives me the feeling of walking through the halls of an old, dilapidated castle, never knowing what's around the next corner. The choir was also a masterful addition: there are occasions where I've thought of this song as beautiful, terrifying, or just plain great. So many conflicting emotions surrounding such a simplistic tune.
The final song, "Dark Matter" is a progressive monolith, standing as the longest song at 9 minutes. Revolving around trippy keyboard work and interlocking bass & guitar, this song will tap into parts of your brain you didn't even know were still there, and awaken them for one of the most amazing listening experiences you'll ever have. This song is amazing, complete with my favorite line Wilson ever wrote ("Dark matter flowing out onto a tape/Is only as loud as the silence it breaks".) The solo towards the end of the song is technically impressive as well as beautiful and deeply emotional. The song ends with a slow fingerpicked electric hook accompanied by the same chilling bass work. After 30 seconds of silence, Signify ends with an inscrutable voice sample about electroshock therapy, mainly to pack that final punch and prove that yes, even after a few seconds to gather yourself, it's extremely difficult to pry yourself from Signify's infernal grasp.
Never before have I heard a record so gripping and so intelligent. This is why Signify stands as one of my favorite albums ever, and why PT's metal phase is such a damn disappointment to me. Lightbulb Sun still stands as my favorite due to the maturation of Wilson's writing, but never will they write a more effective record than Signify.
Recommended tracks (asterisk signifies best song):
The Sleep Of No Dreaming
Waiting Phase One
Light Mass Prayers