Review Summary: Caught between Porcupine Tree's psychadelic roots and their song-oriented future, Signify is a testament to Porcupine Tree's power as a dark, brooding album with excellent production and a thoroughly progressive heart.
Signify fits into a nice niche within Porcupine Tree’s extensive discography, while it is also suspended in a strange limbo within the same context. It marks the end an era, while simultaneously ushering in the dawn of a new age. It’s an album that screams, “I put my heart into this; this is what I’ve worked towards my entire life, and here it is,” but it’s also an album that whispers in our ear, telling us there’s much more to come, so much more; a foreshadowing of another decade of greatness and the coming-of-age of a band that would (arguably) almost single-handedly propel progressive rock into the 21st century.
It’s the album that culminates Porcupine Tree’s sound up until this point, and hints at what it would become in the future. While we see much more pop sensibility in this record (as opposed to the Sky Moves Sideways’ 20-minute compositions or Up the Downstair’s detached space rock), we still have those long, ambient, winding instrumental sections that lead us deep into our dreams and back again; from the somehow creepy introduction to the final, epic guitar solo, this album stands as the cornerstone of Porcupine Tree’s discography, and as an accomplishment in the world of rock.
The cover art is where the first step begins. It almost speaks for itself; this album is as enigmatic as it is ambitious and as artistic as it is rockin’. Don’t get the wrong impression, however, and think that when you pop this into your CD player, you’ll be nothing but a puppet, held at the strings by Steven Wilson’s dexterous guitar work and calculated atmospheres. Signify invites you in, lets you “kick your shoes off, and put your feet up and lean back and just relax.” But before the title track even comes to end, you’ll want
to submit yourself and give over control. Whether you agree with its anti-religious tendencies or not, the lyrical content is nothing less than brilliant and the structure of the album is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Aside from all that, though, this is just great progressive rock, through and through.
The quote above is taken from the opening introduction track; it’s the crackling voice of an old-fashioned radio announcer, inviting us to take part in the album, an ironically genial supplication, given the overwhelming context of negativity and dark imagery prevalent on the album. Like I said before, several songs are extremely anti-organized religion, even bitterly so. But that brings me to another point: some of the highlights of this album for me are the samples Wilson uses. Whether it’s the voice of a radio announcer, an over-zealous preacher or the maniacal laughing of a madman, it’s used effectively to heighten the atmosphere and make the album more encompassing of its themes Another great thing about this album is that it’s conceptual in the way that it has certain ideas and motifs running through; it’s got several nods towards Wilson’s earlier works, but it’s also very independent of them. It seems to be album that’s just about life. From the chant of “Born. Live. Die. Signify” to the sprawling soundscapes of Waiting Phase II, the varying instrumentation and creativity spreads throughout so many different layers, just as life itself does. It’s about the absurdity of life, it’s about the beauty of it, it’s about the decay of it. It’s about hypocrisy, truth, hallucination. We see traces of existentialism in Wilson’s words as well as his music; Solos whose melodic phrasings are concurrently calculated, yet perfectly spontaneous owe a lot to his predecessors, yet speak volumes about Wilson’s approach to songwriting as an almost out-of-body ritual.
I tend to focus my writing around Wilson, given that he is the main songwriter for the band, but the rest of the members are just as important in their contributions to this album as his songwriting. Who else could bring Wilson’s compositions to life but the jazzy rhythm section of Colin Edwin and Christ Maitland, as well as Richard Barbieri, the analog keyboardist whose ear for texture and dynamics elevates Porcupine Tree’s music into new, unknown heights of experimentation?
begins the album as the first piece of music, starting it off with a jam-based guitar riff that is soon accompanied by creepy, soaring keyboard effect and a very strong bass line. Next comes the album’s first keystone piece, Sleep of No Dreaming
, which builds from a simple, quiet organ to huge dissonance at the climax as Wilson cries out from underneath layers of guitars and ambience. Waiting Phase I
is a song about being burned out on life, be it from drugs or just general ineptitude. The song starts off with ethnic-sounding percussion and sparse guitar riffs; the chorus displays Wilson’s strange vocal harmonies over strummed acoustic guitar and ambient sounds. Phase II of the same name continues the same musical themes as the previous one, but turns them into a much more vague and sprawling instrumental piece that climbs the ladder of eerie effects and some great guitar work. Sever
is a rather dark rocker that switches between tension-building creepiness in the verses with a pedaled piano note to a more soothing, keyboard-driven chorus with some more great vocal harmonies. A strong bass line keeps the rhythm tight and strong as the madman referenced earlier cries out, adding to the sense of unease this song evokes, while Wilson’s vocals brilliantly switch between a desperate cry-out from underneath distorted guitars to a soothing, calm croon in the chorus; one of the best vocal sections on the album comes as Wilson perfectly articulates the foreboding uneasiness, singing, “stage fright, black light, coma divine.”
The album then brilliantly turns the tables, allowing us to rest and be taken away from the nightmare of Sever, into a dream of cloud nine; the floating sound of a flute drives Idiot Prayer
, a soothing, tranquil piece that almost seems as if our mind has been severed from our bodies, allowing us to float into a beautiful sunrise. Before long, however, we are unexpectedly blasted into a groove-beat jam, full of ambient tension and samples of a strange man crying out for help while under life-altering hallucinations. His defeated pleas of “please help” punctuate the soundscape, giving the song a strange sense of lost faith and hopelessness. It’s as if Wilson is jerking us back to earth, harshly informing us that our prayers are useless, and we’ve been deceived; heaven, indeed, does not exist.
All this before our hands even stop shaking from stage fright.
Every Home is Wired
follows, another more straightforward song in the vein of Waiting Phase I. This is one of those songs that showcases Wilson’s vocal harmonies and foreshadows what was to come with Stupid Dream: more pop-sensible, melody-driven tunes.
The best song on the album follows. Intermediate Jesus
is a downright masterpiece, a dark and jazzy instrumental that samples a preacher who tells of the fated Intermediate Jesus. The piano laces itself through the strange, jazzy bass line and jazzy drum beats, while strange and atmospheric guitar noises build and release tension beautifully like a spring. “What are we going to answer these young people today, the young people that are crying out; live fast, look beautiful, die young; tomorrow they drop the bomb,” says the preacher-man, which is followed by a burst of incredible, tension-building guitar noise that signals the climax of the song, fading out as a repetitious piano line creates a hypnotic atmosphere that drains most of our energy, putting us into a state of lethargy. Atmospheric, strange, experimental, beautiful “Intermediate Jesus” almost inescapable hypnosis leads us straight into the minimalist, reverberated sounds of Light Mass Prayers
(interestingly enough, composed by Maitland), a floating slice of atmosphere with distant sound effects and a choir of voices that almost elevates, yet impedes peace and warns of danger.
Ah, and here it is. The fabled ending song, Dark Matter
, definitely a landmark in the Porcupine Tree landscape. The song starts out with another jazz-tined introduction from the rhythm boys, who beautifully lay down the foundation for Richard’s atmospheric sounds, followed shortly by Wilson himself on guitar and vocals. The song stretches on and on, never ending; and let me tell you, we never want it to. It builds and builds, running the range dynamics until Wilson’s final, epic, climactic guitar solo, crying out above the backing instruments. The lyrics paint a beautifully bleak picture, and this song’s atmosphere ends the album perfectly.
And thus we find ourselves back where we started. The journey this album took us on was one of exquisite beauty and enigmatic intrigue. A perfectly produced, dynamic album full of excellent instrumental work, great lyrical imagery and themes, ambience, atmosphere and the range of human emotions. It contains sprawling, vague instrumental tunes as well as more straightforward, cleverly written songs with a clear-cut song structure. A precursor to Stupid Dream and an epilogue to Porcupine Tree’s psychedelic past.