Signify is an important album in the long and varied history of Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree. The first PT album, On the Sunday of Life (1991), is a tongue-in-cheek solo Wilson tribute to British psychedelic rock in the vein of XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear. Up the Downstair (1993) and Voyage 34 (1993) were also done primarily by Wilson alone, and are literal acid-rock albums.
The Sky Moves Sideways (1994) introduces the first real band that operated under the moniker of Porcupine Tree: Wilson on guitars and keyboards, Richard Barbieri on synthesizers, Colin Edwin on bass, and Chris Maitland on percussion. Stylistically, the album is heavily indebted to classic Pink Floyd. While an enjoyable listen, it doesn’t break any new ground. It’s also easy to forget that the group Wilson had formed with Tim Bowness, No-Man, was actually more popular than PT during this period.
Which brings us to 1996, and Signify. Musically, it is a giant leap. Wilson, Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland are working together as a seamless unit. There are lots of instrumental passages, and Barbieri’s electronic atmospheres are integral to the overall feel of the music. Beginning with the first track “Bornlivedie” and continuing throughout the album, Wilson juxtaposes samples of happy-sounding radio announcers, televangelists, and other snippets of spoken word with beautiful yet foreboding music.
It’s a device Wilson has become the master of: seduce the listener with gorgeous melodies, and insert dark lyrics. Personally, I think Steven Wilson is indulging a sly sense of humor. Take these over-the-top teen-angst lyrics from “Sleep of No Dreaming”;
At the age of sixteen
I grew out of hope
I regarded the cosmos
Through a circle of rope
Not to worry, though, because there are lots of terrific instrumentals like “Waiting phase two”, where Edwin and Maitland lock into an irresistible groove, while Wilson lays out some Frippertronics – like guitar solos that are outstanding. “Idiot Prayer” is another winner, despite featuring a sample of what sounds like a sports announcer describing a very bad acid trip! It begins with pleasant flute and keyboards, when suddenly Edwin begins pumping out a killer bass riff that is impossible to sit still to. After a brief interlude of Wilson gently soloing on guitar, we’re off again, bopping to the beat while our narrator repeatedly asks, “Please help me.”
There are two more excellent tracks on Signify, and they are two of the finest songs Wilson has ever written. “Every Home Is Wired” is surprisingly prescient, considering it was done in 1995-96, the time when the internet first went mainstream, but wasn’t the ubiquitous presence it is today:
Modem load and failsafe
Electric teenage dust
Hit the solvent keypad
Start the neural rust
Power on the highway
Data in my head
Surfing on the network
Part of me is dead
The other standout song is “Dark Matter”, which explores the dark side of fame and the failure of artists to truly connect with their audience:
Dark matter flowing out on to a tape
Is only as loud as the silence it breaks
Most things decay in a matter of days
The product is sold, the memory fades
Crushed like a rose
In the river flow
I am, I know
I am, I know
Set to one of the most captivating melodies Wilson has ever composed, it is a stunner of a song and a brilliant way to bring the album to a close.
Except it’s not quite over, as that perverse Wilsonian humor pops up one last time, and a cheery announcer informs the listener, “You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy, and you’re more relaxed than you’ve been in weeks. All those childhood traumas – magically wiped away, along with most of your personality!”
Signify is the first Porcupine Tree album where they sound like a group, and not a Wilson vanity project. It is a work where they forge their own unique sound, and it is the foundation on which triumphs like Stupid Dream and In Absentia are based.
Have a listen to “Dark Matter”: