England - Full Moon 246 - 09/16/16
From head to heart
Porcupine Tree's Signify
Following our retroscope series going on for several years, here we go again. Yes, for one more year! Here's
Speakers' corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's
focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching
our chest and shaking our heart, or simply tapping our shoulder. Making us go sentimental, but not slaphappy. This moonth we rewind only 20 years back in time. Enter September, 1996, to one
of the key acts of new progressive, psychedelic space rock. Proghead Wilson was born in 1967, at the time when the prog genre emerged. Baby (and young) Wilson's lullabys and nursery rhymes
were probably all of the prog kind, but besides King Crimson and Pink Floyd, Wilson has been listening to 'everything' from The Carpenters, ABBA and E.L.O., to Slayer, Prince and M.I.A.
However, the hippie mind kept on playing barefooted ever since he was a kid.
During Easter 1996, shortly before our Kafé started up, the Chef of the Kafé-to-be and I went on a pilgrimage, sort of, to Bath, England to visit a one day festival at Bath Pavilion headlined by the resurrected Gong, almost with an original line-up from their 1970s heydays. Their current tour had as always started to celebrate the full moon. Other headliners included Here And Now, Ozric Tentacles and Porcupine Tree. And there were more. Apart from Gong, Porcupine Tree was my main reason to cross the North Sea on this occasion. Well the Ozrics, too, to some extent. I think it was about the same with the Chef. I had been a PT fan since the Tree's second "proper" album Up The Downstair was released in 1993. (Not counting two very limited cassette releases in the late 1980s prior to the first double LP/single CD with highlights from them). In the meantime, we'd been blessed with The Sky Moves Sideways, an even grander and mellower album, perfect for those who missed the grand symphonic moments of vintage Pink Floyd coupled with more modern trance elements. The latter was the first album where the entire quartet, the touring band, was involved in the recordings. Earlier, Porcupine Tree recordings had been a studio vehicle for Steven Wilson solo. I remember before PT entered the stage that evening, a tall guy, probably Richard Allen from Delerium Records and the band's manager at the time, walking around the hall handing out cards to inform us that a new single, "Waiting", from the forthcoming as yet unnamed album was going to be released within a few weeks. Porcupine Tree lived up to our highest expectations that evening. Even the light show was exceptional, at least it was a novelty to me at the time. Their performance stands as one of my top 20 live highlights of all times.
Back home I was quick to buy the new single in different formats when it arrived towards the end of April. "Waiting Phase One" is not the most exciting offering from Signify, a pretty pop ballad, with two great guitar solos from Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson, first a dreamy Gilmour-alike gliding one. The second is a little more aggressive. Fair enough. The second phase is more exiting. An instrumental extension of "Phase One", sort of, more blurred, with tablas-alike hypnotic percussion. Trance-active, all right! And I was still eagerly awaiting the coming of Signify, released in September 20 years ago. The album included both phases of "Waiting" and ten more tracks. After listening quite intensively to the album lately for the first time in several years, before writing this, one night I had a dream with one of the tracks from Signify as the soundtrack. I can't remember which and I can't remember last time I had a dream that included a soundtrack, usually it's silent movies, or once in a while some spoken words or shouts. So Signify must've made quite an impression on my sub-consciousness. Anyhow, it was a pleasant dream that fit nicely with the dreamy atmosphere with most of the tracks. The music of the album as a whole is quite floating, not least due to the synthesizers of Richard Barbieri (ex-Japan) and those gliding guitar-licks. Only the title track, the second half of "Idiot Prayer" and most of "Intermediate Jesus" with a long instrumental jam middle part with reverbed guitar and fretless(?) bass at the fore demonstrate Porcupine Tree as a tight little rock'n'roll band.
Apart from that and voices from the radio that pops up now and again, the mellower sides of Porcupine Tree dominate. Most of the radio voices stems from American preachers, I guess. Here's one example: 'Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah! The only way to come by is on your knees, ha-ha-ha-ha!' But first and foremost here are carpets of keyboards, longing vocals and soaring guitars. "Every Home Is Wired" is one over the favourites of this category, maybe the most accessible of the entire album, a nice and calm ballad with acoustic guitar, floating keyboards, soft Gilmour-alike electric guitar again and great harmony vocals. But with that special Porcupine Tree effect on both vocals and the acoustic guitar. By this stage, Steven Wilson already knew how to produce an excellent album, though his exquisite surround mixes didn't see the light of day for some years yet. "Dark Matter" is another excellent example. It tastes very much like kraut in the instrumental beginning; not unlike vintage Tangerine Dream, very moody and beautiful, reaching for outer space; then rhythmic bass, courtesy Colin Edwin, and a little bit drums, by Chris Maitland, enter and transform the track into a moody (still!), melancholic ballad, relaxed vocals, partly with that effect again and a nice acoustic guitar solo.
The lyrics are a lot harsher than the music indicates. Very gloomy, hardly without any hope, it seems, from "Sleep Of No Dreaming":
'At the age of sixteen
I grew out of hope
I regarded the cosmos
Through a circle of rope'
It doesn't seem to be any better five years later, either, from "Dark Matter":
'This has become a full time career
To die young would take only 21 years
Gun down a school or blow up a car
The media circus will make you a star'
So drugs might be a solution, maybe the reason why the music sounds so soft, mellow, dreamy, or sedated, from "Waiting Phase One":
'Nothing is what I feel
Waiting... for the drugs to make it real'
Well, at least there are some glimpses of black humour in between, back to "Sleep Of No Dreaming":
'I married the first girl
Who wasn't a man'
Despite these gloomy aspects, Signify along with The Sky Moves Sideways stand as the creative peaks of Porcupine Tree's studio albums for me. Not only because of the music and arrangements, but also the characteristic Steven Wilson production. The cover art is also worth mentioning. The booklet of the original CD is similar to the 4AD aesthetics, with old photos of architecture, females clad in garments from a distant time and a doll. It turned out to be the last studio album by the band on the small Delerium label. After the live album Coma Divine the following year, the band went to seek more fame and fortune on bigger labels. The following albums either have too soft edges, tending towards indifference in between in my opinion, or too hard edges when the band later on went in direction of progressive metal of a kind that doesn't appeal to me. I prefer Steven's solo albums of recent years and it seems he does so himself, too. After touring in 2009 and 2010 to promote the tenth Porcupine Tree studio album The Incident, there have been no more activities by the band, only rumours of a come-back that at the moment seems unlikely to happen. Instead Steven Wilson has been occupied with solo albums, other band projects like Blackfield and Storm Corrosion and remixing old classic progressive and pop albums including most of the King Crimson catalogue, along with the best albums by Jethro Tull, Yes, Caravan, Hawkwind, Gentle Giant, XTC and Tears For Fears.
Copyright © 2016 JP