Oh yes, that reference to the parent album is quite oblique, isn’t it? Ehhhh?
Before we begin, a summary of what I had to skip over.
First: Mike Heron’s Where the Mystics Swim. Mister Heron is most well-known as a member of the Incredible String Band, a pioneering psychedelic folk group active in the 60s and 70s. I’d have used this post as an excuse to document the history of his most well-known musical project, with, naturally, a particular focus on how they plunged headfirst into Scientology right as the high and beautiful wave broke and the attendant effects it had on their music. Problem is, I have no idea if the Steven Wilson who engineered this album is our Steven Wilson. I can totally see our Wilson taking on a project like this with the hero of another musical story, but the only source I could find was Discogs, which can be, er, unreliable with the attribution sometimes.
Second: Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri’s Lumen, a live album recorded in November 1996 but not released until 2015. Wilson’s a guest performer. I’d have taken the opportunity to revisit the songs on this album and see if I could still stand by my initial opinion of them, but I can’t seem to find the damn thing.
Thus, to Insignificance, our happy little collection of demos and b-sides from the Signify sessions and Part Two of our attempt to usher in the Alternative Era. This boy comes in two versions. The first is the cassette released in 1997, and the second was the version released as the second disc of Signify for its 2-CD remaster in 2003. The 2003 version kicked out two tracks included in Metanoia, split another, and added a second. The changes are relatively minor and don’t seriously affect the listening experience until the very end.
Our best move here is probably separating all the tracks on this album into two parts—the originals unique to this album and the demos—and take them one at a time.
Hallogallo/Signify: These two were split up in the 2003 rerelease, but really, if you’re gonna smoosh ‘em together like this, you treat ‘em as one thing. Which they are. Because playing them back to back like this only reinforces that one grew out of the other.
Waiting: This is a seven-minute version of the finished album’s two-part not-quite-centerpiece. Phase One is not Signify’s best song, but it was the only song on the album that could be said to chart a path forward for the band, as pretty much everything else represents either their current sound’s death rattle or a flailing attempt to try something different. The Insignificance demo is pretty close to what we eventually got with Phase One. (Well, okay, the guitar solo is a bit less elaborate.) The expansion of Phase Two into its own thing on the full album, however, was unquestionably the right choice.
Sever Tomorrow: Definitely prefer the album version. The lyrics flow a little better there, especially the “America calls” line. Also, the demo has those pitched-up, distorted voices from more whimsical days, and they risk defusing what is otherwise a very tense atmosphere.
Dark Origins: WHEE MORE FUN WITH TITLES AMIRITE? This is clearly an early version of Dark Matter. It’s just as polished as the album version, but only the rhythm section is complete, so it sounds the way a house looks when the left side is fully built and furnished and hooked up to the relevant utilities and ready to move in, but the right side is still a hole in the ground. Those vocalizations in particular just scream “I have no idea what we’re doing here but let’s throw this in to fill space.” We need that ethereal acoustic guitar and Wilson singing about how bored he is on the tour van. We need that snazzy instrumental section filling up the song’s back half. It’s disquietingly incomplete otherwise.
Wake As Gun I & II: Technically two songs, the first opens the album, the second is plopped in the middle as a reprise, and I honestly don’t think it was impactful enough the first time to really demand one. (Contrast Breathe from everyone’s favorite Pink Floyd album. Although I’m not really sure what I’d do with the freakout at the end of II…) First one’s nice enough on its own, though. And, yes, my ears did prick up upon hearing the “bloodless and inspired” line.
Smiling Not Smiling: It’s considerably more lo-fi and unpolished than everything else on the album, and I don’t know if it’s supposed to be like that or if the band soured on the song really early in the recording process. Despite the sweet slide guitar, this is probably my least favorite song on the album, and I don’t know if its clearly work-in-progress nature has anything to do with it.
Neural Rust: This sounds, in parts, vaguely similar to The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase Two). Oh dear.
Door to the River: Definitely fits better in Metanoia than it ever possibly could on Signify.
Insignificance: Another instrumental that’s a bit too spacey for this album, but that bass. Oh man, that bass. It’s Karn tier. I love it. Four for you, Colin.
Cryogenics: Unreleased and sporadically performed in 1995 and 1997. Grew out of what would eventually appear on Metanoia, but covering it in the Metanoia entry, with how I plan to write about it, just seems like an intrusion. So it’s here instead. I do not like it. I think it sounds cacophonic and self-indulgent. I totally understand why it was left off the live album it was intended for. I also understand why it was stripped for spare parts when writing The Creator Has A Mastertape.
Nine Cats: Well now. Welcome back. I was having lunch while listening to this album for the first time, and when the vocals kicked in I distinctly remember dropping my fork in shock upon discovering precisely what I was hearing.
This is a fully acoustic solo arrangement of Nine Cats, recorded at Chez Mama and Papa Wilson in 1995. Since this is the third version of this song we’ve encountered thus far, Nine Cats now feels like something with a fully developed arc, slowly moving from the psychedelic version we first experienced with Karma in 1983, to the stripped-back but still electric version we heard in 1991, finally culminating with the fully unplugged version we have today in 1997.
There’s a music video that plays in my head when I hear this version. I imagine Wilson in 1997, alone on an anonymous bare stage, sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar. No audience. He starts playing the song. While he’s singing the second verse, Wilson from 1991 walks on with an acoustic guitar and a stool of his own, and sets up to his right. When the third verse begins, 1991!SW joins in, and Wilson from 1983 walks on with his own guitar and stool, and sets up to 1997!Wilson’s left. Starting with the instrumental section following the third verse, they all play together.
Once the fourth verse ends, 1991!Wilson gets off his stool and leaves. 1983!Wilson follows after the fifth verse. Ultimately, the Wilson of 1997 is left alone again onstage to finish the song. Once he’s done, he too gets up and leaves, leaving three empty stools on which the camera lingers for a few seconds before fading out.
Cheesy? Probably. But I think it illustrates the song’s significance as a musical thread pulling together these three different periods in Wilson’s musical evolution. And, naturally, its inclusion in Insignificance is a big part of why everything Porcupine Tree released between Signify and Stupid Dream could be described as a magical ritual to kickstart the Alternative Era. Signify vaguely suggested a way forward, but to fully develop the new sound we have to do something about the old sound. And to do that, we have to nail down precisely what it is we’re destroying. We gotta sketch out the territory.