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Porcupine Tree - In Absentia CD (album) cover

IN ABSENTIA

Porcupine Tree

 

Heavy Prog

4.24 | 2389 ratings

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ExittheLemming
Prog Reviewer
5 stars You don't have to cut the tree down to get the prickly fruits

Listening to this album has been for me, something of a revelation. I was beginning to fear that the bright young 'thangs' had nothing with which to stir my imagination as vigorously as those of their predecessors did during the halcyon 70's. With a running time of just over 2 hours (think I've got the Euro version) and without a single 'baby clanger' in evidence, this record constitutes a miraculous achievement. The only other album I had heard previously was the Sky Moves Sideways which although very accomplished, I had consigned to an unsatisfying fusion of psychedelia hued trippy rock with dance elements. It is the quality and economy of the song writing on In Absentia that makes it stand out, and even if someone as superhumanly prolific as Steve Wilson never pens another semi quaver in his life, he will have this enduring document to serve as a magnificent legacy to his abilities.

I do think there is a danger we can overlook the not inconsiderable contributions made by the rest of the band in the creation of these songs and both Harrison and Edwin are very accomplished and sensitive players who hang their egos firmly on the hook before entering the studio. Richard Barbieri displays an uncanny grasp of the techniques of cinematic writing with which to frame Wilson's memorable tunes. Within the 'lip gloss and foundation' domain that his previous employers Japan inhabited, we do get a whiff of his loftier ambitions but it was always relegated to the background as an 'artsy' afterthought. Richard would never pretend to be a 200 bpm soloist, but instead conjures up a bewildering array of arresting textures and atmospheres which enhance the music superbly. Stripped of these luscious backdrops, I cannot help but think the music would be diminished to that of 'just' very well crafted rock songs. (Yeah, as if the latter would not suffice?)

But Porcupine Tree spoil us rotten.

'Blackest Eyes' - A punch right smack on the chin with a Zeppelin uppercut sends us crashing to the canvas seconds after the 'bell' sounds and we can only lie there and watch the little dancing birdies twitter above our heads 'cartoon style' during the subsequent dreamy and luxuriant song section as part of the healing process. There are tinges of XTC in some of Wilson's writing as he displays a firm grasp of memorable pop hook tunesmithery worthy of Messrs Partridge & Co.

'Trains' - Unusual strumming rhythm on the acoustic guitar which carries a trace of 'The Divine Comedy' replete with a thrilling soprano peak on another sublime melody. Wilson ain't no anorak trainspotter though but is certainly cognizant of the sort of plaintive frisson achieved by the likes of 'Coldplay' on this particular song.

(BTW If I mention other bands/artists, it's merely to illustrate reference points that exist in MY head and is in no way intended to imply any derivativeness OK?)

At one point we meet what is tantamount to a C&W banjo lick replete with 'clip clopping' percussion but it sounds fantastically other worldly (Dunno...?)

'Lips of Ashes' - Vaguely reminiscent of Hackett era Genesis with the formers volume swell 'violining' trick employed to thrilling effect. Beautiful harmony vocals are used here and the band sensibly keep the arrangement quite sparse to accommodate some 'head room' for these huge choral swathes of sound. Wilson's guitar is predominantly lyrical in intent on all his solos and comes as a refreshing change from the 'speed typists' who bash out 600 badly chosen words a minute on memos that never reach their destination. He also never seems to repeat the same guitar tone two tracks in a row.

'The Sound of Muzak' - Porcupine Tree say 'take the stairs to avoid the music in the elevator'. One of my pet hates in a lot of modern prog are bands who attempt 'odd' meters by simply adding or subtracting beats to standard rock riffery. If you have a phrase or motif that reaches a natural conclusion after an irregular number of beats FINE, but please don't let me hear the furious planing of square pegs into round holes. (see Rush, Tool and Dream Theater) This by way of contrast, has a very beguiling rhythm in 7 that they manage to make sound effortlessly smooth and uncontrived. Yet another fabulous chorus which lives long in the memory. How do these clever chaps manage it?

'Gravity Eyelids' - This was the first PT song I ever heard and loved it instantly. Nothing has changed in the interim. They manage to run the gamut of pop/rock/metal/trance with consummate ease and this contains a chord progression right up there on a par with the very finest of those created by no less than Syd Barrett himself (No higher praise is possible from me)

'Wedding Nails' - I must admit to being a complete sucker for ANYTHING that has a middle eastern tonality and this instrumental exploits the scale that Ritchie Blackmore christened 'the snake charmer' with wonderful results. Anyone who has heard the debut album by the Shamen (yes really) will recognize this 'opium den in a Tangiers brothel' type of thang y'all.

'Prodigal' - I had this on an MP3 compilation for months but had neglected to record who it was by and judging by the sheer variety of styles available on this record, this must be a common problem for less than diligent i-podders. They just never seem to repeat themselves. Although it has a very palpable Floyd influence I can honestly say that the slavish homage as evidenced by The Sky Moves Sideways is almost completely eradicated here.

'3' - Starts with a brooding and insistent bass line over which Porcupine Tree sprinkle some vaguely Crimsonish Projeckts style atmospheres and reminds me a bit in parts of the Rain Tree Crow album (which of course featured a certain Mr Barbieri) This is possibly more in keeping with the largely abandoned ambient style of earlier work realized solely by Wilson without the band.

'The Creator Has a Mastertape' - Punningly alludes to Pharoah Sanders (much overhyped) the Creator has a Masterplan but there the semblance ends, as we have what approximates NIN sans Trent Reznor but replaced by David Byrne armed with only a faulty megaphone. A much heavier style of song that even assimilates some 'Drum and Bass' grooves as employed by the dance fraternity. If only most modern metal inflected prog were as inventive as this.

'Heartattack in a Layby' - poignant and sincere reverie as that revealed by your Everyman commuter hanging on to the very cusp of life. Again the lyrical approach is that of a vulnerable 1st person narrative as employed by 'the Divine Comedy.' Achingly confrontational in it's scope as a realisation by it's protagonist of what really matters in life when it becomes too late to make any difference.

I guess I should go now, she's waiting to make up, to tell me she's sorry and how much she missed me I guess I'm just burnt out, I really should slow down, I'm perfectly fine but, I just need to lie down

As witheringly cynical as this Lemming normally is, I am genuinely very moved by this song and the vocal mimicry of the ambulance siren by the fading backing vocals at the end is a moment of genius which illustrates the disorientation of our sense perceptions at the moment of death. (In Greek mythology, Sirens were exclusively female spirits who lured unwary sailors to their deaths by seducing them to traverse dangerous stretches of water)

'Strip the Soul' - Similar in scope to the previous 3 with a quiet/loud dynamic redolent of some of the better grunge efforts by the likes of Nirvana. Once more we encounter the 60's from the early 'noughties' perspective of someone like Andy Partridge of XTC. The phrase length exploited here seems to be in an elusive 'six'?

'Collapse the Light into Earth' - Lo-fi technique so beloved of many dance producers is used on the 'bit crushed' front parlour piano sound and the song has a slight hymnal/liturgical feel augmented by some gospel organ from Barbieri. Good use of mood building and gradual layering of the accompaniment including some 'tape strings' and plaintive backing choir.

'Drown With Me' - Rapid 6/8 acoustic strumming abetted by some wobbly Leslie speaker guitar which is joined later by some crunchy rhythm guitar. The developmental section inhabits some Beatles/XTC/Beach Boys vocal territory before reprising the opening driving and insistent chording. Given the incredible quality of the other tracks on offer, this is perhaps the only real 'ordinary' song on the record. (but perhaps an ordinary PT tune is worth a standout in anyone else's locker)

'Chloroform' - Whether intentional or not, the level of this track is suitably 'muffled' and 'suffocated' and I always have to crank up the volume to hear it properly. Perhaps no-one should be allowed to pun this literally?. Another very fine song that is rather undermined by possibly being too long and a little bit too airy and subtle for it's own good.

Were I to ignore the slight shortcomings of the European only release tracks, In Absentia would be a sure-fire 5 star effort. However, I am going to ignore my normally stringent criteria on this occasion as Porcupine Tree have given me fresh hope that progressive music in 2008 is actually in safe hands and I hope we can expect more treasures like this in the many years to come.

ExittheLemming | 5/5 |

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