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Porcupine Tree - In Absentia CD (album) cover

IN ABSENTIA

Porcupine Tree

 

Heavy Prog

4.23 | 1855 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

ergaster
3 stars 3.5/5

There are two main problems with discovering Porcupine Tree as recently as I did (early 2010). These are: the huge back catalogue (made worse when one includes all the special releases, different editions, and rereleases); and the tendency of the band to shift styles. Internet research led to the realization that there was absolutely no consensus about which album to start with. Should I get Deadwing? In Absentia? The Sky Moves Sideways? Hyperbolic accolades surround almost every album.

The fact that the handful of songs that had caught my attention were from all over their history did not help. However, I liked "The Sound of Muzak" (as long as I ignored the lyrics), and I liked "Blackest Eyes", so In Absentia was looking like a safe bet. Then I put on a pair of headphones one night, fired up Youtube, and tried a studio version of "Trains".

I cried: out of sheer astonishment, I guess. I was thunderstruck--whoever this Wilson guy was, he had done the impossible: he had identified and nailed everything I loved about music, and did it all in six minutes. I went and bought In Absentia.

So imagine my surprise when I got the CD home, shoved it into my player, and...was disappointed. Subsequent listens have not dispelled this sense of anticlimax. I prefer to assume there is a good reason why In Absentia is so well-loved, but whatever that reason is, I can't find it.

And I wanted to love it, I wanted to very much. It starts out with such enormous promise: "Blackest Eyes" followed by "Trains" is as mighty an opening pair of songs that Wilson has ever put together. But once past those first transcendent moments, the album sags and never fully recovers.

So what happened? The best I can come up with is that In Absentia is an album by a band in transition. Wilson had just produced Blackwater Park by Opeth, immersing himself in the metal vibe, and In Absentia is the album on which Porcupine Tree turns the corner from the melodic-short-song phase into a harder-edged style. It is also the first album on which their new drummer, Gavin Harrison, appears.

Perhaps the band was not yet comfortably in one camp or the other, but whatever the case, the mix of styles either as a collection of tracks or within each track individually doesn't quite come off. After the first two songs, the material never manages to rise above "decent", and in some cases is simply banal. Wilson writes so much material that there generally is more available for any given release than can be accommodated, and songs have to be culled. The drawback of making the rejected songs available on EPs or elsewhere is that mistakes in track choice become obvious. For example, "Drown with Me" could easily have replaced "The Creator Has a Mastertape", and made for a better album.

At any rate, In Absentia gets 3 out of 5 stars because it is so uneven, but I have bumped it half a rating just because it is such a fan favourite, and, well, "Trains" is on it... But far from wanting to hear the album repeatedly, I had to browbeat myself into playing the whole thing through more than twice. Some people would claim: "You have to give it a chance". All I can say is that I have been in this music-listening biz for many years, and my collection is full of albums that took a while to love. I recognize those particular signs, the album that doesn't grab you right away, but something about it draws your attention, makes you revisit it. In Absentia doesn't have that quality--it is, alas, just uninteresting.

ergaster | 3/5 |

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