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Porcupine Tree - In Absentia CD (album) cover


Porcupine Tree


Heavy Prog

4.26 | 2618 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars I've found as I've gotten older as a musician, a composer and a fan of listening to music in general, I've found my tastes in music change. As well as pretty much everyone does at one point in their life or another. Ever so slightly, but they do change. The most notable of mine which takes the form of moving slowly away from the more symphonic prog (Yes, Flower Kings, etc.) and moving more into more digestible, shorter tracks, but still filled with emotion and juicy stuff. I've hoarded onto Haken's entire discography for quite some time, yet haven't truly listened in depth to their stuff until just recently, and am also currently on a Porcupine Tree binge.

I've never been a fan of pop music, yet I'm always a sucker for a catchy lick, a cool lyric, and maybe once in a blue moon, a high pitched falsetto. My sheer addiction to electronic infused indie pop and rock music can attest to that, but PT fills that niche as well, believe it or not. I've had "Trains" on my driving playlist for quite some time, and it's become one of my favorite tracks ever. The beautiful simplicity to it, the complex rhythmic and yet completely accessible structure, and maybe just the overall mature sound of it is just hypnotic. It's the same case I've made for "Piano Lessons". Both are mature examples of a British prog pop sound.... I think. Or I could just be making stuff up, I'm not sure.

After all, the opening sentence of PT's bio on this site sums them up nicely; there is no one word to describe their sound or genre. Maybe it's just the smoothness of which their music is composed and performed. Or maybe it's their British accents. I am, after all, a sucker for British accents. Or maybe that's just to do with my love for famous British automotive television shows (RIP Top Gear).

Either way, Porcupine Tree as a subtle way with inserting catchy and sophisticated songs in between straight up hardballs with a subtle and rhythmic complexity that prog fans adore. Part of it falls to Steven Wilson's masterful composing skills, and part of it lies with the extraordinary drumming of Gavin Harrison. I personally believe as a drummer, Harrison is underrated. Each drummer strives to create their own unique sound: Bernard Pretty Purdie for the "Purdie Shuffle", Mike Portnoy with his chest-crushing bass sounds out of his set, Terry Bozzio with his 5-million tom drum set (or is it 5-million and 1? he might have added a few more, I'm not so sure). Point is, in every facet of life, you have to stand out from the crowd with a distinction completely unique to your self.

Harrison's greatest contribution is his ability to fool you. He doesn't focus on blistering solos around the kit or furious double bass onslaughts. He doesn't try to be clever and throw a 12/25 polyrhythm in 5/8 bar. His style is much simpler than that, yet is still clever. He throws accents on the offbeat, displaces it, relies more on syncopation. He'll play, for example, in 9/8 on a track in 3/4 and fool the listener it's just a standard 3/4 groove. You can never play in time with him because every time a rhythmic cycle turns around, he'll throw the snare on a different beat, add in an extra bass hit, throw in another fill, displace the beat not once, but TWICE in the same measure.

In short, it's genius, but subtle. Very subtle.

I recently bought his books "Rhythmic Illusions" and "Rhythmic Perspectives" for drumset, and it's both a fascinating read, and great to practice. First off, unlike most drumset methods books, he introduces every excercise or set of excercises with explenations on how to perform it and what illusion it emits or what it's supposed to convey. You get a feeling that he actually wrote the book himself, rather than just let the publication company rip off some of his beats from PT tracks and simply stuck his name on it. And that philosophy really echoes in his drumming style. You get a sense that he isn't just "rocking out". He's creating a groove, and then playing with it a bit. An extra snare hit here, a displace bass drum hit there. All resulting in a groove that you can feel and bounce to, but you can't air drum to it, simply because no two grooves are ever the same to him.

This frankly is what upset me with the disbandment of Porcupine Tree. Wilson and Harrison are like Yin and Yang, Lennon and McCartney, Hall And Oates (ok, maybe scratch that one). Point is, both cannot survive without the other, and yes, while I do still like Wilson's solo stuff, the drumming tends to be more static and less interesting sometimes, luckily without detriment to most of his music, but it still isn't the same. Harrison's solo stuff hasn't fared that well, where you stay for the drumming, but ignore everything else.

Maybe this is why I've been listening to more Porcupine Tree. I've had this stuff for so long, yet haven't listened it so much until a few years ago. Maybe it's for nostalgia's sake, I don't know. But In Absentia is one of those rare albums where you can't quantify it into a singular sound or motive, yet it's so distinctive and pronounced, you'd never be able to mistake it for anything else. Yes, it's a bit heavier than their previous work, less psychedelic and less jam band-y, but tighter, more focused, more concise, more mature.

This album really does have everything. From the ballad-like "Trains", to the instrumental "Wedding Nails", from the ethereal "Lips of Ashes" to the grunge-echoing "Strip The Soul". It's album that's a testament to the time of its recording, yet manages to be so much more that it's still a fresh and inviting listen each and every time, even 13 years later, and when you come across music like that, you know you've found a future classic right there.

Faults? The drums do sound a bit tinny at times, and the heaviest sections on the album, such as on "Strip The Soul" and "Wedding Nails" have a bit too much bite, and not enough sound, more of a gut punch than musical phrasing. Apart from that, the composition and songwriting is just mesmerizingly brilliant.

Now, is it for everyone? Admittedly, no. No prog album can be recommended to every prog fan. Even fans of progressive rock are divided in styles. Most fans of traditional symphonic prog will probably find it too depressing for their tastes. Some people I know actually loathed Porcupine Tree for phasing out of the psychedelic phase, to which I responded "Well, that's what happens when you mature; your tastes evolve". And frankly, I don't think there's any better evidence of maturity than In Absentia. It finally caps a superb trio of albums with Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. Sure, In Absentia isn't the most accessible album. In fact, Stupid Dream has the most pop-like songs that PT has recorded. Yet, it's still a complete piece of music that just can't be ignored by any fan of music in general. It's unique, it's catchy, it rocks hard, and delivers a unique listening experience every time.

I may regret comparing Wilson and Harrison to Hall and Oates... or Lennon and McCartney.

At least I didn't compare them to Pinky and the Brain.

Wicket | 5/5 |


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