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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 This is the archetypal second-stage PORCUPINE TREE album, the one on which STEVEN WILSON perfected the hybrid space rock/singer-songwriter meld. It is the album I loan to my friends curious about the development of progressive music since the 1970s, and without exception it stuns them with its scope and depth.

Not because PORCUPINE TREE is a direct descendant of bands like GENESIS, YES, VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR and GENTLE GIANT: clearly, it is not. Instead, the band has taken from many sources, progressive rock being one of them, and has put together something different. Something with feeling, with spirit, with superb musicianship, and something substantial enough to return to again and again. I see this album as 'Stupid Dream Mk III', and third time is indeed the charm. The brakes are off, the emotions grind and soar along with the guitars and synths, the messages hammer at us along with the rhythm section, and every interesting choice of arrangement or instrumentation simply serves to delight us even more.

There are no mistakes here. Unlike 'Lightbulb Sun', the progressive moments aren't corralled into the latter part of the album. Unlike 'Stupid Dream', the album isn't pop-heavy. 'In Absentia' combines elements of the British pop legacy (THE BEATLES), the harmonies that infuse American West Coast bands such as THE EAGLES, the psychedelia of the late 1960's and its offshoot, the space rock of the 70s, along with progressive metal tendencies (WILSON's work with OPETH begins to surface in this album). Put plainly, it is a skilful amalgam of beautiful tunes, wonderful vocal work, stellar percussion and bass, with heavy moments and blistering guitar passages, all on a solid compositional base. A recipe for enjoyment.

You get most of it in the first track. After a brief, gentle intro, 'Blackest Eyes' roars into action with a stellar riff, which gives way into a deliciously poppy verse and chorus. Lyrically outstanding, the song sets out the band's stall: look how comfortable they are here. Compositionally they hold the second appearance of the riff until two-thirds through the song, subtle rather than bludgeoning. The track winds up swiftly, a teaser, making way for 'Trains', acclaimed as a simply outstanding example of an acoustic-led song. The lyrics immerse the listener in nostalgia, and is filled with subtle touches - the haunting note at 4:42, for example (not in the demo) matches the mood of the song and evokes the subject. The acoustic and banjo solos are top-drawer: what musician would think of an extended banjo solo, anyway? The first chorus appears after two and a half minutes, probably the fourth or fifth genuine hook in the song. How could you not fall in love with this? WILSON is fairly overflowing with ideas: one can imagine elves with bowls running around catching them as they pour out of him. By the end the song is roaring at you, and you've hardly noticed the build, so engrossing is the music.

I do think there's only one way not to appreciate this album, and that is to review it after one listen. There are too many layers here for a single listen, yet it's immediacy and hooks make it seem as though it can quickly be summed up. Not so. Listen to 'Lips of Ashes', the album's first downtempo number. The band has chosen a delicate arrangement: they could have gone with a simple acoustic guitar, but instead the song is awash with shimmering psychedelic instruments and precise vocals. Easy to dismiss at first listen, this song's subtlety bears repeated listens. 'The Sound of Muzak' is another attempt at the subject canvassed by 'Four Chords that Made a Million', but is much more convincing musically and lyrically. Again a wonderful vocal hook in the chorus draws the listener in, nestled in a complex rhythmical bed. Those who dismiss the song as 'too poppy' - as though being able to draw the listener into a song with a great hook is a crime - have failed to see the deliberate irony of the music and lyrics. And there aren't many pop songs out there with such a shiny guitar solo backed by a shimmering organ.

And oh, joy, WILSON is confident enough now in his own identity to return to his work of the early 1990s for 'Gravity Eyelids', though the subject is definitely earthy rather than out there in the Milky Way somewhere. The earth moves sideways in these lyrics, rather than the sky. Keyboard-led, the song flows along until halfway, when distorted guitar chords raise the emotional tempo, bringing the song to - well, to a climax, from which it falls away gently. I can't see how this would fail to satisfy any fan of progressive music. 'Wedding Nails' is more disposable, a DREAM THEATER-esque track slightly out of context here, but WILSON seems determined to break the album up, and I'm all in favour of that. A sequence of splendid riffs see us through to an over-long finish, allowing the raw energy to dissipate. Deliberate, I'm sure, but it doesn't work for me. 'Prodigal' is a shimmering pop number with another of those trademark vocal chorus hooks: it's a measure of WILSON's compositional confidence that he now uses his voice rather than his guitar to shape his best tunes. Although he still has enough creativity to slip in a great riff! And when I say 'pop number', that's merely to contrast it with the more progressive work: there's no way this is a simple pop tune. Superior arrangement and musicianship builds something far more substantial than that. Listen to the FLOYDian slide guitars backing the song, for example.

After this song the album takes a sombre turn. PORCUPINE TREE mine the depths of the soul in the album's last half hour. This is where time and care taken is rewarded. There's nearly a 70s double album of music here, all densely packaged, and it's common for the listener to run out of energy at this point - which is a pity, as the melancholy, multi-layered, bass-driven '.3' is an essential listen, a soundtrack for the next world war. 'The Creator Has a Mastertape' despairs of ever knowing the reasons why, a searing combination of acerbic lyrics and psychedelic instruments raising the paranoia to heart-attack levels. Speaking of which, 'Heart Attack in a Lay-by' is WILSON's obligatory suicide/death-song: every PT album has one. Excellent as it is, it merely sets the scene for 'Strip the Soul', as bleak a canvas as I've ever heard. Dysfunctional family, rejection, death, murder: 'A fire to feed / A belt to bleed / Strip the soul / Kill them all'. Don't go here unless you're confident of your own emotional state. The music claws at you like talons from the pit seeking to drag you down, darker and more chilling than any ridiculously posturing emo/goth/death metal band. The ponderous chords of the last two minutes bring the song to a chilling end. The album finishes with the cold end of the universe as a metaphor for life. A slow trickle of piano reflects a barely functional psyche, a listener worn out, ground into the dirt by the combination of music and lyrics. 'Collapse the Light Into Earth' must be listened to in the context of the previous thirty minutes. If you don't feel crushed by this music you haven't listened to it properly.

No pop music here. I suspect many of the reviewers who criticise the album for it's accessibility never got this far.

PORCUPINE TREE is undoubtedly the best band you never heard of. And, equally undoubtedly, their music will be appreciated long after most other bands have been forgotten. This album is the one to buy if you want to hear them at their best.

russellk | 5/5 |


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