Review of Porcupine Tree 'In Absentia'
for Ink19 online magazine, September 2002
By Captain Cloud
This is the seventh major release by Porcupine Tree, and their first on a major label. For those unfamiliar with this bizarrely-named group, Porcupine Tree is an English group (as if their name didn’t give that away already!) specializing in melodic guitar- and synth-based songs with strong vocals. Formed by main songwriter and musician Steven Wilson around 1987, Porcupine Tree has achieved greater and wider recognition with each successive album, culminating in their recent signing to US label Lava/Atlantic Records. With ‘In Absentia’, Porcupine Tree are attempting to make fans of middle America with their unique blend of progressive rock and power pop with a major dose of psychedelia.
Porcupine Tree was originally a one-man solo project of Steven Wilson, releasing two cassette-only recordings on the fledgling UK-based label Delerium. Achieving immediate success (as these things are measured at small labels), Delerium released a CD named ‘On the Sunday or Life’, which collected the best tracks from these two tapes. As demand for Porcupine Tree music increased, more CDs, vinyl, singles, and "specialty" releases appeared, and more fans joined the crowd with each new recording. (For example, by 2000 the band had sold over 20,000 copies of ‘Sunday’.)
Early songs were overtly psychedelic. The first "hit" in the UK was a track named "Voyage 34", about a young man’s 34th LSD experience. This song used a riff straight out of the David Gilmour guitar manual, and resulted in the first radio airplay for Porcupine Tree (still a solo act at this time). This single was followed by the second album ‘Up the Downstair’, whose title referred to the drug-taker’s disastrous meeting with "himself, coming down the up staircase" during the bad trip described in "Voyage 34". On this album, Steven Wilson showed himself to be a master of melody on many instruments, especially the lead guitar and synth.
In late 1993 Steven decided to begin playing live appearances. He hired several guest musicians including Richard Barbieri (a renowned synth player formerly in the 80’s new wave group Japan), and Porcupine Tree went on a UK tour playing the songs originally recorded by the solo Steven Wilson. The group jelled so well that Steven formally invited them to join full-time, and all recordings from this point forward have been made using the full band lineup.
By this time, Porcupine Tree was gaining international recognition as an underground Pink Floyd. This reputation was cemented with their next album, the classic ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’. With 1990’s production standards but using 1970’s concept album song structures, this album stands as the best of the early Porcupine Tree releases. At the same time, this album started the movement away from raw psychedelia and towards more complex song structures, and many hallmarks of what is termed progressive rock music began to appear.
After several more albums on the small Delerium and Snapper labels, and just as many limited edition (meaning: 1000 copies or less each) fan-oriented recordings, Porcupine Tree has finally made the jump to a large, US-based label. At the same time, their sound has changed substantially from the early days of progressive psychedelia to a more polished, mature sound. Gone are the 15+ minute guitar jams, in favor of well-crafted, vocal-oriented songs that average in the 5-7 minute range. The Porcupine Tree sound now focuses on the strong, melodic voice of Steven Wilson, on complex guitar timings and arrangements, on powerful bass and drum rhythms, and on just the right amount of synth in every little place.
‘In Absentia’ is in many ways similar to the song-oriented approach common to the last two Porcupine Tree albums ‘Lightbulb Sun’ and ‘Stupid Dream’. Each track expresses a particular musical concept or sound, and tends to include alternating electric and/or acoustic guitars with a strong synth or piano accompaniment. Steven Wilson’s guitar playing can no longer be easily compared to Pink Floyd, and his strong singing voice reveals that his lyrics are better than ever. At the same time, ‘In Absentia’ has more guitar crunch than on any previous Porcupine Tree album, where the new crunch often alternates with softer sounds within any given track. This is possibly due to the addition of a second lead guitarist to supplement Steven Wilson on this album.
The first track on ‘In Absentia’ starts with a bang. Softly strumming guitars are quickly replaced with a loud guitar-bass-drum attack, which is replaced with Wilson’s strong melodic vocals and backup harmonies by the rest of the band. The remainder of the song alternates between soft vocals with synth, and power chord crunch. The lyrics are infectious – I found myself humming along with this song for a week after hearing it only one time. This track is called "Blackest Eyes".
Immediately following is "Trains", a mostly acoustic guitar and vocals track, with haunting lyrics. Several timing changes and strong vocal harmonies characterize this song, and there is even a short banjo section! But don’t let that scare you off, as this track builds towards a climactic electric guitar that closes out the song. In several ways, this track reminds me of "Shesmoveon", my favorite track from previous album ‘Lightbulb Sun’. This is the kind of tune that makes you wonder what those Brits are up to, to be able to write songs like this one.
The third track, named "Lips of Ashes", is a combination of different sounds. It begins softly with acoustic guitar and synth, and is shortly joined by a Robert Fripp-ian guitar providing backing as the vocals begin. Lyrically this is not the strongest track, with a repeated chorus of "touch-ing you…inside" making me wonder if this is the first sexually-oriented Porcupine Tree effort. Regardless, this is a very well constructed musical arrangement, with the payback coming from the Fripp-like guitar and the overall ambience that is achieved.
"The Sound of Muzak" is another very strong track with a catchy vocal chorus. This includes harmonized vocals alternating with phased vocals from Steven, a good song structure, and an excellent guitar solo during the midsection. This is a complex and many-layered rock track, but is well-balanced between the guitar and vocal sections. This song is very much a highlight on this album.
Another outstanding track is "Gravity Eyelids", which alternates acapella vocals with a classic S.Wilson guitar progression. Unusual synth sounds and other noises provide backing for the lead vocals for much of the track. Then, after a quiet interlude to provide contrast, the guitars come in with a spot-on plucking then crunching sound. This continues for the middle section, which evolves into a lead guitar-and-piano section with vocals returning. Finally the song closes out with the same soft sounds that began the track.
The next track has no vocals at all, only loud guitars. "Wedding Nails" sounds like the best song on your favorite hard rock album from the late seventies. At times this track is very King Crimson-ish, and at other times similar to Joe Satriani or other shredders, and still again at times similar to some of the new metal on the radio today. Finally the song abruptly drops to a quietly-scary soft synth sound for the last few seconds. A very powerful tune by the standards of most bands, but almost a throw-away track when coming from Porcupine Tree.
The next track, "Prodigal", is a little unusual. The focus here is on the lyrics and the melody, without much of the complex timing changes that most of this album’s songs utilize. Steven appears to be singing about himself here, describing a state of mental and musical ennui where he has achieved some success but still asks the perpetual question what else is there in this life? The song wraps with a powerful guitar solo.
Where ‘In Absentia’ differs from the previous two albums is in the greater use of industrial-type sounds in several of the tracks. The most NIN-similar track is "Strip the Soul", which is probably also the strongest single track on the album. The song begins with a simple bass rhythm accompanied by some synth and loose drumming. This mutates into an alternating guitar and vocals section. As the song progresses, the lead becomes stronger, alternating acoustic guitar with industrial crunch guitar, and even with a seventies style wah-wah guitar. Finally the track ends with a wailing fuzzed-out electric guitar solo. A video of this outstanding track is supposed to accompany the CD release; this video is also available for immediate download from the band’s web site.
Steven Wilson is one of the most musically powerful singers, songwriters, and players in rock music today. He is prolific in his output -- Porcupine Tree is only one of FOUR bands that he writes and plays for! He is a master of the production process, creating some of the most polished music of any band in the psychedelic genre. He still writes almost every track released by Porcupine Tree, in spite of having a high-powered group of excellent players in the band. I firmly believe that this man could release a recording of himself spitting on the floor, and I would not only get in line to buy it, but it would be a joy to listen to (especially when compared with much of the music being sold today!)
Whether ‘In Absentia’ is the best Porcupine Tree album released yet -- or not -- is not important. To my ears, EVERY Porcupine Tree album beats the doors off of anything you are likely to hear on the radio today. Check them out at www.porcupinetree.com, and don’t spend too much money on Ebay when you start collecting their back catalog.