Lava/Atlantic Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/20/2004
A few times in your life you discover what I like to call those "epiphany albums" -- those albums that profoundly and permanently affect your perspective. You know that shtick where someone is asked "if you were stranded on a desert island and only had five albums to listen to for the rest of your life…"? One of those albums. This year I added one of those albums to my list. (I tried to avoid gushing over this album, but I also had to try to do it justice. I already know I'll be way past the number of words my editors prefer... well, screw those guys.)
When I first got a copy of In Absentia, I was familiar with Porcupine Tree (PT) from a half-dozen of their older songs I knew and liked. I was quite unprepared for the experience of this disc, sitting slack-jawed in utter bliss as track after track of masterfully crafted songs displayed a range of moods and textures ranging from ethereal and trance-like to devastatingly heavy. Snatches of a vast number of influences surface throughout the disc. The dreaminess of Pink Floyd, the powerful angst of Nine Inch Nails --- Rush, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Tangerine Dream, Tool and Korn all could be cited as influences if you care to make those comparisons. Heavy-metal and electronica meld with psychedelic prog-rock in ways I'd never imagined. Despite the varied derivations of the music, Wilson's sonic landscape is original and fresh. Bits and pieces may sound familiar, but few bands I've heard could so carefully mesh those diverse elements and still sound like an original band. PT isn't afraid to emulate someone else, but they never do so without reinventing it into their own unique vision.
As musicians, the members of PT are nothing short of stellar. Steven Wilson is the founder, primary songwriter and vocalist, and he plays guitar like an old-school rock-god. Whether playing a searing solo or providing swirling, feedback-infused sonic wallpaper, he carefully crafts the many layers of guitar parts and provides a distinctive musical voice to each track. In these days when guitar solos are almost unheard of and most guitarists have succumbed to merely providing rhythm, Wilson knows what those six strings were made for. His solos echo the brilliance of Page or Gilmour at their best, and his supporting parts provide deep layers of sonic texture to the complex palette that PT works in. Richard Barbieri is PT's long-time keyboard player, and his contribution is a perfect complement to Wilson's guitar and voice. His keys provide a lush foundation and colorful highlights when in a supporting role. When he does move to the forefront, he does so with power and with tasteful restraint, avoiding the flourish and hyperbole that so many keyboard players fall into. The rhythm section -- hell, it's almost criminal to relegate these guys to that supporting role -- is pure genius. Bassist Colin Edwin adds much more than just low end to the mix. From the syncopated funk of "The Sound of Muzak" to the arterial pulse of "Gravity Eyelids," Edwin knows when to fill the gaps and when to leave them gracefully open. His fluid style complements each song whether peaceful or aggressive. Drummer Gavin Harrison is a phenomenon. An award-winning author of books on drum technique, he ranks right up there with the Neil Peart or Carl Palmer -- he's that good. Harrison has a gift for strength and power, and a nose for subtlety when that's what's needed. One listen to his work on this album (check out the blistering "Wedding Nails") was all it took me to see Harrison's incredible talent.
Lyrically, this is dark stuff. Those familiar with PT know that Wilson's brain is a dark, often scary place where the beautiful and terrible cohabitate in equal measure. Ghosts, serial killers and apocalyptic visions are his muse. He comes across like part Stephen King, part Rod Serling and part Gary Larson. Wilson's lyrics traditionally carry a strong sense of irony and black humor, and a strange dark underbelly. Death, suicide, and the paranormal have a solid founding in his work, but his songs never fall into the dark, angry realms that material might lead to. More often Wilson's musings on death are wistful and melancholy rather than angry. His tragedies are told with an unsettling smirk mingled with sadness and compassion.
Starting out the disc in that vein is the erotically creepy "Blackest Eyes." Throughout this disc runs a thread of dark sexuality, often cloaked in a mask of introverted innocence, yet often unsettling and deviant, such as within the opening verse which Wilson delivers in a soft, flutey tenor; "Walk in the woods and I will try / Something under the trees that made you cry / It's so erotic when your makeup runs." Wilson maintains this sort of sexual darkness through out the disc, surfacing again on "Gravity Eyelids," in which he tries to coax a lover out of sleep; "Open your eyes love / Hear me out before I lose my mind / I've been waiting for hours / Let the salt flow, feel my coil unwind." His lyrics and the hypotonic, dreamlike music evoke that familiar feeling of being in the twilight place between sleep and the conscious world, where everything moves in its own half-reality. Wilson has that gift of creating a sonic ambiance to accompany his lyrics, providing a landscape for his dark musings. One of the best examples of this is on "Heart Attack In A Layby" (A layby is what we Yanks would call a "rest stop.") Wilson's vocal invokes a sense of longing and forlornness, the protagonist succumbing to a roadside nap he'll never wake from, daydreaming of a call from an estranged lover that will never come. The minimal instrumentation, gently quavering keyboards and acoustic guitar, provides a mood of melancholy that perfectly accompanies the singer's last thoughts, which Wilson presents beautifully in a lonely conversation with himself, fading off into the hiss of cars on the highway. This quiet, sad song with its minimalist composition is one of the most powerful on the disc, largely because of Wilson's gift for empathy, and his ability to project that empathy to the listener.
Wilson's vocals seems at first rather frail and wispy, and his soft tenor seems too airy to support the often dense lyrics and the powerful music, but he manages to deliver incredible power. Like a blown-glass swan held in the grip of an iron vise, Wilson's fragile voice resides in careful balance with the often heavy instrumentation. He can invoke strong emotional feelings with simple inflections of his voice, which is extremely powerful in the way he effectively uses clever arrangements and vocal effects to bring his intense lyrics to the forefront.
One of my favorite tracks is "The Sound Of Muzak," an acidic view on the music industry, rounding out a trilogy of songs begun on the album Stupid Dream with "Piano Lessons" and on Lightbulb Sun with the cynical "Four Chords That Made a Million." Wilson makes no bones about his disdain for the music biz. A well-deserved one, being a self-made indie success, operating far outside the copy-&-paste world of mass-market popular music. "Hear the sound of music drifting through the aisles / Elevator Prozac stretching on for miles" should be a familiar observation to anyone who has to endure the soulless musical dribble that leaks out of top 40 stations and mall speakers alike. The final remonstration of "Music of rebellion make you want to rage / But it's made by millionaires that are nearly twice your age" speaks volume to me on the state of popular music.
"Prodigal" relates a common theme of searching for a meaning or a place in the world and ultimately finding no pat answer. Feeling himself an outsider, and seeking to find meaning through his art, through religion, and like any good Gen-Xer, in mind-altering substances; "I tried the capsule and I tried the smoke / I tried to aid escape like normal folk / But I never seemed to get the joke." A lazy slide guitar arrangement gives way towards the end to a slithering solo by Wilson.
It's hard for me to decide what's more compelling, Wilson's brilliant compositions or the dense, thought-provoking lyrics. In the end they marry themselves together perfectly. Regardless of your particular tastes, I think most people will find something satisfying on this disc.
I strongly recommend you take a few minutes, head over to www.porcupinetree.com, click on Discography and listen to a few tracks (I recommend the songs from In Absentia as good starters). The PT website lets you listen to entire songs, not just 30 seconds samples, in CD-quality streaming audio. I don't think you'll be disappointed.