Porcupine Tree - In Absentia - Round Table Review
Introduction by Ed
There's two things that become very obvious on the first time the album is played. First, over the last 8 years
(ever since Stars Die) Steve Wilson has been experimenting with vocal harmonies, inspired by
Brian Wilson's work with the Beach Boys. On Stupid Dream and especially Lightbulb Sun these experiments became both more frequent and of higher quality. The vocal harmonisation has reached
its peak on this new album. Almost all of the songs feature beautiful vocal harmonies, ranging from
the very subtle backing vocals (e.g. on The Sound of Muzak) to intricate counter melodies in almost Gentle Giant/Spock's Beard-ish style (Heart Attack in a Layby).
Another development which could be traced in the history of the band and which has now reached it's peak is the use of incredibly heavy metal riffs in the music. Past compositions like Signify, Up The Downstairs, Dislocated Day, This Is No Rehearsal, Tinto Brass and Hatesong have already hinted at what the band was capable of when they start to rock out. Probably because of his work with Swedish metal band Opeth and the rather heavy material Steve Wilson has been playing over the past two years, this has reached a hard an violent climax on In Absentia. Most of the songs contain pretty heavy riffs and segments but the instrumental Wedding Nails and The Creator Has a Master Tape simply are the heaviest things the band has ever done. As a matter of fact, some of the material Steven Wilson had written for this album seemingly was even heavier, resulting in the rest of the band rejecting it, which, having heard some of that material, is a good thing since the album would probably have turned of lots of Tree fans.
For this Roundtable review, three members of the DPRP team have entered a discussion about this new album. The first review was written by Ed, to which Rob added his comments and BJ rounded it of with his own opinion. The result: a very interesting mixture of differences and similarities in opinions ....
Lyrically this song is the first of a set of lyrics that seem to deal with somebody who's quite screwed up in his head, quite possibly a serial killer. For me the song conjures up memories of Ted Bundy ("I got wiring loose inside my head (....) I got secrets in my garden shed (....) A few minutes with me inside my van, Should be so beautiful if we can, I'm feeling something taking over me"). Beautiful and extremely distressing at the same time.
Rob: The tracks on this album can roughly be divided into three categories: Happy songs (3 of them), Sentimental/melancholic (6), and Nightmarish/loud pieces (3). The album opens with one of the "happy" tracks: a catchy melody with a sunny feel, but also some nice contrasting aggressive guitars. Great piece!
BJ: The second-most anticipated album of 2002 opens in exactly the opposite way as one might expect. Or at least, as I expected it. A heavy guitar riff with pounding drums that seem more of the Iron Maiden or perhaps Dream Theater kind, yet after a minute it gives way to a very familiar sounding acoustic melody which makes that this song has the same feel as Even Less.
As the song progresses it becomes clear that Porcupine Tree has maintained the same course it has sailed since Stupid Dream drifting more and more into commercial sounding alternative rock with old-school prog more an influence than an inspiration. This is typical Porcupine Tree, or at least, typical post-Signify Tree.
Rob: Yes, a fine piece. It comes close to the best tracks on the Stupid Dream album. This is the kind of stuff I like best about the band: a haunting melancholic melody, with high vulnerable vocals. But it never becomes too sentimental, as the band also uses some "heavier" electric guitars.
BJ: Like Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun almost all tracks are linked together - no silences in between. Trains seems to kill the idea that the band has created a new sound for this album (as the Internet buzz had led to believe) as this song would not have been out of place on either one its two predecessor. It sounds quite a bit like Stranger By The Minute apart from the two solos which seem very Mike Oldfield. As mentioned by Ed, the second of these catches you completely off guard with a very Spanish style melody, handclaps and an instrument which I think is a ukulele, not a banjo, yet I don't have any liner notes with my copy to confirm. In any case it is a brilliant song, with plenty tempo and mood changes, great singing and interesting lyrics.
Lips of Ashes
Rob: A melancholic song, slow and hypnotising. It has a dreamy, psychedelic feel, and even some distant Floyd echoes. It's all well done but - as an individual song - it's not very special. This is the kind of music that works best in the content of other tracks. But more about that later...
BJ: Another song that starts eerily familiar and I get the inclination to start singing the lyrics to Where We Would Be along to it, while at the same time the vocal harmonies have something in common with Baby Dream In Cellophane. Again Mike Oldfield seems to play along on guitar (or Edwin Collins if you will, as he uses similar distortion). Other than my fellow reviewers I quite like this track - I just happen to like ballads. It's a beautiful dreamy piece that flows perfectly into the next one...
The Sound of Muzak
Rob: This catchy song has been in my head ever since I played the album ('one of the wonders of the world is going down'). Musically it's quite uplifting, and it features some nice tricky rhythmic guitar things. It may all not be too surprising, but as it's very catchy, it must be darn good in some way!
BJ: Once again the first band that comes to mind to compare this song to is... Porcupine Tree! As with all songs so far I hear echoes of the previous two albums in the music and especially the mood of this song. Shesmovedon is omnipresent in the rhythm, the vocal melodies, the solo and the general feel of the song.
Rob: Melancholic slow song with mellotron sounds, against a hypnotising rhythm background. Quite dreamy, but with an aggressive guitar break halfway. It's more like a functional song to build a certain mood. As an individual song, it's not thrilling, but nice.
BJ: Indeed a typical depressing Porcupine Tree track, the first half at least. The moody first half bears similarities with, as Steve Wilson himself once said: "The most depressing of them all" Stop Swimming, although it has more of a song feel.
In the second half aggressive riffs in the style of Hatesong come in, along with that typical Richard Barbieri synth 'solo'.
Rob: Ed found this one "shocking" and I agree (but I still ain't over it yet). This is not bad or unproggy music, just a very heavy/noisy nightmarelike instrumental. Perhaps a nice one for concerts, but in the context of this album, it rudely disturbs the atmosphere created by the other songs. Completely out of place, I'd say. Pity!
BJ: I agree with Rob that this instrumental is somewhat out of misplaced on the album, or at least, at this spot on the album, right after the beautiful serenity of the finale of Gravity Eyelids.
It is pretty much standard heavy metal fare, a bit like simplified Planet X and not so much what you'd want to hear from a band like Porcupine Tree. Besides, they already sorta pulled this trick with Four Chords That Made A Million, and at least that song had lyrics. That said, I must admit that I've grown to like it after a couple of spins, and the second part, where the music kind of speeds up, is certainly a great way to lose some aggression with headbanging and an air-guitar. Will do great live, provided that it has the right spot in the setlist.
Rob:. Just a friendly and sunny piece, becoming a bit more heavy towards the end. Some more remote Floyd influences here (harmony vocals and slide guitar). But melodywise, it's not very strong, and in fact a bit too repetitive.
BJ: As mentioned by Ed, this song harks back to the days of Signify and before, with the typical Floydian Sky Moves Sideways guitar. It also reminds me of the work Alan Parsons or The Beatles, or perhaps more recently the work of Mostly Autumn. I agree with my fellow reviewers that it's a nice filler on the album, in no way bad, yet nothing too special either, apart from perhaps the cool guitar solo. It also strikes me how incredibly depressing Steve Wilson's lyrics often are. If these are autobiographical (and I know at least some are) it is amazing how this guy hasn't killed himself or anything ....
Rob: Primarily a "mood creating" track. The orchestral sounds are giving it a beautiful feel of melancholy and desolation. A bit depressing perhaps, but quite effective. Only melodywise it's all a bit boring.
BJ: I still have mixed feelings about anything the band did before Stupid Dream (I hated them at first...) so a track where they hark back to their older days with long drawn out instrumental mood settings with not too much happening naturally evokes the same mixed feelings. Worse even, all through the track there is this string orchestra building up tension, yet it never breaks through into a real song. Even before I knew this was once part of Strip The Soul I felt it was like an unfinished epic, with the actual 'song' missing. Perhaps the original with Strip The Soul still attached would have been better, I don't know.
The Creator Has a Mastertape
Rob: This is another "nightmare" track, and as far away from prog rock as the band can get. A monotonous melody, distorted spoken vocals, a restless bass/drum rhythm. For me this was a case of "hate at first listen". I tried to be as objective as I could, but I just can't get into this song. It simply doesn't work for me at all.
BJ: To me this actually sounds like Tinto Brass with distorted vocals. By no means bad, but too much out of place on the album, just like Wedding Nails.
Heartattack in a Layby
With the exception of some subtle cymbals the song is completely percussion-less and mainly drifts on guitar and keys. As far as mood and lyrics are concerned it seems to link in well with the theme of relationship problems of Lightbulb Sun.
Rob: I agree with Ed, this is an extremely good melancholic song. Very subtle and breakable arrangement, with nice acoustic guitars, and beautiful vocal effects (I hear some Chris Rainbow here and there). Unfortunately, this beautiful piece is buried between two uncompromising heavy tracks. I call that loveless.
BJ: Another depressing Steve Wilson lyric, yet with very recognisable lyrics most people can relate to - I suppose we have all been there. Probably the only track on the album my fellow reviewers and I agree on: beautiful!
Strip the Soul
The album version is almost twice as long as the edited version on the sampler and the downloadable video on the PT website. Still it doesn't cover too much new ground compared to that version. It feels more like an extremely well-done 12" version with additional breaks with acoustic guitar, a delicious wah-wah guitar solo, whispered variations on the chorus and a very Metallica-like reprise. One of the highlights on the album.
Rob: I completely disagree with Ed! No highlight at all: it's another of those "nightmare" pieces. I don't like it for two reasons: for what it is (a grotesque, aggressive, unproggy and monotonous song) and for its effect (breaking the spell created by the good "moody" music on the album).
BJ: It starts with a similar bass line as its instrumental counter part .3, yet such a complex bass line feels a bit out of place on this track. As Ed said the track sounds quite like Nine Inch Nails or similar alternative-metal-bands-with-proggy-influences, yet still maintaining that typical PT sound. It bears resemblance to Slave Called Shiver yet it's heavier.
It's a rather chaotic piece and I don't quite like the distorted megaphone sound of Wilson's vocals, yet musically it has its interesting moments. Perhaps a tempo change too many though and the 20 seconds nausea causing guitar feedback at the end of the song are reason to skip the song entirely.
Collapse the Light Into Earth
Rob: A great sentimental ballad indeed. If I'm in the right mood (a post summer depression perhaps), this kind of music can really get to my heart. The music on Radiohead's fine album OK Computer always had a similar effect on me. Very good one!
BJ: Oddly enough this track starts with almost exactly the same piano chord progression that is used in the middle eight section of the Coldplay track Politik found on their newest album. As both bands were likely to be writing and recording their respective albums at the same time, plagiarism seems highly unlikely, yet it is certainly noteworthy.
I also hear a distant How Is Your Life Today echoing in this song, as well as the references Ed mentioned of all the depressing closing ballads on the last four PT albums. In PT tradition a worthy closer...
On one hand the sound of In Absentia is a lot rougher than in the previous years, but then again, it isn't miles away from the previous material and as such a logical new direction. I can however imagine that fans of the Sky Moves Sideways era who were already not all too happy with the previous two albums will quite dislike this new CD. On the other hand, it might win over more new fans coming from
the genre of heavy neo-guitar rock from the US which has been gaining popularity over the last couple
If you want to check for yourself before purchasing the album (which, in Europe will only become available in the end of January 2003), make sure you listen to the 4 full-length songs (Blackest Eyes, Lips of Ashes, The Sound of Muzak and Wedding Nails) on the band's fully redesigned website. Together with the multimedia downloads of Gravity Eyelids and Strip The Soul this gives you the chance of checking out half of the album before buying it (or stay satisfied till the album hits the shops in Europe).
One final note: I was very worried when I heard that drummer Chris Maitland had left the band. His brilliant rhythms and berserk raging drum work was one of the main characteristics of Porcupine Tree's studio and live sound. Luckily Gavin Harrison turns out to be the perfect replacement resulting in me hardly noticing the departure of Maitland ! Thumbs up to this newbie.
Rob: I got familiar with the music of Porcupine Tree only recently. Last year, I went through most of their back catalogue, and was pleasantly surprised by some of the classy stuff they made. The band's sound has been developing quite a lot through the years, but has always had a typical originality. Their early albums are quite good, only a bit diverse in musical direction (On the Sunday Of Life and Up The Downstair). The albums that were to follow had some more weaker moments (Voyage 34 and Signify). The 1998 album Stupid Dream had a different course, and immediately became my personal favourite. It's a bit less proggy perhaps (less Floyd influences), but as a whole very coherent and highly emotional. The follow-up album, Lighbulb Sun, was slightly disappointing (more diversity again, and some weaker song material).
On the new release In Absentia, it seems the musical course of these two albums is more or less continued. Don't expect a real prog rock album here: the earlier psychedelics and Floyd influences are almost gone. The music is very much song based, and the 12 tracks are all quite traditional in format and length.
My first impression of the album was very positive, simply because it has some extremely good songs. But I became more critical when I realised that as a whole the album was not working for me. The many extremes make it very "demanding" indeed. Some may call it "variety", but for me it's just incoherent. I think the album would have been much stronger with those disturbing heavy tracks left off. Because now, it is just a bunch of songs and moods thrown together. The album surely has some really beautiful music, but as a whole, it's nothing like the very coherent masterpiece Stupid Dream.
BJ: I tend to take the side of Rob more than Ed's, mainly because I'm also relatively new to Porcupine Tree. I got to know the band during their Sky Moves Sideways period and absolutely hated it. I was still discovering the original Floyd at that moment and I guess I was just not ready for imitations yet. Seeing them live in a pub style theatre in 1997 slightly changed my opinion, yet it wasn't until someone sent me a CDR containing both Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, that I really got into this band. I have started acquiring some of their back catalogue (still stubbornly avoiding The Sky Moves Sideways) but I still rate Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun as their peak (with the latter only marginally topping the former). Since I received the two albums at the same time I also tend to see them as one album, with the individual songs on the two albums virtually interchangeable.
In Absentia follows the direction taken with the previous two albums in a logical line, moving more away from conventional prog, and more into alternative rock with songs that can be categorised at either side of the ever thinning border between the two musical flows. Especially the first half of the album contains music much in the vein of the previous albums. As I stated above, most of the tracks sound eerily like music of their recent past. Of course this means that the band had certainly created a unique identifiable style, but it also means the band has reached a bit of a stand still.
On the second half of the album (as if we're talking conventional vinyl records here) there is some experimenting with heavier styles, but I feel some of the songs are rather misplaced on the album, especially The Creator has a Mastertape and Strip The Soul would have been great as a B'side, on a compilation album like Recordings or even at a different spot on the album, yet the way they are placed now, they destroy the songs around it and, as Ed stated, making it difficult to listen to the album in one go.
When looking at the first five songs separately, out of the context of the rest of the album, I begin to wonder whether the fact that the band signed a new contract with an American label has something to do with the track order. The first five songs are a logical continuation of the previous albums and all the more experimental (deterring?) music doesn't come until halfway the album. Also, especially compared to anything they did before Stupid Dream most of the songs are very accessible and commercial sounding, drawing comparisons with popular indie bands like Radiohead, Coldplay, Pulp, Nine Inch Nails or Smashing Pumpkins. Whether this is intentional or not, this type of music is of course commercially more viable than the stuff they wrote in their psychedelic past.
I join with Ed and Rob in the conclusion that the album has plenty good moments, yet as a whole it disappoints slightly.
In a final word I'd like to second Ed's compliments on new drummer Gavin Harrison. If I wouldn't have known Chris Maitland had left the band, I wouldn't have noticed.
Ed: 8.5 out of 10.
Rob: 7.5 out of 10.
BJ: 8- out of 10.