16 tracks that leave you standing alone barefoot in the rain at the end of a gravel road littered with broken glass, empty cans & debris by the time it’s over contemplating your very existence after having barbarically assaulted your mind and senses with this record. An absolute must have album and one of my darkest favourite records ever. This album encompasses so many themes and sticks its dirty fingers so far down in to the bowels of the earth itself that it doesn’t want to be brought back up after what it has seen. From the sterile and disturbing album cover that leaves you with the sense of the X-Files being real and the characters from Carnivale are living next door to you to the music that is; sharp, striking, dark, moody, anguished, despondent and apprehensive.
Porcupine Tree has always found a way to burrow in to your soul in ways that other bands just never could. Their music bounced from heavy to light to heavy again and the lyrics always left you with a great unease once you realized what they were singing about. Steven Wilson said in concert last year at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto that he writes a lot of sad songs but for some reason it makes you feel good about yourself when you hear these types of songs knowing that someone has it worse off than you, even if it’s only in a song. This album, “In Absentia” makes you question your own mortality in every song in one way or another. Yes other bands have had albums that are dark and disturbing, mostly in Death Metal or Gothic bands and even bands like, “The Smiths” who wrote some of the most self-depriving, miserable and depressing lyrics for the late seventies/early eighties troubled teenage angst youth of the times who are probably about as close to being on par with Porcupine Tree material as far as what the message is all about.
With a blending of angry distortion and acoustic guitars played with such strife and indignation the timbres in the songs are thrown off kilter many times making you uneasy in your recliner and between the ears throughout. The bass is slender and sultry keeping a guttural profile through clean tones like a serpent in the sewers waiting for someone to walk by and strike out at your feet pulling you under the grates. Keyboards that send chills down your spine and grab it at the base not letting you go like some deranged experiment to your central nervous system and drums that are savage warriors at your gates or subtle assassins creeping across your floors in the darkest hours of night. And Vocals that angelically harmonize at times then also pierce your very being with the sharp accentuation of the words.
PT’s music and albums have always had themes and concepts to them as well as a great sense of storytelling where you could always relate to a part, piece or whole form your childhood, adolescence or adult years. Unfortunately I never saw them live as I never really knew about them till after they had all but dissolved and went their separate ways in solo careers but discovering their Lps brought the band back to life in my mind and filled my every open pore with their sounds allowing me to relive their journey through their records, live albums, videos and the amassed collection of bootleg albums I have acquired over the years. The raw power and note-for-note dedication was an injection of great hope for me to know that the genre was not dead and able to morph in to something other than fantasy and flying fish. I love that angle of Prog too but one must explore every avenue of the genre to really appreciate its delicacies and offered fare throughout the decades.
The opening track, “Blackest Eyes” is an eruption of heavy sound that just pummels you from the get go, the beginning a fuse lit that ignites the band to give you an onslaught for almost an entire minute before it tones back to introduce the vocals. A great track to start the album with already dropping thoughts of what is going on here. The deranged sense of being inside someone’s head looking at the world around them and you are helpless to control what they think or do. See the pattern for what’s to come in this record so far? The album swirls and dives in and out of darkness and in to sorrow then back to an invitation to have a medical misfire and drown inside yourself being completely useless. There are no singled out highlights to the album as it’s all an encompassing experience of emotions and awareness through the eyes of different people. For me though, several songs do stick out more than others, they are; “Blackest Eyes“, “Trains“, “The Sound of Muzak”, “Heartattack in a Lay By“, “Strip the Soul“, “Drown With Me“, “Chloroform” and “Futile” which is probably one of the heaviest and if not most brutally lyrically written and composed song on the record. Sure that’s half the album that sticks out to me but you’ll probably agree to most if not all of these songs when you listen to it all the way through the first and fifteenth time. The dissonant tones and vocalization that is applied to these songs couldn’t have been done any other way and the band definitely embraces minor chords and drop D to give it that even more darker sense of being.
An entire video montage could be made of this album in to a mini-movie that would leave every one in the theatre uncomfortable afterwards. It would be one of those films that would be shown at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) or Cannes more likely late at night and a warning disclaimer shows before the film starts because it’s that dark. The album finishes off with “Meantime” that didn’t make the cut in the 5.1 version of the album but on the original release it closes the album, perhaps seen as a bonus track as it doesn’t fit the dark musical anecdotes the others had but lyrically it certainly does. A short three and a half minute track that calmly ends the journey where you were left standing wondering what is it you really want to do next, go home or go for a walk with no destination. I’ve listened to every Porcupine Tree album but always seem to return to this one as it I feel is their strongest and darkest album to date. Steven Wilson continued the trend with his solo work but it does not have that heavy angry guitar with its ominous black cloud looming overhead of it but instead going for more subtle yet still grim chord progressions that still create a very atramentous feeling to his work which is also all brilliant in my opinion.
Porcupine Tree grabs hold of the elements of Prog and doesn’t shake them but shows them just what to do with the ingredients and terrifies those around them. They scared other bands in the genre at the time and rightfully so because they were serious players and not there to consolidate the sometimes childlike story lines that Prog often offered in the seventies. 70’s Prog was still in its infantile stages and bands would turn classic children’s stories in to epic long tales of Tolkien proportions if it was already a Tolkien fable being reincarnated in to music and quite often told from the point of view of the singer chanting as it were you on that quest or you were following the main character in to distant realms of dragons, elves and magick. Now not ever Prog band created music as such, many of them told of the madness of money/insanity and power/greed, life/death leaning towards one of Steven Wilson’s very first records he got, “The Dark Side of the Moon” which encapsulates every one of those components and more than likely helped shaped the future sounds of the band and it’s directions.
“In Absentia” is perhaps the darkest and heaviest album that was out in 2002 as the competition was varying in degrees from; “Vapor Trails” by Rush, “Snow” by Spock’s Beard, “( )” by Sigur Ros and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” by Dream Theater to just name a couple. So with albums like this in fluctuating calibers of Prog it’s no wonder that Porcupine Tree stood out in the more menacing sense of the meaning of the genre when you look at the lyrical content of the other bands that were releasing albums in that year. They didn’t stop to consider anyone’s feelings which is what you should do when creating a new album or any album for that matter for if you do you will have conformed to the societal pressures of the current trends and fads of the day only creating a slow death to your record and your band’s morale. As with every album they have released they have always maintained their own status quo and levels to their satisfaction which again a lot of bands, especially Prog bands in the 70’s that chose to bend that one knee and write the “pop” tune that became their Achilles heel in the end. Perhaps a better way to view Porcupine Tree’s music, have a look at the diagram below and you can decide the approach to their music you wish to venture down first:
As you can see by starting off with “In Absentia” you can decide if that was too heavy on your mind and soul and then follow the flow chart to which angle best suits you. Either way you decide to steer your auditory preferences you get the best of both worlds with this album first. My recommendation is to listen to every album and then rotate yourself back to the one that speaks loudest to you but start here and realize the strength that this album brings to the table and how it makes you feel afterwards. Destination Emptiness.