Sound — 10
The first time I heard the name "Porcupine Tree" mentioned, I was unsure about giving them a listen. I knew two things: they were considered "Progressive Rock" by my fellow Prog fans, and the community was split about them. Some people said they were a great band, others said they were merely ripping off past greats. So imagine my curiosity when I discovered that my best friend and fellow music fanatic had begun to listen to them. Finally, I was approached by said friend who told me that I had to listen to them. So he gave me his copy of "In Absentia", and I was on my way. Since I had never heard even one second of music from this band, I was fairly anxious to give this disc a spin, so I stuck in my car's CD player and the first song started to play. First and foremost, "In Absentia" is, as what it is now called, a 'concept album'. The story that is told here involves a serial killer's telling of his life from childhood, through lovemaking, to the ultimate gruesome ending. Steve Wilson, the band's mastermind, has said many times that he does not consider his band to be "progressive", but what he isn't realizing is that the type of structure his band's albums are built around screams "prog" to those of us fortunate enough to have experienced this extraordinary genre firsthand.
Lyrics — 10
The album's opening track, "Blackest Eyes", seems to be a song of reflection and summary of everything said main character has done throughout his life, as the lyrics make referrance to key events that happen later on along the course of the story's timeline. This song, like every other song found on the record, is always subjective and open for interpretation, but in my take on it, the killer himself is narrating the story, and he is very proudly proclaiming his worth based on all of his past deeds, good or bad, he doesn't seem to care. The musicianship found on this track is excellent as always, and Wilson's vocals always give me chills as he sings unabashed the lyrics: "I've got a wire loose inside my head, I've got books that I've never, ever read, I've got secrets in my garden shed, I've got a scar where all my urges bled, I've got people underneath my bed, I've got a place where all my dreams are dead, swim with me into your blackest eyes." This song has many mixed emotions in it, with a very odd, slightly unnerving opening lead, which suddenly changes into the crunchy, relentless, heavy main riff, which then immediately switches gears again to become a pleasant acoustic guitar chord progression. All of these opposing feelings colliding together beautifully relays the sense of frantic and twisted confusion that is our main character's mind. It serves as a great overture for what is to come. "Trains". Ah, what a wonderful song this is! It was as I listened to the main riff for this track that I knew I loved Porcupine Tree as a band. It's so simply, yet so genious, and I find myself compelled to listen to this song more often than any of the others, which is saying something, since they are all fantastic. In fact, this particular riff actually finds itself reprised two albums later on the masterpiece: "Fear of a Blank Planet", but we will discuss that treasure at another time. As I was saying, though, as I listened to this song for first time, and as I heard it build and build, I truly couldn't believe what I was hearing, as I had thought no band could make music completely new for me all over again, but with that one riff, it was done. I gleefully followed every beat, every vocal flourish, every time signature change, waiting for what next would come. This song features a very emotional guitar solo as well as what sounds to me like a banjo-driven bridge section that somehow fits the rest of the song perfectly. The band is at it's best in every respect with this one, truly a gem of a song. I could go on, but since the entire review could be made up of my praise for this single track, I had better move on. I only have one other aspect of the song to comment on: the lyrics. Wilson's way of expressing thoughts through words and music is magical. The words are or so poetic yet nothing to snicker at, and even if you or I have never done the horrible things our main character in this tale will ultimately do, I can still relate to this song, as the lyrics do tell a story, but at the same time remain vague enough for anyone to find something familiar there. "Lips Of Ashes" is the 'spaciest' track so far, with a very surreal, haunting quality to the way Wilson plucks away on his acoustic guitar. Richard Barbieri's keyboard work also lends a hand here, with a feeling of ghostly memories clinging to the words that our star speaks. The song is told in present-tense, but I get the feeling personally that he is reliving a memory rather than simply experiencing something for the first time. The song becomes almost a ballad as our first genuine guitar solo is heard here. The singing ability here is way above par, as double-tracked harmonies add to the haunting, surrealistic nature of the track. The next track kicks off with a very catchy base line from four-string-maestro Colin Edwin, accompanied by a riveting drum pattern brought in by (at the time) newest addition Gavin Harrison. The song's title is "Sound of Muzak", and while I feel the first half of this song is considerably less interesting to hear after the first listen, the second half makes up for it with a very funky but enjoyable guitar solo. The rhythm guitar sections brought in by Wilson are very fun to play along (or simply mime along) to if you yourself are a musician. and the complete finished product definately brings a smile to my face and a jig to my hip whenever I play it. Track five, "Gravity Eyelids", is potentially my second favorite song on the album, because it is really the song that changes the most throughout it's course, as it starts quite sweet, sensual, and possibly erotic. Clearly a love scene (at least in my interpretation), this song begins with a very soft melody, almost like a lullaby, speaking directly to the one the hero of the story is making love to. Once again a song that boasts very poetic lyrics, it manages to convey the idea of a physical relationship with another, while not becoming overly graphic or needlessly flamboyant. Then, just as the act is over, the song does a complete 180, and the listener is blown away by the heaviest riff on the record yet. I still haven't found myself able to remain completely still whenever I am listening to the record and this part of the song comes along; I can't help it. The song has such raw energy in it that I find myself completely engulfed by the power of it, and it doesn't let go of you until after the track ends. Plenty of odd time signature work here as well, for the more prudish of prog fans. "Wedding Nails" is an off-beat, wacky, completely aimless instrumental song that shows (in my opinion) the main character's mental degeneration, as I myself feel like I'm going mad every time I hear this enjoyable, but uncomfortably short musical sojourn. "Prodigal" Is a very uplifting, meaningful track featuring yet another catchy main guitar riff and solo. Also present is a wonderful display of vocal interaction that reminds me a bit of early Pink Floyd, but not uncomfortably so. No, this song is still very original like all the others, but the familiar feeling I get when I hear it I think is part of it's charm. The bass lines present in this song are also very memorable. In terms of where we are in the story at this point, I think it is more-or-less a time of self-searching and confusion for our lead character. Ultimately the choices he makes are the wrong ones, but here, it seems to me that he is actually looking for another way around his issues, and apparently none were to be found in his point of view. This song is the last "feel-good" titles on the record. Song number 8, titled simply ".3", is a venture into the darkest depths of the mind, and from what I can hear, the song is primarily effects-based, as the keyboards are the most prominent instrument in the whole track-- that is until Steve Wilson comes in with his acoustic guitar rhythm. I always love that moment in the song, as I can just feel his presence at that moment entering the song. His playing is followed closely by the chant: "Black the sky, weapons fly. Lay them waste for your race", which he sings over and and over again in a sort of absent (pun intended) slave's mindset. At this point, I think our story's lead part has chosen for good what he will do, which is why this song has a sense of boreboding, no matter how beautiful it is instrumentally. Fantastic listen, though, especially through headphones (which by the way, is really the only way you should be listening to music like this, because without them, you miss so many layers within the song that make the music as good as it is). "The Creator Has A Masterpiece" is indisputably the strangest and indeed most disturbing song on this record, which grows increasingly darker as the story unfolds. From the moment you hear the out-of-key six-note guitar intro until you reach the dramatic end, you may possibly find yourself checking over your shoulder around your house, if music effects you as strongly as it does me. No matter; the more disturbing, the better. Right? This track also reveals the origin of the 'scar' that is first mentioned back in track one, but I won't spoil it for you here. Experience it for yourself, as from this point on the record does not let up once. "Heartattack In A Layby" is a very sad, moving piece that leaves the killer in reflection with himself, while at the same time pursuing his next goal. The mood of the track is not happy by any means, yet has some of the most emotional sections out of the entire album. The amazing use of vocal rounds and alternated harmony is potentially the most beautiful thing Porcupine Tree has ever done, and it is here than I find myself singing along the most, just because of the sheer majesty the voices on this track seem to portray. The piano playing here is superb, and the solemn tone maintained throughout makes this also the most consistent track on the record thus far. While I like both progressive and straightforward song structures, the latter fits this particular part of the story better. So, you aren't going to be getting an insanely long, always changing song experience here, but it does move you. And it works well. Very well, indeed. "But what is a tale about a killer without blood and gore, Kain?" you ask me. Well, my dear readers, fear not, for there are still two more songs to go. This one, "Strip The Soul", has a very heavy, cool guitar riff that sets the mood for this killing-spree-of-a-song. It's not necessarily the most graphically described violent scene ever told on a rock record, but it certainly does the job of getting under one's skin, especially if you didn't realize up until this point what exactly the end of the story was going to be. "This machine is there to please, strip the soul, fill the hole," are some of the lyrics spoken on this track with great execution on Wilson's part. "They are not gone, not gone, only sleeping... " he continues, as his deed has already been done. I may be wrong on the band's personal intention here, but to me, that is what this song is about: a man going out of control, and the inner self witnessing these terrible things and being unable to stop them from happening. The denial in which our star seems to find himself in is not so different from our own moments of denial; refusal to believe the truth. In this man's case, however, he has done far worse than most of us ever will. Even though he is fictional, this character speaks to me on the album, and Steve Wilson's brilliant story-telling abilities really makes me believe in this story-- this concept, if you will, about a man who started out so well, and ended up in such a bad way. I suppose it is because things like this really do happen that I can relate to it more. "A fire to feed, a belt to bleed, strip the soul, kill them all."
Overall Impression — 10
This flawless effort from Porcupine Tree ends with a bitter-sweet feeling track in "Collapse The Light Into Earth" I get the sense here that our story's main character has somehow managed to find a sense of peace with what he has done, not by necessarily admitting and wrong, but rather by talking to those he once loved in his own head, promising them that they will not be forgotten. Once again, this review of mine is only one person's interpretation of an intentionally vague story told through the form of this amazing music, so if when you listen to the record, you come to a different conclusion, who is to say you are wrong? That's what I love about these kinds of bands and, indeed, about the Progressive genre in general, because we the audience are left with enough empty space to find our own things to relate to in everything, which makes each and every song a personal experience for us. With this album, I was impressed by how well it moved me when I had gone in with so little expectations for this band called Porcupine Tree. Now, they are one of my all-time favorite bands. It is rare when a band can make me feel emotions I have never felt before as I listen to their music, but Porcupine Tree did it with this album, and I haven't stopped loving their music since. I suggest pick this album up, and if you find yourself drifting off to another place and time, then you are much like the star of the featured story, and have gone somewhere completely different in your mind, at least for a little while. For a record to do that is frankly amazing to me, and even if you end up not being as affected by this record or indeed not even interested in the story, that is okay also, as while some of us are more hardcore music fans, the rest of us are just experiencing life and music 'In Absentia'.