Album: In Absentia
Artist: Porcupine Tree
Released: September 24th, 2002
Highlights: Blackest Eyes, Trains, Prodigal, Collapse the Light Into Earth
Writing good songs is by no means an easy task, regardless of the genre in which the artist chooses to operate. However, there have always been especially tricky particularities when it comes to penning a worthy progressive rock tune. As the punks themselves were quick to point out in anger during the 1970s, there is something inherently pompous – and therefore contrary to the spontaneity of rock music – about setting out to create conceptual works with multiphased tracks containing lengthy instrumental passages as well as movements that recall those of a classical piece. Any band who veers too far into that territory is bound to come off as being too pretentious for their own sake. To prevent such excessive self-indulgence, progressive rock composers have no choice but to counterbalance that excess with some good-old pop hooks, consequently having both to develop a talent for merging the complex with the catchy and to be aware that going too far into the latter spectrum is not wise either, lest they want to alienate their original audience.
For Porcupine Tree and its leader, Steven Wilson, the reaching of that middle-ground did not come quickly. Some fans may argue that by the group’s second or third albums (“Up the Downstair” and “The Sky Moves Sideways”, respectively), the band had already reached that point. But it was not until their fourth release, “Signify”, that the guys were able to trim down all the fat to deliver a work that was challenging, yet approachable and thoroughly likable, and with that magic equilibrium attained, Porcupine Tree would unleash a sequence of progressive rock classics, like “Stupid Dream”, from 1999, and “Lightbulb Sun”, from 2000. Coming on the heels of those records, “In Absentia” partially continues the trend while also somewhat setting a course of its own.
The continuation comes from how “In Absentia” is an album that packs sequences of instrumental flexing, examples of structural complexity, and moments of melodic accessibility without going overboard with any of them. Moreover, even if sometimes it manages to tie all of those elements inside the same track, it is able to do so concisely, for although most of its twelve tunes have more than five minutes in length, the longest ones fall below the eight-minute mark. Meanwhile, the sign that “In Absentia” is breaking away from the band’s successful immediate past and the proof that Steve Wilson is an artistically restless individual comes in how the album throws a solid dose of loud metal instrumentation into the music.
In a way, the mixture was – at that point – neither unforeseen nor new for Porcupine Tree. Anyone listening to the direct predecessors of “In Absentia” will notice that contrasting mighty walls of guitars with acoustic passages that could have come from a pop-rock album could be considered the band’s signature sound; however, here, not only do the guys simply choose to be louder and heavier than ever, usually building the instrumental portions of the songs over a fierce metal pounding, but they also go for that volume more often, with just four of the tunes escaping the touch of deafening distortions.
Opener “Blackest Eyes” is swift in announcing the increased potency of Porcupine Tree’s aggression. Right as it gets to twenty seconds, the band erupts in a burst of fury, with debuting drummer Gavin Harrison showing he was a perfect fit to play on a record of this nature by delivering furious rolls and fills. And just like it perfectly encapsulates the album’s volume, the tune is also a vivid display of how the group masters dynamics and how the metal leaning of “In Absentia” makes the gap between quiet and loud more blatant than ever, since the song has a mostly acoustic body that peaks in a chorus of angelic harmonies before returning to a vicious guitar attack. Even if acoustic passages are not as common as they were in previous works, given the more subdued moments tend to be led by muted electric crunch, keyboards, bass, or synthesized effects, this dynamic trait appears in a good slice of “In Absentia”, equally emerging – with various structures – in tracks like “Gravity Eyelids”, “Prodigal”, “The Creator Has a Mastertape”, and “Strip the Soul”.
This meeting between a soothing type of progressive rock and the violence of metal may be the defining trait of “In Absentia”, but it is far from being the only trick it knows how to execute. “Trains”, the album’s most popular song, does eventually turn heavy as it approaches its closure, but most of its six-minute length is an acoustic, layered, and multiphased adventure that includes a handful of notable melodic movements. “Lips of Ashes”, “.3”, and “Heartattack in a Layby” are ethereal psychedelic clouds of gentle sounds and floating melodies. “The Sound of Muzak” has tense verses with picked acoustic guitars and nearly spoken vocals that unfold into a heavenly chorus. And closer “Collapse the Light Into Earth”, with a piano, strings, and harmonies drifting through outer space, is a touching gem that treads the line between transcendental chant and apocalyptic echo.
Despite the variety found in the tone of its songs, “In Absentia” is a very consistent album in terms of sound, working inside a delimited spectrum and exploring it to its furthest limits. This coherence also exists in the record’s theme: even though it is not a conceptual work, the album tends to touch on psychological issues that can run so deep they may cause a person to lose touch with reality, with who they are, or with any sort of morality. Consequently, Steven Wilson’s main concern, which has always been the pressures of modernity, reappears but is accompanied by subjects such as regret, child abuse, and serial killers. At times, the disassociated images and thoughts that try to replicate the consciousness of the record’s troubled individuals can seem like they are excessively heavy-handed, but their usually dark nature has such synergy with the music of “In Absentia” that the fact Wilson appears to occasionally try too hard can be overlooked.
Nevertheless, “In Absentia” has a couple of problems that are not so easy to ignore. “Strip the Soul” is simply a weak tune; lacking any sort of melodic spark, its quiet-and-loud dynamics feel like a needless exploration of ground that is better covered elsewhere in the record. Besides, the four tracks right in the middle of the album are a classic case of questionable sequencing, since three of them (with the excellent “Prodigal” being the exception) are heavy on instrumental passages, which while great could have used some separation. Yet, there is no denying that “In Absentia” is a marvelous work of progressive rock and one of the brightest spots of Porcupine Tree’s discography, because in addition to boasting that ever elusive balance between complexity and accessibility, it also carries a heaviness that suits its subject, a firm acoustic pop-rock layer that makes it approachable, and a new artistic step-forward for a band that would go on to build one of the genre’s most impressive runs of records.