Friday, September 19, 2014

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - In Absentia

I sure do love me the contrasts on this album, how the crushing metal guitars collide with walls of cotton candy pop vocal harmonies and melt into acoustic instruments. Some of the lyrics give me the creeps now as they can be mighty dark and icky.
Twenty-two seconds into my first listen of this album my ears perked up. “What’s this? A mysterious intro followed by angular metal riffing? Now there’s a relaxed acoustic guitar topped with melodic verse vocals (real singing) and … no … a catchy chorus complete with rich harmonies, similar in feel to that first album by Asia … now more metal and …” I was hooked.

Although relatively new to the states, Porcupine Tree have been around since 1987, exploring various avenues of musical creativity, earning the moniker “What Pink Floyd would sound like if Pink Floyd were making good albums.” On In Absentia these talented veterans lean toward metal and modern rock, drawing many comparisons to Radiohead and, as evidenced from their video, Tool. Given the luxury of full artistic control on this outing, they have created 12 works of contrast, mixing a slightly dark edge in with the metal and rock, brightening the pot with shimmers of pop and a slice of progressive.

“Trains” strikes this delicate balance often evident in these songs, starting with plaintiff, fragile vocals and acoustic guitar akin to Zeppelin’s acoustic work. An instrumental section near the end incorporates both banjo and handclaps before jumping back into a heavier fray of guitars, all without breaking stride or feeling disjointed. Although written with a 7/4 time signature in the verse, “The Sound of Muzak” is one infectious hook aching to show radio what real music sounds like. The video song, “Strip the Soul”, is a creepy number about a man who bumps off his family, clocking in at a mere seven-plus minutes. While the verse and chorus are appropriately moody, it’s the inventive instrumental section that wins my vote. Aggressively played acoustic guitar with a Fripp-like solo (all in 3/4 time) the song goes into a 5/2 instrumental buildup that dissolves into a bare, chilling cello before the band crashes back in with heavy guitars. Another lengthy track is the 6:33 instrumental “Wedding Nails” wherein, like King Crimson’s “Red,” the crunchy guitars career along at breakneck speed throughout, only stopping for a brief period to explore some chunky rhythm ideas midway through while accompanied by stimulating guitar sounds. “The Creator Has A Mastertape” is a nervous drum and bass song that spookily intones the story of a man who “captured and collected things” and “raised a proper family / So he could tie them to a bed”.

More contrast is found in the relaxed “Prodigal” where leader Steve Wilson sings “I tried the capsule and I tried the smoke / I tried to aid escape like normal folk / But I never seem to get the joke” while surrounded with Crosby, Stills and Nash vocal harmonies. “Lips of Ashes” is reminiscent of Floyd’s “A Pillow of Winds” with ethereal, spacey sounds. Former XTC member Dave Gregory provides lush string arrangements for the minimalist “3” and the delicate “Collapse The Light Into Earth” which is simple piano, floating vocals, reedy organ and strings, an appropriately haunting album closer.

Porcupine Tree expertly manage to mix pounding rhythms, spacey sounds, acoustic journeys, pop-tinged harmonies, menacing guitars and thoughtful lyrics into a thoroughly engaging album that continues to reveal more of itself with each listen, haunting your subconscious with it’s imagery and sounds. As a music freak, you hope to find three or four albums per year as good as this. A nearly perfect album!

Originally published in 2003 in WhatzUp

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