Porcupine Tree In Absentia- 2002
RMR Album Rating- 9 (Excellent)
Underneath the surface of Porcupine Tree’s accessible post-alternative rock masterpiece In Absentia lies a much less accessible, complex, and dark underbelly of Opethian metal, Floydian atmosphere, and a lyrical concept written mainly in the first person perspective of a serial killer. All of these deeper elements could easily go completely unnoticed by the casual listener, and the album would still be great. However, when you weave them all together, they form a blanket of soundscapes, atmosphere, and emotional resonance that is simply stunning.
In Absentia (Porcupine Tree’s 7th album) was released on Lava Records, and it is the band’s first album on a major label; therefore, many fans and critics call In Absentia the band’s breakout album. That might be true in terms of sales, circulation, and its corresponding effect on the band’s increased fan size, but it certainly should not be taken as commentary that Porcupine Tree’s previous albums were weak or inferior. Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree have been around since the late 80’s, and most of their catalog was released in the 90’s. Many of those records are just as innovative and interesting as In Absentia; they just didn’t get the recognition and attention that a major label can provide. I will say that since the release of In Absentia, Porcupine Tree’s popularity and impact has increased with each subsequent release, and they are now commonly viewed as one of the true groundbreakers and leaders in the current progressive rock scene (although band leader Steven Wilson doesn’t really consider them a progressive rock band, at least not by progressive rock’s traditional definition).
The sound of In Absentia takes all the musical elements of their previous releases that include atmospheric space rock, alternative rock, and post-alternative progressive rock, and then injects them with a dose of metal that somehow remains in the background and in the foreground all at the same time. In other words, I sometimes listen to In Absentia and barely notice the heavy metal riffing, but other times the album sounds like a full on metal album, and this is really the genius of In Absentia: none of its instrumental characteristics are out of place or overdone, and I’ve found that my listening experience with the album is often predicated by my mood. If I’m in a laid back mood, the atmospheric side of the album really shines through, and—on the other hand, if I’m in an energized mood, the metal aspects of the album shine through. The sound and production of the album is in absolute perfect balance.
In addition to the layers of instrumentation that In Absentia incorporates, many of the songs also present a lyrical concept that explores the psychology of a serial killer in the form of a kind of mental diary. Most of the lyrics are subtle and ambiguous, and there are not any songs that document the actual acts of the central character in detail, so it would be very easy to miss the concept altogether and still enjoy the album, but if you do explore the concept and follow the lyrics with the music, it makes the album even more fulfilling.
As for the songs themselves, “Blackest Eyes,” “The Creator has a Mastertape,” and “Strip the Soul” standout as the most apparent songs that adhere to the concept, and all three songs are excellent. “Blackest Eyes” is the album opener and not only does it set the tone for the songs that follow the lyrical concept of the album, but it also features extremely heavy guitar sections from Steven Wilson that foreshadow the metal sections that appear throughout the rest of the album (click here to listen to Blackest Eyes).
There are also songs on the album that follow the concept in a much more subtle way like “Lips of Ashes” and “Gravity Eyelids.” The lyrical content of these songs is ambiguously disturbing and intriguing at the same time, and the music that accompanies these songs fits the lyrics perfectly. My favorite of these (and my favorite track on the album) is “Gravity Eyelids.” Before I knew the lyrical concept of the album, I always assumed the song was just about someone slowly waking up, but now I interpret the song as someone waking up after being drugged and kidnapped. Musically, “Gravity Eyelids” starts off as a beautiful soft ballad as the victim is waking up, but then around the 4-minute mark, the song transitions into a full on metal track with some of the heaviest riffing on the album. (Click here to listen to Gravity Eyelids).
Steven Wilson has commented in interviews that there is a theme about a serial killer that runs through the album, but it is unclear if all the songs are related to the concept. As mentioned, even the lyrics that are definitely related to the concept are ambiguous at best, so it is tough to tell if all the songs follow the concept. Regardless, all the songs are great, and although all the songs have the same feel throughout the album, each song manages to sound unique as well, giving the album an important element of diversity. The last two songs that I’ll highlight are “The Sound of Muzak,” which doesn’t take on the metal sound that many of the songs do, but it highlights Porcupine Tree’s complete mastery of the post-alternative rock sound. Lastly, “Collapse the Light into Earth” is a stunning piano and orchestrated ballad that closes the album. Although it is just Wilson singing over the piano, it avoids sounding sappy at all, and it somehow fits perfectly on an album that is very heavy and about a serial killer; the logic doesn’t work, but the song certainly does, and I think the album would sound incomplete without the song as its conclusion (Click here to listen to Collapse The Light Into Earth).
Taking all this into account, my favorite part of In Absentia is that it is both subtle and blatant at the same time, which is certainly a contradiction in terms— but completely true. As an example, I liked In Absentia from the beginning as an intelligent post-alternative rock record; I really didn’t pick up on how heavy certain parts of the album were, and I certainly didn’t pick up on the dark concept that is webbed in between some of the songs. Later, once I recognized the heavy sections of the album, they became very apparent as did the concept. Thus, the ultimate elegance of this album is that it can really take on any form of music you want: alternative, atmospheric, progressive, metal, thematic, or— just a simple collection of precisely executed songs, but one thing is for sure, whichever way you choose to hear the album, it is a fantastic record.
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