Sunday, 3 May 2009
[Review] Porcupine Tree - In Absentia
Porcupine Tree. The psychedelic-transformed prog rock band from Britain that everyone prog-head has heard. In Absentia was a crucial turning point in style - arguably that which pushed them in the direction they are at the moment - for better or worse (better!).
In an interview with front man Steve Wilson (and who Porcupine Tree is really the brainchild of), he says how in the lead up to writing In Absentia he rediscovered metal - saying that he was wrong about it being only for angsty teenagers, citing bands such as Meshuggah and Opeth. Saying that the new album would be heavier, he probably had no idea on the repercussions that this would have in the next 7 years of his recording career.
It is also important to note that I am reviewing the 2CD European edition that includes two bonus tracks.
4:23 Blackest Eyes
4:39 Lips of Ashes
4:59 The Sound of Muzak
7:56 Gravity Eyelids
6:33 Wedding Nails
5:21 The Creator Has a Mastertape
4:15 Heartattack in a Layby
7:21 Strip the Soul
5:54 Collapse the Light into Earth
5:21 Drown with Me
Presentation (coverart / cdart / booklet)
My first impression of front cover was "Woah, is this really a Porcupine Tree cover?" It looked really ominous and is a real indication of the content inside this album. Creepiness aside - it's a damn good cover. The back again had slightly eerie artwork - disturbing looking imagery that wouldn't look out of place on the next horror flick cash-in at the cinema. Except this actually does look scary when in the context of an album. Scribbles of nonsensical writing, dark alleyways and more abstract artwork inside the booklet just add to all of this tension brought out just from the presentation. (Oh and Steve, what the hell is your deal with trains?!) It is note worthy that the booklet contains the album lyrics, something some bands choose not to - something Porcupine Tree aren't guiltless of, although I'm sure Steve has his er, reasons.
The CD is minimalistic. Black with the title in blood red with a tiny splatter of white in a few small places. Simple, effective and pretty. [The bonus disc is the same but with the red and the black reversed.] I am unable to say whether the normal version has this cd or not, but this one is certainly satisfactory.
What an opener. Twanging guitars into riffage that makes the album-titled first track from Lightbulb Sun seem like some acoustic country music you don't even need a subwoofer for. When Steve's voice kicks in you realise this is a good song. In fact, it's a brilliant song. The lyrics are such that it's impossible to resist singing along (at least, in your head, and I can guarantee that you will sing along live). A promising start from new drummer Gavin Harrison who made his debut on this album after the long-time Christ Maitland departed :( A recurring theme among a lot of the songs on this album, Richard's keyboard magic shines in golden rays in between the rocking guitars, giving the sound depth and subtlety.
10/10 - rocking
Ah... Trains. Number one live favourite of all PT songs since In Absentia's released, most commonly played encore song. This in itself speaks for the supreme amazing(ness?) that is Trains. A combination of Steve's distinct acoustic guitar and good old electric combine together to make a song that succeeds on so many levels. One particular section (3:18) strikes me as stand out especially - casual acoustic strumming with the electric picking away with a melody that no-one could deny is attractive. While the lyrics aren't as easy to sing to as Blackest Eyes, they are still great, accentuated by Steve's wonderful voice. To round off this marvellous song, the last minute or so is done in a distinctly heavier tone. Heavier, but not too heavy to ruin the song (not to say heavy/soft cannot be done *Opeth plug*), but in this song they limit it just enough to flow nicely. Of course when they play it live it is an entirely different matter - the whole song being made heavier, perhaps to the detriment to the original purpose of the song but hey, it still sounds great (better, I would argue). This is the song that Steve is famous for breaking strings on, goodness knows why.
10/10 - genius
Lips of Ashes
Enter track three with a far more laid back and more 'old-style' Porcupine Tree. I have to say, The vocals on this song are astonishing, and being a vocal-driven song, well that's a very good thing indeed. But the vocals are not the only thing that shine out on this track. Like trains before it, the acoustic and electric duo are back, with a heart-rending solo and good acoustic sliding, it might even outdo it on style, if not the tune itself.
8/10 - touching and unique
The Sound of Muzak
The first thing that struck me as obvious with this track was the drumming. I found it deceptively simple, and if you actually see it live or watch a cover on video you'll find it more complex than you would think, which is nice, as it is the beginning of showing Gavin's true drumming ability. Along with Blackest Eyes, Muzak has incredibly catchy lyrics that are very easy to latch onto and sing along live, especially the chorus. The solo on this track is one of my favourite too. Like the rest of the album, they aren't flashy, but simple, effective and fitting.
This song is also where I noticed the presence of a certain Colin Edwin, the bassist. Simple bass lines that have an astonishing power to be incredibly groovy and brilliant while remaining slow and basic.
9/10 - amazing
This song can roughly be split into two halves. The first is centred around haunting vocals that really show off Steve's power as a vocalist, despite not being apparently spectacular or particularly skilled or unique. The other nice part of the first half is the drums at the start. Using some sort of weird equaliser setting (I am told), it sounds tinny and rather like tapping the rim of your drum - but all the time. The gradual build up to the second half in such a way that initially I did expect it. Of course, as soon as I heard it I instantly fell in love with the slick guitar and casual drumming, and on subsequent listens can rarely refrain from air guitaring. This is a must song for live Porcupine Tree goers, being even more awesome, as if it cannot be truly captured on record.
9/10 - awestruck
To sum up Wedding Nails is simple: ultra catchy and groovy instrumental. And when I say catchy, I mean a combination of utter 'riffage' and another one of Colin's rediculously cool bass lines. Part way in the song slows down for some of Porcupine Tree's heaviest riffs yet, only to build back up to the viral-catchy start of the song around the 3:45 mark, with a slighty pause giving you a split-second to realise it's going back to the awesome. Like Gravity Eyelids, this song is incredible live, and is a must-have in setlists (both are luckily pretty common in setlists actually). I almost forgot Gavin's drumming wizardry comes into view on this song too - his double bass pedals slamming in short, sharp bursts giving the song the impact it undeniably gives off. Perhaps the most unique part of the song however, is the end section. The final minute and a half is ambient and eerie - incredibly effective in the contrast to the endless riffs and rocking from moments ago.
10/10 - 'riffage'
What is a very good song is unfortunately probably the weakest song on the album so far, despite... well, being very good. An awesome twangy guitar coupled with another simple-but-effective solo and a great chorus ultimately fails to meet the incredible quality that has preceded it. But at least it leads very nicely into the next song...
7/10 - very good
Opening with one of Colin's by now known bass lines, .3 is almost an instrumental, with a couple of scarce vocal lines that do nothing to disturb the first true peek at the vast array of samples that Richard (on keyboards) uses, the violins being my favourite. Suffering from the same problem as the last track - this is a very good song on an album where 'very good' just doesn't cut it.
The Creator Had a Mastertape
You know that last song? The one with the catchy bass at the start? Well that was nothing compared to this. The start with the veering guitar into a short drum bash that rolls into Colin's best on the album (so far). To top it off, the ripping guitar that starts only moments after signifies that this will truly be one great song. But can it overcome the problems that the last two faced? Frankly, yes. Another stand out drum track, creepy lyrics "He raised a proper family, and tied them to a bed" makes this song the most overlooked on the album. Perhaps it is the lyrics, which are admittedly not pleasant. But hey, if you don't like them, then I wouldn't look up the rest of the album's meaning, and would go get a different Porcupine Tree album.
Heartattack in a Layby
Serene, calm and haunting. These three words perhaps describe this song. After the faster paced Creator, this song seems even slower. Combine Steve Wilson's incredibly touching performance with some truly great lyrics "Got this feeling inside me, don't feel too good" and you get the best vocals on the album, perhaps of all of Porcupine Tree's work. And to top it of, he uses some of the best use of vocal layering that I've seen, perhaps even rivalling some of Neal Morse's efforts in that field ;) Combine this stellar (and surprising) vocal track from Steve, then combine it with a chilling acoustic guitar and keyboard that quietly play in the background, and you have not only one of the best songs on the album, but one of the best Porcupine Tree songs full stop.
10/10 - wow.
Strip the Soul
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a rival against 'Creator' for the most disturbing Porcupine Tree in terms of lyrics. "Raise the kids good, beat the kids good and tie them up". But lyrics are not the only stand out part of this song. Colin's bass line is second to none bar the Creator one (I sense a rivalry here!) Unfortunately I think that The Creator has a Mastertape wins. Initially, I did not like the chorus of this song, and I do not seem to be along in thinking this. Since then, my impression has changed and I love the use of the effect, but it's still not as effective as the Creator chorus, giving Creator a 2 points lead (however the verse vocals, especially the whispering, are incredibly well done, not the mention the guitar solo!)
9/10 - moody, heavy and brilliant
Collapse the Light into Earth
I have to say, this song has the best melody of the entire album. After hearing even one bar of the keyboard, you know this. It is simply beautiful - certainly a contestant to Deadwing's Lazarus in terms of best 'soft' ballad. the subtle vocal effects and touching lyrics only increase this sense of amazement, not to mention the background mellotron and violins.
10/10 - beautiful and touching
Drown With Me
Utilising the same acoustic guitar, Drown With Me is an upbeat track with far more sinister lyrics that ultimately succeeds at being a spectacular track. Added bonus points for the very well done vocal layering too. Why was this left of the album again?
9/10 - MIA
Chloroform is an odd track. I say this because I discovered that on Wikipedia in the credits the music is listed as Steve and Chris Maitland. Wait a second, didn't he leave after Light Bulb Sun? But in any case, I feel that this unfortunately is the weakest track on the album. Despite a nice contrast of the heavy and light sections, as well as a nice guitar solo, this song ultimately fails to keep my interest very well. Ah well, it's a bonus track anyway.
5/10 - Eh
This album succeeds on so many levels it's a pleasant surprise for Porcupine Tree to release yet another album that raises the bar...again. A creepy concept that roughly fits the album together despite not being a true concept album, gives it some sort of direction and purpose (and certainly gives Steve the opportunity to visit the dark side of his lyrical brain). Top notch musicianship and singing, combined with crisp production (and a great 5.1 mix!) make this album incredible in every aspect. Go buy it. Now.
Hrm, perhaps nearly 2000 words is a tad long for a review.