Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Porcupine Tree - In Absentia (2002)

This review might come out a bit lopsided due to Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson being a friend of a friend. Specifically my friend Carl has worked on quite a few of the guy's record covers, and so I've met Steve Wilson around Carl's place at some point or other. I wasn't really sure what Porcupine Tree were supposed to be beyond assuming them to be something to do with everyone from Japan who hadn't been David Sylvian, and I didn't quite make the connection. Conversely, Steve knew of Konstruktivists - of which I was once a member - and had read a few things I wrote in The Sound Projector magazine, so that made me feel satisfyingly famous. I also knew he'd had something to do with remixing old Muslimgauze tracks, so he seemed an interesting if fairly quiet sort of bloke. I had no real idea he was some massive stadium-filling megastar until an old friend from school mentioned that Porcupine Tree were one of his favourite bands, thus allowing me to showboat with the I know that dude routine whilst experiencing simultaneous astonishment at how big this group actually were without my having had the faintest idea.

Porcupine Tree - my wife pointed out that the name suggests one of those bands formed by Andy Dwyer in Parks & Recreation: Mouse Rat, Scarecrow Boat, Teddybear Suicide and the rest; and for no particularly good reason I'd assumed they would probably sound a bit like Japan, which they don't; and Steve Wilson has supposedly been known to read my blog posts, so thank God it turns out that Porcupine Tree are actually decent. Admittedly, I probably wouldn't bother writing anything if In Absentia resembled Jonathan King out-takes, but all the same it's nice that I won't have to lie.

Eight or nine plays in and I'm amazed at how good this record sounds, and how it works very much like a single piece of music in an almost symphonic sense. Of course that's probably not such a surprise for something so obviously evolved from progressive rock roots, but the surprise is how the term progressive has been taken literally as a challenge so as to yield something genuinely new, genuinely forward looking - as opposed to twiddly fingered nostalgia for bands playing songs about Bilbo fucking Baggins. In Absentia retains the best elements of its tradition, the folksy acoustic morning dew sparkle of Jethro Tull and mathematically peculiar time signatures of such conviction and raw emotional power that you don't immediately notice the structural eccentricities. In addition, the contrast of crushing digital slabs of overdriven metal with the softer, more ethereal elements - not least Wilson's fantastically evocative voice - are captured with startling clarity, and so what might otherwise sound like an exercise in studio jiggery-pokery carries itself with a beautifully organic sense of pace.

Somewhere in that paragraph is probably a clue as to why the first comparison which came to me was Ray Davies of all people, not quite the same kind of storytelling, but a similarly wistful quality which goes somewhat further than Radiohead having a bit of a sad. In fact this is what Radiohead probably imagine they sound like.

It's not a happy album, and it in fact sounds like the anatomy of a breakdown in places, without quite invoking the sort of melodrama which needs to spell it all out in case you missed something. It's Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea rather than a self-harming character in a Neil Gaiman comic, and that's probably about as close as I can get it, which is why this is a piece of music rather than an essay. We've all had days like this.

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