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Reviewed by - George Bennett
Afterthoughts by Dw Dunphy and John Dunphy

Porcupine Tree
in absentia
Album -
DVD-Audio -

Released: March 9, 2004
Origination Year: 2003
Time: N/A
Tracks: 13
Produced by:
Steven Wilson & Jeff Levison (5.1)
Style: Studio
Format: DVD-Audio
Enhancement: MLP

Ya know, I kinda liked The Mars Volta's (insanely greatly titled) De-loused in the Comatorium.  Really great, ground-breaking new music in the prog-rock vein.  The problem I had with the disc is that there was just too much rap/shredder/thrash-metal inter-mixed with the great prog stuff.  Still, very adventurous, and boding well for the future of neo-prog rock.

I don't really care for the current crop of neo-prog rockers:  Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, Transatlantic (the only one's I've really listened to and am familiar with).  They're just too "samey", if you will.  All of a kind and kinda "flat", nothing new to offer and not really exciting...no meat to chew on, just cardboard cut-outs.  (I'm not trying to make enemies here - just my opinion, folks.)  I remember the good old days when the original prog-rockers were lighting up the sky with fire!!


That said, I have stumbled upon a band that is new to me, but one that has released eleven albums since 1992, has a large UK following, and a decent cult following in the US .  (Boy, if I haven't heard of them in some eleven years, they must have been making an effort to stay under the radar!)  Said band is Porcupine Tree, and their eleventh release (2002) is entitled in absentia.  (The DVD-A was released in late 2003.)


I discovered in absentia on DVD-A while at the local pay'n'play recently.  There it sat, in the DVD-A section (duh!)...three copies.  It's the cover art that grabbed me (I'm a sucker for good album covers), and then the price...so I snatched it up...I took a chance.  One of the great thrills as a music lover is taking a chance on a "new" group/album and striking a little nugget of gold.  I've been doing that for many years and it still gives me the same thrill today as it did those many years ago.  I've not heard this album on CD (or in any other format), DVD-A only...and, man oh man, when I hit the play button, I was mesmerized!


The UK 's Steven Wilson is the main Tree man, writing, singing, and playing guitar since the beginning.  (The band is four-piece.)  Props to Steven Wilson!  Let me try, as best I can, to describe  Wilson 's music on in absentia.  It's kind of a strange, smooth, lovely pop, couched in a neo-prog-rock bed with goth touches, providing great texture and mood along with prog and arena-rock crunch.  Imagine, if you will, a kind of Umma Gumma cum Wish You Were Here  for the 2000s, combined with the poppier Yes of the album Yes (pre Howe and Wakeman), and King Crimson's first, In the Court of the Crimson King.  No kidding, when I listen, I hear all this stuff combined into an aurally beautiful, original mix.  The harmonies are heavenly, all lush and warm, rather like the best Pink Floyd stuff.  Wilson 's lead guitar is, at times, spacey and melodic, at other times reminiscent of Frank Zappa in slo-mo... always excellent!  


The DVD-A is 48Khz/24 bit in both DVD-A and DTS, and 48Khz/16 bit in PCM stereo.  That means you can play it on your regular old DVD player (DTS capable) and get the best sound the disc has to offer, which is demo-quality!  I can't imagine hearing In Absentia in any format but surround.  This disc is another one of those tailor-made for surround sound (and, again, is mixed by the ever more omnipresent Elliot Scheiner)!  All speakers are active throughout the disc, and this impressive, beautiful music just washes over you like waves of aural ecstasy...the guitars at times electric, at times acoustic, with a wash of synthesizers and strings working their magic from everywhere in the listening room...very impressive!!  The clarity and openness is perfect for this music, and Wilson is not shy in fully utilizing the surround effect.  (The disc does, however, lack that last bit of openness, transparency, crispness, and three-dimensionality of the very best hi-res discs in DVD-A and SACD.)  There are three extra songs on the DVD-A that are not on the original CD.  Other extras are nil.  


Well, I have a new disc to add to my list of favorites, as well as a new band to further check out!  So, what have we learned here today, kids?  Repeat after me:  don't be afraid to take a chance on new music!  Listen to that voice inside you - intuition, if you will.  It's telling you something.  You might get stiffed, but you might find that nugget of gold that makes collecting music so worthwhile!  The Mars Volta's De-loused in the Comatorium might be a disc you wanna check out if you like the thrashier/shreddier side of neo-prog.  Steve Wilson is pretty much a musical genius!  If you like any of the groups, or combinations of groups listed above, and want some truly excellent music presented in truly excellent DVD-A and DTS surround, then you MUST go out and find Porcupine Tree's in absentia and snatch it up, like, right now!!  (Tell 'em I sent you...I get a nickle for each one sold...heheh - NOT!) 

(Note:  this might be the perfect disc for those of you wanting to check out hi-res surround sound without having to buy a new player first.  It will sound just as good on your regular DTS capable-DVD player as it does in DVD-Audio.  (Make sure the bass is dialed in correctly and that your speaker set-up is well-calibrated - basically, each speaker's output is pretty much reaching the listening position at the same volume, at the same time!)  So, if you're already set up for home theater, check it out if you've been wondering about this new music format.  You'll be amazed!)

Afterthoughts: Dw. Dunphy

Ask most people what they know about the band Porcupine Tree and you’ll get a lot of puzzled looks. For the few that don’t think you’re having a stroke, they’ll tell you it is a new band that kind of sounds “Tool-lite”. While I don’t agree with that assertion, aside from both bands favoring the odd time signatures of progressive rock, I do agree that for us US fans, the group kind of fell out of the sky.

Starting out in the early 90s as a psychedelic, one-man show starring the multitalented Steven Wilson, the faux group made a lot of headway in the UK , with demand for live appearances prompting the formation of a proper “band”. In came keyboardist Richard Barbieri from the group Japan , longtime friend and bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Chris Maitland. The sound changed from the early stuff, culminating in a full-fledged prog album, The Sky Moves Sideways, and a new song-driven ethic found on the subsequent releases (Signify, Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun respectively).

In Absentia, both a culmination of musical conciseness and a calling card for the instrumental heaviness creeping into compositions, isn’t so far afield from the rest of the output. The mostly acoustic driven “Trains”, the clever and caustic “The Sound of Muzak” and the stately closer “Collapse The Light Into Earth” all betray the fact that Porcupine Tree don’t really want to show up on MTV’s reconstituted Headbanger’s Ball. New drummer Gavin Harrison lays down serious chops on the opening “Blackest Eyes”, one of the heavier tracks on the disc, but there’s plenty of subtlety going on here.

It’s as good an introduction as any to the band and after a few listens, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to investigate the band further.

Afterthoughts: John Dunphy

My first exposure to Porcupine Tree was when I saw them open for Yes during their 2002 tour. When we arrived at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester , NY , PT’s set was already over half over. The first song I can remember ever hearing from the band was In Absentia’s track 5, “Gravity Eyelids” and when the song, after about two minutes of quiet mellow chill, snaps into action with Mr. Wilson’s chunky gee-tar and Mr. Harrison’s pounding skins, I knew I needed to investigate further.

Porcupine Tree is in many ways a thinking man’s kind of band. Not in the over technical, over done bullshit that some proggers like to lay down to show they can musically wank with the best of them but, much like Opeth (which as many already know is closely related to PT in that their last three albums have been produced by Steven Wilson), you really need to delve into this music to get the full experience. It’s not background noise, it’s the kind of stuff you’re going to want to sit down with a fine sound system, a cool drink in hand and just absorb.

Not that it’s not good background music either. Throw it on, let the acoustic bounce of “Trains”, the heartbreakingly somber crawl of “Heart Attack in a Lay-by” or the intentionally ironically commercial minded pop of “The Sound of Muzak” (read the lyrics and you’ll know what I mean) serve as your soundtrack to the afternoon. Just make sure you give it your utmost attention at least once, you’re sure to be well rewarded for your patience.

Track Listing:

Blackest Eyes / Trains / Lips of Ashes / The Sound of Musak / Gravity Eyelids / Wedding Lids / Prodigal / 3 / The Creator Has a Masterpiece / Heartattack in a Layby / Strip the Soul / Collapse the Light Into Earth / Futile* / Drown With Me* / Chloroform*.

* DVD-Audio Bonus Tracks

Porcupine Tree:

Steven Wilson - Vocals / Guitar
Colin Edwin - Bass
Chris Maitland - Drums
Richard Barbieri - Keyboards

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