Porcupine Tree – ‘In Absentia’ A DVD-Audio review by Patrick Cleasby

The name Porcupine Tree may not mean much to you now, but trust me, by the end of the year, it will. In an inspired move DTS Entertainment have taken an act that is still relatively underground on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit with a large and devoted following, and transformed their latest album into a stunning DVD-Audio disc using the best surround talent money can buy – just like Steely Dan’s superb ‘Everything Must Go’ DVD-Audio, this mix was created by Elliot Scheiner, and mastered by Darcy Proper. The resulting disc becomes available on Monday 8th March in the U.K. and the following day in the U.S. You can bet your bottom dollar that a lot of DTS marketing muscle will be put into making this the must-have demo disc of the year, and it is worthy of the challenge.

In Absentia’ was produced by Porcupine Tree main-man Steven Wilson, engineered by Rush cohort Paul Northfield, and mixed by Tim Palmer, whose work in similar areas has included The Mission, All About Eve and Robert Plant. It was originally released by Warner’s imprint Lava in late 2002 in the states, and early 2003 in Europe. It was their first major label release after more than ten years of U.K. independent releases, and their excellent two prior releases, ‘Stupid Dream’ and ‘Lightbulb Sun’ have also been obtained by Lava – I wouldn’t preclude possible surround outings for them. Throughout their independent career the band exuded an intelligent musical ability and consistency of purpose, producing interesting and varied albums, and excitingly dynamic live shows. They have always resisted attempts to pigeonhole their music, but if comparisons have to be drawn (and they may have to be, if only to indicate their likely appeal to the uninitiated) this music has to fall into the oft-dreaded categorisation of Progressive Rock. What does this tired old clichй actually mean? At its simplest it means that as the band’s stature has grown, they have recently been seen supporting the likes of Dream Theater and Yes, and this juxtaposition seems to make sense, no doubt helping them build their fanbase. The matter of influences and how they affected this record was discussed in depth when I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Wilson a week ahead of release of this DVD-Audio title, and he took the time to explain what is being aimed for, both in terms of the presentation of the music, and its ‘reimagining’ in a surround context. The full transcript of the interview is available in the features section:

‘Steven Wilson – Producing Porcupine Tree’s ‘In Absentia’ for DVD-Audio’

As most people will be approaching this disc as a surround presentation, this review is based on the 24-bit 48kHz surround track, available as either DTS for DVD-Video users or MLP for DVD-Audio users. Some might view it as a shame that the maximum possible resolution is not used, but as the original record was tracked at 48kHz it is the more honest approach, and the album is so well recorded that there is very little to remind you that this is not a 24/96 mix – it is such an accomplished and enjoyable one that you simply forget about matters of resolution. Unfortunately, despite announced plans to feature 24-bit stereo on the disc, the stereo track has had to be included as a 16bit 48kHz version, offering little benefit over the CD version to potential stereo-only purchasers. That having been said, the third bonus track, ‘Futile’, appears here for the first time other than prior promo and free download appearances.

The album opens with ‘Blackest Eyes’ – a real declaration of intent: spine-tingling guitar jangles from the rear convey both the nerve-jarring sensations of tension and anxiety which pervade this record more than any prior Porcupine Tree album (and that is saying something!), and the fact that this is a surround presentation which does not shy from full use of the surround channels. Then, with startling ferocity, in comes trademark No.2 of this album – the monster riff. If you love riffs, you’ll love this record. Wilson makes superb use of the tightly controlled modern rock guitar sound, and conjures up imaginative pile-driver riffs throughout, often contrasted with pastoral or psychedelic sections far more inventively than similar efforts by other users of the old quiet-loud trick. This album opener is a stunner, with fuzzed and wah-wahed guitar circling the room on the verse; superbly well-recorded, energetic, and focused drumming from new boy (and revered drum tutor) Gavin Harrison; and an organ break and surround ambience from long-time Porcupine Tree member and one-time Japan synth-man Richard Barbieri.

Vocals are a major part of the Porcupine Tree approach, with choruses frequently utilising lush, massed harmonies, often from the rear. The varying treatments of Wilson’s lead vocals also brings interest. Second track, ‘Trains’, is a Porcupine Tree typical childhood reverie with a much more intimate vocal, primarily from the centre, which is supported by a disembodied piano and a keyboard drone. An acoustic guitar solo emerges from the centre of the front soundstage as the track builds, only to breakdown into a surprising banjo-led interlude from the rear speakers, accompanied by spookily holographic hand-claps dancing around the room. The riff returns for the finale with a wickedly strong guitar tone, before those claps fade to the rear.

Segue with fairground noises front and rear into ‘Lips Of Ashes’ – massive doubled plucked guitars take over along with an abstract voice and Mr. Barbieri’s synth surrounds, on to another stunning close harmony vocal section – this one sounding quite Gilmour-ish. We then finish with a huge throbbing bass synth, and another solo with a satisfyingly big tone.

The Sound Of Muzak’ is a heartfelt complaint about what is happening to this magical gift of music we all enjoy so much. The introductory guitar figure joins from the rear, and the drier vocal is again in the centre, supported by the front pair. Against this comes a processed vocal from the rear, and throughout the whopping kick drum sound and foregrounded ride cymbal drive things along. So to does the fluid fretless bassline from founder member Colin Edwin, firmly anchored in the centre speaker. Wilson’s passion for his subject matter is evident from a very expressive and incisive guitar solo, with a phantom front presentation. A phasey version of the refrain takes us out.

Gravity Eyelids’ is one to watch out for as the uncompromising approach to what speakers end-users may have in their system means that if you don’t have full range rears excessive volumes may result in some distortion, (even with bass management set to “small surround speakers”), as a massive kick drum and big bass synth buzzing fill the surrounds. There are great solos here – a muted synth solo starts in the centre and shoots out to the surrounds, while Wilson supplies a very Steve Rothery E-bow solo. This track and the following instrumental ‘Wedding Nails’ also demonstrate some stunning instrumental interplay in the bass and drums, coupled with great stop-start riffs, strafing guitar work and high keyboard drones which could only remind one of classic ‘Moving Pictures’ era of Rush – the latter track is very much of an ilk with ‘YYZ’. This is the sound of a real band, really playing with each other.

Prodigal’ starts with a conventional up-front presentation, but then guitar and piano notes creep in from the rear. Organ, slide guitar and the harmony vocals in the chorus make it sound very Floyd-y, and later on the voices could even be deemed reminiscent of Yes. There is a very satisfying deep Wal bass sound, which transmutes into the intro of ‘3’. This is a pumping bass loop, the kind which in concert sees Edwin at the edge of stage left, playing away, beatific grin on his face and stare fixed on the middle distance – a real treat to ‘see’ and hear! On record strings join from the rear, along with a distant E-bow guitar and a metronomic drumkit in the front soundstage. The track builds to a break of dislocated psychedelic washes and strummed acoustics, and then the (minimal) lyric is relayed by all-around vocals. A heavy bass loop with wah wah guitar effects firing off everywhere lead to some great string parts by David Gregory of XTC fame in the rear, contrasted by Barbieri effects in the front.

The insistent rhythm of the bass and a very dry drumkit with ringing snare lead off ‘The Creator Has A Mastertape’, to be joined by space guitars running all around the room. Thickly processed vocals in the verse turn into an almost out-of-control thrash of all-round guitars in the chorus. The second verse adds distorted rear speaker guitars, before we get to an end section where the synth chases around the room while the thrash continues at the rear. The segue into and out of ‘Heartattack in a Layby’ is a truck passing through, highly reminiscent of ‘The Pros and Cons Of Hitchhiking’. The track itself is one of the shorter tracks on the album, and also one of its landmarks, exuding a palpable sense of bleak anxiety, with one of the more naturalistic lead vocals gently pulled out of the front soundstage, with a ghostly harmony from the rear. Heavily accented guitars and ululating backing voices are placed around the room, with an emphatic electric piano from the rears, and the voices turn into a fabulous angelic round before the truck returns.

The grand finale is another pairing of a riff-monster track and a more pastoral closer. ‘Strip The Soul’ is another one which begins with a monster Colin bass part. A sinister vibe is brought by circling synths for the verses, and then there is a switch to more processed vocal and big riff action in the chorus. That vibe returns with more guitar and surround ambience, before doubled acoustics take over the riff from the rear, with insinuating whispered vocals. A great wah wah solo kicks in front right, with an organ counterpoint in the left rear, before the guitar gets more Fripp-y in the centre. We wrap with more massive riffing all around. ‘Collapse The Light Into Earth’ has a big ‘echoey’ plaintive vocal over a simple piano chord progression which runs through the song. A Leslie-ish organ joins from the rear before we close with our last choral vocal in the front, backed up by strings in the rears and a huge warm synth bass sound.

And that wraps up the album sequence proper, but we have three bonus tracks in fully realised surround versions. ‘Drown With Me’ exhibits yet more darkness and a spiraling guitar part from the rear, with propulsive acoustics and drums. The bridge has widely spread layered vocals and spread-out keyboards, and we fade to metals in the front and synthy jangles in the rear. ‘Chloroform has a very impressive brushed rhythm pattern in the front soundstage, ambience in the rears, and a nice clear vocal with a yearning chorus. We get a screaming guitar solo, and a treated abstract piano solo over a great fretless bass part before we fade out with that drum pattern. Finally, ‘Futile’ is a track which has been described as the first indicator of the direction of the next album – the first Harrison co-write – and it kicks off wit another stuttering riff, shadowed by the bass using a much more conventional rock bass sound. There are guitars and vocals everywhere, the riff transmutes into a more doom-laden one, before we come to the final end with guitar arpeggios on both sides of the room.

Thankfully, as the bonus tracks take the total running time up to a massive 90 minutes, they do not simply play on after the main album, spoiling its fine arc and termination, but are selectable from the menu system. The disc is attractively presented using themed artwork put together by Danish artist Lasse Hoile, who also supplies the visuals on two out of three of the videos presented here. ‘Blackest Eyes’ is a cut-up of performance footage with artwork materials, ‘Strip The Soul’ is the original impressionistic promo, and ‘Wedding Nails’ is a set of Hoile abstracts, most likely drawn from the band’s stage projections. All are soundtracked by DTS versions of their surround mixes. Other extras include full lyrics, which are not viewable as the tracks play, a couple of stills galleries – one of Hoile’s visual elements, and one of candid band shots – and there is a band bio which is worth a read, as Wilson and Barbieri reveal the band’s philosophy.

This DVD-Audio is thoroughly recommended to all lovers of well-played, well-recorded rock music – and I can’t help feeling that DTS and Wilson may well meet their goal of making this admirable disc the one it is obligatory to have in the year which may well decide whether the format breaks through to wide scale success.