It’s cold. The first New Hampshire snowfall just stopped, and the college campus is now covered in the white stuff. While maintenance starts up their front-end loaders to clear the parking lots, I walk to class, headphones on, my hair flapping in the wind. I’m listening to an album that had come out a little over ten years ago, but to me it’s as new as if it had come out yesterday. Steven Wilson’s voice fills my ears as “Trains” enters its chorus: “Always the summers are slipping away / Find me a way for making it stay.” It’s simultaneously sad and beautiful, and, in my opinion, couldn’t have been played at a more poignant time.
Any die-hard fan of progressive rock/metal should know this album by now: Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia—arguably the best album the band has put out to date. But while Porcupine Tree is on hiatus, and Steven Wilson’s general focus has shifted to his solo work (and a Blackfield album that he had little to no input on), one can’t forget the impact that this album has had on the rock and metal community. In Absentia was a lot of things for a lot of people. It arguably blurred the lines between prog rock and metal. It set a new standard for what Steven Wilson and his band were capable of musically. And it remains one of the seminal progressive albums of the modern era.
Although Porcupine Tree had been around since 1987, they hadn’t really had any massive hits until 2002’s In Absentia. Earlier releases—2000’s Lightbulb Sun and 1999’s Stupid Dream—added a little more heavy metal to the band’s poppy progressive rock/space rock sound, but they weren’t exactly getting the traction and legendary status that we consider the band to have now. In Absentia changed all that. Certainly, The band’s signing to Lava Records allowed the band a wider commercial release but. As we know, though, that’s only half of the equation: you need solid music to match if you want true success.
Porcupine Tree provided this in loads on In Absentia. From the start—the track “Blackest Eyes”—the band adds what are arguably the heaviest guitars they had employed to date, yet mixes it with catchy, more acoustic rock. Other songs, like the instrumental “Wedding Nails,” “Strip the Soul,” and “The Creator Has a Mastertape” again take a more heavy approach; the guitars blister with loads of distortion. Yet Porcupine Tree never let this metal influence completely take over their songwriting on In Absentia; acoustic guitar still plays a big part on the album. The softness the band explored in earlier releases is still very much present, in “Lips of Ashes” and “Gravity Eyelids” and “Collapse The Light Into Earth,” but at the same time it feels darker and grimmer in tone than, say, Lightbulb Sun, where “How Is Your Life Today?” seems bouncy and joyfully mysterious. The guitar in the opening riff and chorus of “Prodigal” sounds almost lifted out of a country record with its use of what I assume is a guitar slide.
In Absentia is also where the band begins to more deeply inspect the ideas and themes of isolation and anesthetization via consumer culture and technology—ideas that heavily permeate future records Fear of a Blank Planet and The Incident. The lyrics in “Prodigal” speak of escape from the modern life, through religion and drugs, but with no avail. “The Sound of Muzak”—probably the most blatant song in the album lyrically—is somewhat of a harbinger of the anesthetizing power that music can have on the human mind.
Probably the biggest difference between this album and the rest of Porcupine Tree’s later discography is the lack of longer tracks. “Gravity Eyelids” takes the cake as In Absentia’s longest song, at almost eight minutes. In a way, this is a stepping stone for the band—you can hear the slowly progressing elements in the songs, but they aren’t yet stretched out to the point that “Arriving Somewhere (But Not Here)” or the one-track The Incident is.
While I personally consider this Porcupine Tree’s best album—although Fear of a Blank Planet and The Incident are very, very strong contenders—I’d be lying if I said the album was perfect. (After all, there’s no such thing as a perfect album.) Some tracks, like “Gravity Eyelids” and “Heart Attack In A Layby” have interesting a few parts, but as a whole do not particularly live up to what they could be. I felt that the verses of “Gravity Eyelids” didn’t quite match its chorus, and “Heart Attack” is a bit too slow considering how little it varies in its instrumentation. “.3” and “Prodigal” also sound so alike that the former could almost be thought of as an unnecessary extension of the latter.
The pros completely outweigh the cons when it comes to revisiting In Absentia, though; lyrically and musically, it’s an album that has withstood the test of time. While it might not get as much attention as Steve Wilson’s solo efforts nowadays (which is a bit of a shame, if you ask me), it’s a necessary landmark in his discography, and an important piece of rock music. In Absentia is a note to bands that metal doesn’t necessarily need to hit hard sonically to be metal, and that progressive rock doesn’t necessarily need to be soft and melancholy to be “progressive”—it’s really about solid songwriting.