One day during my junior year of college, I passed by a friend’s room in our house. The room was dark and he was fast asleep inside. Nothing unusual, except that his stereo was blaring King Crimson’s Discipline at an ear shattering volume. I had never heard the band before, and I was quickly convinced that, if the devil had a den, this would be the house music: powerful driving polyrhythms; loud ominous guitars; and that curious, paranoid voice. Jaw dropped, while my friend slept, I sat around for hours to see if I liked it. I did.
King Crimson casts such a long shadow that it is probably unfair to draw a comparison with any new band. Yet, critics itch to draw the reference any time a young group is technically proficient, leans towards hard progressive rock and dabbles in odd time signatures. Of course, it helps if the group also cultivates predominately young male fans. You know, the ones who grew up rolling those hexagonal dice in Dungeons and Dragons (somehow Rush always got the jocks). Most recently, the band Tool has been hailed as inheritors to the throne. Granted, Tool is a great band. And yes, Lateralus is a very heavy record. But I’m still not ready to concede the coronation.
You see, Crimson did not just expand the lexicon of hard rock music. The early ‘80s incarnation of the band (its last until the same members reunited with an incredible expanded double trio line-up on 1994’s Thrak) also constructed its own form of smart avant-garde pop music. An oxymoron? Perhaps, but consider Thrak. It was not just an aural blitzkrieg. The album was compelling because it juxtaposed assaulting instrumentals with sprawling ballads like “One Time” and “Walking on Air”. And if we dig deep in the Crimson catalogue, we find other classics with unmistakably catchy hooks, like “21st Century Schizoid Man”, which, amazingly, I recently found on a list of songs at a karaoke bar (not wishing to press my luck, I stuck to the better-known pop branding of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”).
So here’s my question: with technically proficient hard rock groups now abound, where is a progressive rock fan to turn for new music with that kind of melodic sensibility? One answer is the major label debut from Porcupine Tree, In Absentia. This is an impressive album that drips with Crimson’s progressive rock influence. But what sets this album apart is that Steven Wilson, the band’s frontman who wrote the songs and produced the album, was clearly set upon constructing intelligent popular music.
Take the first track, “Blackest Eyes”. The band storms out of the gate with a blistering guitar and heavy drums riffing through a sequence of tricky time signatures. But after that introduction, the tune changes gears to hit a slick even tempo acoustic groove, and Wilson’s vocals lifts an accessible tune to the chorus, where back-up harmonies shower over the catchy refrain before returning to the aggressive opening charge. And then, on the third track, “Lips of Ashes”, Wilson sprinkles his atmospheric guitar swells over a fascinating blend of Pink Floyd acoustic guitar (“Hey You”) and full harmonies akin to Crosby, Stills and Nash (“Guinnevere”). Original stuff.
But it is the fourth track, “The Sound of Muzak”, that stands out. It opens with Gavin Harrison, the band’s exceptional drummer, delivering an expert medium tempo polyrhythmic hi-hat, snare, and kick groove. Over a picked-out clean guitar riff, Wilson sings a lament over the sterile direction of music: “Soul gets squeezed / Edges get blunt / Demographic / Gives you what you want”. With the arrival of the chorus, the band settles into an even time signature. The sound lifts open with lush acoustic guitars; Colin Edwards minds the bottom with a terrifically tasteful bass line; and Wilson offers his most memorable pop chorus complete with smooth layered harmonies. In a perfect world, this would be a hit song, albeit an ironic one.
Another highlight is the ambitious “Gravity Eyelids”. Musically, this track actually reminds me of Crimson’s “One Time”. The song opens as a quasi-ballad featuring Wilson’s Belew-like vocals over a subtle industrial programmed drum track and hushed synthesizer choral voices. The feel fits the sleepy seduction of the lyrics, as the singer gently wakes his lover from her slumber. The track builds softly with keys, live drums and a deft melodic bass line right out of Tony Levin’s repertoire. And just as you think the song is coming to a close, it takes off on a furious electric guitar riff as the band carries the listener through an aggressive instrumental, symbolizing the consummation of the sleepily aroused lovers. The track ultimately returns to the soft chorus melody and opening drum track as the lovers return to sleep. You have to admire the thought and execution of this expansive production.
Porcupine Tree is a very good band, and In Absentia is a testament to their intelligence and musicianship. Also credit the engineer, Paul Northfield (Rush, Ozzy Osbourne, and Marilyn Manson), for the clear sonic palette, providing a platform for the tremendous live drums and full bass tone. Clocking in at over 68 minutes, the album certainly has its occasional dips and valleys, but it is a complete musical statement worth hearing. You just might find this trio to be three of a perfect pair.