Porcupine Tree: In Absentia

David Baum

Porcupine Tree

In Absentia

Label: Lava
US Release Date: 2002-09-24
UK Release Date: 2003-01-13

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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