Porcupine Tree- In Absentia DVD-Audio (DTS Entertainment)
review by Joe del Tufo

Track Listing

Blackest Eyes
3.Lips Of Ashes
4.The Sound Of Muzak
5.Gravity Eyelids
6.Wedding Nails
9.The Creator Has A Mastertape
10.Heartattack In A Lay By
11.Strip The Soul
12.Collapse The Light Into Earth

Bonus Tracks

13. Drown With Me
14. Chloroform
15. Futile

read the interview

It was with excitement and also some apprehension that I first listened to the DVD-Audio version of Porcupine Tree's In Absentia. As my choice for best CD of 2002, I wasn't sure there was much change that I would be comfortable with. After hearing the radical changes mix producer Elliott Scheiner made with the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, my heretofore all-time favorite DVD Audio mix, I knew the album was in competent hands. But as much as I love the Lips' DVD, some of the tracks were almost unrecognizable from their originals, and where this may have been appropriate for Yoshimi, I could not imagine it working on In Absentia. Instead of re-reviewing the music, I'll focus this review on the differences between the 24-track, 5.1 channel DVD Audio release (the DTS mix, specifically) and the stereo CD. Let's proceed in track order.

Blackest Eyes- The opening guitar riff seems toned down to my ears, something of a disappointment as this album has always had such an initial shock (especially to those of us expecting Lightbulb Sun II). The next surprise is soon revealed in the opening vocals. Suddenly there is a second, mirrored, spoken word vocal track that I certainly never heard on the original version, and it is at once surprising and serves to set the tone that this is not 2002's In Absentia. It adds a new complexity to the track. It is especially chilling to hear this detached voice whisper "It's so erotic when your makeup runs." The separation on the tracks is very clean and makes it easy to appreciate the intricate musicianship that is often lost on the flatter stereo version. The closing drum crescendo is powerful and closes out this intense track with the appropriate crash that its opening lacked.

Trains- The opening acoustic guitar riding just above Richard Barbieri's synth effects are more ethereal here. Where the opening sounded almost folky in the original version, there is something more spacey and foreboding here. The clappy percussion (which could also be a Barbieri effect) that supports the banjo section now spirals around the room, a nice touch. The keyboards stand out a bit more throughout the song, and the mid-track harmonizing has much better definition. The closing guitar solo is a real thwack in the head, exactly the sensation I missed from the Blackest Eyes guitar intro. This track has the best timing of any on the album, and that is only made more apparent on this version.

Lips Of Ashes- Great opening ambiance with a soaring guitar solo and synth over acoustic guitar. Much more hypnotic that I remember. Overall a smoother, more absorbing track with layer upon layer of guitar and voice washing over the listener. This mix makes the track more notable, and less the transitory piece it was on the CD.

Sound of Muzak- Gavin Harrision's opening drum complexity is more striking here. This track is very faithful to the original, but with more separation and attention to the intricacies that make this one of the album's highlights. It really makes one appreciate the challenge this must be to perform this track live. Though I understand DVD-Audio releases are typically just dimensional mixes of the existing multitracks, there are places on this recording where, to my ear, certain vocals have been re-recorded or have new effects overlayed upon them. On this track, the closing vocal ("One of the wonders of the world is going down...") strikes me as a different track than on the original disc.

Gravity Eyelids- The opening synthesizer effects are much more profound, Wilson's vocals seems to drift up through them now. The opening bass is suddenly a sexy wall-shivering lash, where previously it was barely noticeable is beneath the chorus. The drums are strangely muted and seem to be puzzlingly off in the distance as they move from one rear speaker to the other- a very nice effect. There is much more complexity and brilliance in the chorus vocals. The closing guitars are a tsunami of sound, even more intense than the closing of Trains, with layers piling upon each other, Barbieri's effects pinballing around the room and Harrison's cymbals lathering over the mix. This track sounds more disturbing and dangerous than ever before.

Wedding Nails- This one just always makes me think of Rush. Perhaps because there I can imagine no other man than Neil Peart who could pull of the drum gymnastics on this track. The sound of Wilson's tortured solo shrieking above the tinkles and tatters of Harrison's drums and Barbieri's postmodern arcade effects bring a new focus to what seemed to be a straightforward rock track. This one otherwise follows the script, but with more delineation than before.

Prodigal- This track is the cleanest mix of the bunch. Without providing anything radically different, Prodigal is now much more immediate and precise. Aviv Geffen and John Wesley's chorus vocals are now much more affecting and in your face. This track is the most improved by this treatment of any on the disc.

.3- I have to say I've never heard the opening synth effects before- so they're either new or much higher in the mix than before. The song's single line "Black the sky, weapons fly- lay them waste for your race" is chilling amongst the ethereal harmonics that carry it. For some reason this track now recalls the bleakness of Gorecki's Third Symphony. Edwin's bassline kicks in at around 4 minutes and is breathtaking.

The Creator Has A Mastertape- Just LISTEN to those opening drums. My appreciation for Gavin Harrison only came when I first witnessed him live, but if I had heard this, it certainly would have come much sooner. The intricate cymbal work, frantic clicks across the snare, the Tourettic tics along the high hat, it is all the work of a crazed genius or a possessed machine. The track was always the busiest on the album and now there is more microscopic detail throughout. The Reznorish recursive guitar work is now something of a wondrous thrash-out. This is an amazing mix, a real kick in the head track that jumps all over the room. Some parts of it sound entirely unique, while others are merely enhanced. A real highlight.

Heartattack In A Layby- A nice tone down from the previous throttling of Creator. The whoosh of the opening traffic is a nice soothing touch. The layering of the vocal tracks in "she waits for me, home waits for me" section is at once haunting and ecclesiastical. To me, this track has never been as compelling as when it is performed live with John Wesley on backing vocals. One wonders how much more powerful this version would be if Wesley had also provided vocals in the studio.

Strip The Soul- The bipolar nature of In Absentia is in full-swing by this point of the CD. The opening guitar riff here is, like Blackest Eyes, strangely subdued, opening with more of a clang than smash. The texture of this track has changed from the original, and it is less a wall of guitars than it is a whisper and riff bout in some passive aggressive key. The whispering/ soloing section is more funky than before, and there seem to be new vocals snuck in for effect. Interesting, especially in the closing, but ultimately the least affecting mix on the album.

Collapse The Light Into Earth- The vocals have a new delayed echo effect over them. The orchestral parts are more pronounced and dramatic. This has always been the simplest, most beautiful track on the album and, in that respect, I'm happy they've left it pretty much undisturbed. It's really a testament to the quality and range of this album that a track this sublime could co-exist so closely to one as raw and intense as the one preceding it.

Also included for the first time are three tracks from the In Absentia sessions. Of the three, Futile is the most interesting, as it represents (by far) the hardest the band have ever sounded. It is one cookie monster short of a death metal song. Drown With Me is very much a throwback to the Lightbulb Sun sound, an uptempo acoustic guitar-driven rock song. Chloroform could also have existed in the Lightbulb Sun era, but still has lyrical and musical elements that harken the bleakness and evil that pervades In Absentia. Each of the extra tracks appear to have been given identical attention and detail as each of the main album tracks.

The DVD-Audio also includes three videos- Blackest Eyes, Strip The Soul and Wedding Nails. The latter two, as well as two sections of photography were created by the immensely talented Lasse Hoile, who was responsible for nearly all of the visual elements associated with In Absentia. The galleries are particularly impressive and serve as very appropriate imagery (and perhaps even inspiration) for the album's general darkness. Lyrics are also included, but not integrated into the audio tracks. Audio options are DVD-Audio, the exceptional DTS mix from which this review was derived, and a PCM Stereo mix for those who just like to have that flexibility.

The music on In Absentia has always been so absorbing and technically impressive that the lyrical content has always seemed secondary. They could be singing about cereal ingredients instead of serial killers and it would still be as compelling. The marvel of this music has always been how simple and affecting they can make something so complex seem. The release of the DVD-Audio only compounds this - by giving more depth and definition to the complexity, the listener now has more to explore and discover. At the end of the day, the job Scheiner has done here is closer to his work on Queen's A Night At The Opera DVD-Audio than it is Yoshimi. And that is for the best. It could be said that In Absentia is everything it once was, now ever more so. It is a masterpiece now showcased in its final form.

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