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DTS presents
Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (2003)

"The music of the future will not entertain
It's only meant to repress
And neutralize your brain."

- lyrics from The Sound of Muzak

Review By: Brian Calhoun  
Published: March 07, 2004

Stars: Steven Wilson, Richard Barbieri, Colin Edwin, Gavin Harrison
Director: N/A

Manufacturer: Technicolor
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (intense subject matter and images)
Run Time: 01h:27m:29s
Release Date: March 09, 2004
UPC: 075678360428
Genre: rock

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AA+A B+

DVD Review

With their spacey psychedelic rock sound, Porcupine Tree has often been dismissed as clones of the early Pink Floyd. While this may be somewhat true of their early efforts, In Absentia finds the band elevating their sound to stellar new heights. Though groups such as Radiohead may have put psychedelic music back on the mainstream map, it is Porcupine Tree that has fine-tuned it into a highly accessible art form that still remains true to the roots of the genre. This is one of those rare instances where eccentric artistry proves commercially viable without having to sacrifice integrity of the work.

Masterminding the group is Steven Wilson, a visionary songwriter who excels at integrating numerous musical styles into one exceptionally unique sound. The groundwork of his compositions often begin with complex yet tasteful rhythmic bass and drum grooves, which are complemented by a rich layer of electric and acoustic guitars. The icing on the cake comes from Wilson's remarkably dense vocal harmonies, which masterfully intertwine to form a melodic cacophony. With so much thrown into the mix, one would think that the melody would become muddled, yet Wilson's carefully constructed compositions never falter musically, even when strewn with a multitude of counter-melodies.

Though not a concept album, In Absentia is more of a musical journey than a random collection of songs. Each of the songs carries a unique personality while staying within the boundaries of the Porcupine Tree sound. The band jumps from blistering hard rock riffs to gentle acoustic dirges with amazing subtlety, often even within the same song. These brain bending, time-shifting, musical passages along with Steven Wilson's moody lyrics make for a wildly cerebral ride. Opening with the memorable Blackest Eyes, I instantly became aware that Wilson would take me on an emotionally erratic journey, as he jovially sings "I got wiring loose inside my head."

The journey soon leads us to reveal Wilson's cynical side in The Sound of Muzak, a highlight of the album both musically and lyrically. Emphasized by ethereal vocal passages, Wilson laments the deterioration of the music world: "One of the wonders of the world is going down, it's going down I know." "One of the blunders of the world is that no one cares, no one cares enough."

The song Prodigal exposes a hint of insecurity beneath the cynicism, as a tattered Wilson wails "I don't know whose side I'm on, I don't think I belong round here." Attempting to find solace through the goodness of humanity, he only finds himself in a deeper emotional hole: "I tried to find myself a better way, I got religion but I went astray. They took my money and I lost my faith."

The journey ends on an ambiguous note with Collapse the Light Into Earth, a warm and delicate, yet tragically melancholy closer. As Wilson gently taps on his piano, we get the sense that he has found strength to overcome the heartache of a shattered relationship: "I won't shiver in the cold, I won't let the shadows take their toll, I won't cover my head in the dark." Yet, the haunting song ultimately reveals more hopelessness and despair: "I won't heal given time, I won't feel better in the cold light of day, but I wouldn't stop you if you wanted to stay."

It may seem as if In Absentia is dreadfully depressing, and I must admit, it is a far cry from the bubbly pop anthems that dominate radio these days. However, as English poet Percy Shelley so eloquently stated, "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought." Much like a tragic piece of cinema, the despondency of In Absentia invokes and challenges the listener's emotions far more than a buoyant pop single ever could. Not since I first heard Pink Floyd's magnum opus The Wall has a piece of rock music tapped so deeply into the core of my emotions. At the same time, I never felt as if the subject matter was forced upon me, as I often find is the case with many controversial artists. In Absentia is music as an art form, not music merely for the sake of fame and fortune. It is incredibly rare these days to find a band that can appeal to a wide audience without compromising their musical integrity, but Porcupine Tree triumphs in walking this fine line. I hope many other bands can learn from their prowess.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo
Image Transfer Grade: A+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 48k/24-bit advanced resolution 5.1 surround track is a superb achievement. I have often been quite disappointed with other surround mixes of rock titles, where the rear speakers are merely filled with an annoying reverberated echo effect. However, In Absentia has been mixed tastefully, with every instrument, vocal harmony, and sound effect carefully placed throughout the sound stage. Overall fidelity is pristine, each minute detail remaining crystal clear even when the music reaches a peak of manic intensity. The "dirty" electric guitars have a tendency to remain in the front of the sound stage, while the multitude of acoustic guitars often lean toward the rear. Vocals breathe throughout the whole room, with melodies that gravitate toward the center and harmonies emanating from all directions. The result is a beautifully balanced sound field with no perceivable sonic conflicts. While the guitar and vocals tend to be the focal point of the music, the indispensable rhythm section provides a solid foundation, the bass and drums providing a thick and rich presence without overwhelming the melodies. The way in which the music engulfs the listener is mesmerizing; I found myself immersed in the assault of acoustic guitars as well as the heavily layered vocal harmonies. So enveloping is this sonic experience, that there were actually several moments where I felt as if my 21' x 15' room had transformed into a gigantic pair of multi-channel headphones that were wrapped around my head.

For those without DVD-Audio capability, a 5.1 DTS track has also been included. While I can occasionally detect a noticeable difference between DTS and hi-resolution MLP, this is not one of those instances. I found few distinguishable differences between the two tracks other than slightly refined clarity on the DVD-Audio track. Overall, both tracks are sonically exceptional. Furthermore, the DTS track will provide a wider frequency range for those who do not have proper DVD-Audio bass management.

Also included is a stereo PCM track. Though not high resolution, this option features excellent CD quality sound of the original 2-channel mix.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Music/Song Access with 15 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: Super Jewel Box
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Three Bonus Tracks
  2. Three Music Videos in 5.1 Surround
  3. On-Screen Lyrics
  4. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: In addition to the 12 tracks from the initial release of In Absentia, the DVD-Audio version also contains three fantastic bonus tracks. These songs demonstrate a perfect mix of Porcupine Tree's eclectic style. Drown With Me is an upbeat, acoustic driven pop number, Chloroform delves the more haunting psychedelic side of the band, while Futile flares with the utmost hard rock intensity. As with the 12 main tracks, the bonus tracks are presented with audio options of advanced resolution surround, DTS, and stereo PCM.

Also offered are three excellent music videos, all of which are presented in glorious DTS 5.1 surround. Blackest Eyes features a pleasing nonanmorphic 1.85:1 transfer, while Strip the Soul and Wedding Nails are presented in the 4:3 format. Each of the videos contains frightening abstract images, while Blackest Eyes also features clips of the band performing live.

The first of two photo galleries is filled with haunting and puzzling images, while the second gallery contains more standard, yet no less bizarre, tour photos. While I typically loathe photo galleries, the atypical nature of these pictures proves far more interesting than the normally dreadful behind-the-scenes photo galleries.

The lyrics for each song have been included in the linear notes and can also be accessed on screen. I found it much more pleasant to read the lyrics on my large screen rather than squinting at a tiny booklet. A nice extra is that the lyrics for the bonus tracks, which are not featured in the insert, have been included in the on screen section. My only complaint with this section is that I could find no method of viewing the on screen lyrics while the songs are playing.

The special features finish with an interesting Porcupine Tree biography. Consisting of snippets from interviews with Porcupine Tree members Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri, this is far more interesting than a typical bio that merely explains the roots of the band's history. The duo discusses their influences, as well as their propensity to create an album as a collection of songs, rather than pandering to the "hit single" mentality.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

It seems that not many people are truly listening to music anymore. When I say "listening", I mean sitting down, eliminating all potential distractions (especially the television), and immersing oneself in the beauty of this art form. I not only recommend listening to In Absentia without any external interference, but I also believe that this method is crucial to achieve the full effect of this masterpiece. While this is predominately a film and television review site, I hope that I can encourage at least several readers to discover or re-discover the power of music. Next time you think about watching a DVD that you have already seen ten million times, I urge you to instead consider listening to music, and more specifically, this new version of In Absentia by Porcupine Tree. Do not be intimidated into believing that DVD-Audio is only for those with DVD-Audio capable players. While these advanced resolution tracks are the preferred listening method, In Absentia (as well as most other DVD-Audio releases) contains a phenomenal DTS 5.1 track in addition to the standard PCM stereo track, which preserves the integrity of the original stereo mix. While the year is still young, I have little doubt that In Absentia will rank high on my 2004 top 10 list.


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