Review Summary: Porcupine Tree release some more In Absentia
Whichever way one looks at it, Porcupine Tree’s 2002 album In Absentia
was a milestone in their catalogue. It transformed their sound from that of the poppier Stupid Dream/Lightbulb Sun era into a more aggressive, significantly darker beast that focused on abuse and death instead of breakups and fantasies. As one might imagine, this was met with mixed reception, but regardless of how much one enjoyed the new face of Porcupine Tree, the fact remains that 70 minutes of a somewhat-too-consistent atmosphere that was just as dense as it was disturbed, performed by a band only beginning to find its feet in the metal scene was a bit too much. Enter Futile
– an EP’s worth of unused material from the In Absentia sessions that offers slightly different results to the album.
After the short intro Collapse
(which was originally intended to open In Absentia), Futile begins for real with Drown With Me
, which is surprisingly mellow by the standards of this era of Porcupine Tree (think Trains
.) It revolves around an acoustic chord pattern and several gorgeous vocal harmonies from mastermind Steven Wilson and adds and subtracts layers of sound in a manner distinctive to his songwriting; it’s a fairly accessible song by the standards of the band. This is followed by the starkly contrasting Orchidia
, which kicks off with a heavy groove and progresses through an interesting sequence of movements that are both very fun to hear and somewhat haunting – it could almost be considered a more upbeat version of Wedding Nails
. There are some great guitar parts and it’s one of those instrumentals that is just short enough to stay fresh throughout whilst long enough to explore all its aspects to their full potential (the resulting feeling is similar to that one gets from In Flames’ Dialogue With the Stars or Dream Theater’s Erotomania, although neither are otherwise very similar.)
Up next is the title track
, which is more heaviness – about as heavy as PT gets. However, whilst Orchidia
danced around and continually reinvented itself, Futile
is more of a lumbering behemoth and the result is…mixed. Parts of it are powerful and considerably frightening, and there are a couple of unexpected twists and turns that spice it up. However, six minutes is far too long a running time for a song rooted in drop tuned power chords playing purposefully clumsy rhythms, and Steven’s vocals don’t lend themselves to this style very well at all. Despite of this, Gavin Harrison has a truly spectacular performance here.
It should be noted at this point in the EP, that although we have been treated to three full songs that all have the distinctive atmosphere of In Absentia, they don’t sound nearly as cohesive together as any of the album songs did – In Absentia’s greatest strength was that it mixed a wide variety of songs and made them all sound like part of a convincing whole (even if that whole did come very close to outstaying its welcome.) The fact that the songs here don’t click together nearly as nicely leads me to consider this, bluntly speaking, as a glorified B-sides EP. One would not necessarily expect cohesion from the last two songs, but after the next track, that ceases to matter. Hatesong
is a live version of the fan favourite track from the band’s 2000 album Lightbulb Sun
, and it’s a nice break from the In Absentia-esque atmosphere that permeates the rest of the EP. Instead of the overbearing seriousness that stagnated the later album (and the title track here), we a treated to a more upbeat, groovy and generally light-hearted piece that is especially lively (forgive my choice of words) as a live performance. This is a real palette cleanser and also seems to represent the band rejecting the continuation of the gloomy vibe maintained up til now, meaning that cohesion is no longer that big a deal and they can do what they like with the running order. This actually casts the bizarre flow of the past three songs (upbeat melancholy – playfully heavy – sludgy and crushing. In spite of this rejection of the dark In Absentia sound, the highlight of the EP, Chloroform
, returns it with better results than any song on that album. It is extremely hypnotic and is rooted in a quasi-tribal pattern and mesmerisingly simple bass motif. As the title suggests, the atmosphere is very sleepy and drugged-out, and this enables Wilson’s vocals to shine to their full extent, since he is at his best when slightly blurry and atmospheric rather than the centre of attention. A brief, upbeat moment of soloing breaks through after the second chorus, but is soon replaced by the preceding ambiance that trails on in a beautiful two minute outro reminiscent of The Sky Moves Sideways’ Moonloop. The band sound exceptionally tight here and the results are simply magical. A must have for any fan.
will always primarily be a release for fans of In Absentia
. Sure, the live version of Hatesong is worth a check, but the overall tone here is so in line with the gloomy, disturbed feeling inspired by that album that it is hard to see it as much more than a follow-on release. Porcupine Tree’s masterpieces from their metal-tinged era (Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet) were yet to come, and they were still not yet masters of the sound they were moving into at this stage (although Orchidia, one of their more fluid heavy songs, is a clear sign that it wouldn't be long until they were.) All this means that Futile bears the same weaknesses as In Absentia, but lacks the cohesive, fluid nature of that album, which was arguably its greatest strength. It’s a decent addition to their discography and a must-have for any fans of the album, but by no means essential (although if you like any era of Porcupine Tree to any degree, give Chloroform a listen right now.)