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Portishead - Third Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageThough the stereotype of musicians slaving away for years in isolation, perfecting their latest opus piece by piece, has firmly hardened into our collective consciousness by years of waiting for new Radiohead and Bob Dylan albums, some bands are starting to push it a bit too far. Take Portishead, the English trio who became the first trip-hop band to establish a significant commercial presence around the world, and the 11 years they took between their self-titled second release and this, their appropriately titled Third. An unlikely breakthrough band in the mid-‘90s with their icy cool mix of somberly wounded vocals, crackling samples and darkly mangled hip-hop beats creating a singularly penetrating sonic identity, they simply vanished after their last tour in 1998. After a decade in the wilderness, during which they started families, made side-project albums and produced other artists, they’ve spent the last six years hemming and hawing over what would end up on this album. Amazingly, as proven by their recent string of sold out performances, the commercial momentum is still there. All they had to do was capitalize on it.

From the tumbling beats, squeaking guitar feedback and groaning bass lines of opener “The Silence,” it’s obvious that they have done that and more. With queasy strings licking around the edges of what is easily the most propulsive track in their canon, everything drops out to reveal vocalist Beth Gibbons and her terrifying earnest moan pleading that she’s “wounded and afraid” and “crying out in silence.” Like before, their sound is eerily tangible and startlingly immediate, made all the more ominous by how alluringly beautiful it is. Built on somber acoustic guitar strums and haunted piano strikes, “Hunter” is a dazzlingly fetching ballad, even with the dark streaks of guitar feedback and bursts of Nintendo keyboard menace turning up to muddy the sonic waters. No doubt they’re a slightly different band than they were a decade ago, their burgeoning interest in drone metal and noise turning up in rawer and more degraded synthesizers, but the substance of the songs is every bit as fascinating as it was before. Like few bands, save Radiohead, they again prove they make music that can soothe and unsettle in equal measures, with melodies that ache with ethereal angst and arrangements that build and unravel in gloriously unexpected patterns. Picking up a thread from her side project with Rustin’ Man, Gibbons continues her drift toward English folk music, with the plaintive balladry of “The Rip” and the disarming ukulele-led lullaby of “Deep Water” largely stripping out the band’s electronics and substituting pure human energy. Still, the band defines itself with their pioneering use of electronics within fairly conventional song structures, and the producer team of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley don’t disappoint, whether anchoring the ethereal “Machine Gun” to an old school hip-hop drum machine loop or the wickedly chopped beats and helicopter whir of “Plastic.” Combining both, Gibbons’ fragile vocal is married to synthesizer drones and jazz sax bleats on “Magic Doors,” with a carefully punched up snare and cowbell carrying the surprisingly funky break beat. As technology progresses toward clarity and crispness, Portishead have gone in the exact opposite direction, making an album that’s choked with thick distortion and dry reverb. They’ve never sounded better.

All in all, it’s a stunning return to form by a band that we all would have been justified in writing off after such a long time in creative limbo. That they’ve managed to come back with an album that not only breaks new ground for them but is arguably as good as anything they’ve ever done is not only a testament to their collective vision as artists but their ability to maintain their essential creative core despite changing many of the ingredients in the mix. They might have been gone for as long as it took the Beatles to form a band, change the world, and break up, but Portishead gives hope that some waits are ultimately worth it.

Even darker and more distorted than before, this version of Portishead favors textures that bludgeon with buzzing intensity, with the guitars heavier and more pronounced and the beats fuzzier but more focused. To that extent, the quality of your stereo equipment matters little, as the subtle quirks in the production are often lost within the massiveness of the textures. Still, seeing that the album combines the most immediately gratifying qualities of doom metal, electronic music and hip-hop, subtlety isn’t the highest priority in the mix. However you look at it, it all sounds fantastic.

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