Portishead returns after hiatus and finally schedules a U.S. Tour

:: Portishead ::
:: 1ST Bank Center :: October 27 ::

By Matt treon


Stack on the qualifiers and hybrid genre tags, but not even the most creatively synthesized verbiage will do; in the end there’s only one answer when someone asks what Portishead sounds like — the recursive answer: Portishead.

Many bands shape genres during their evolution, and some bands redefine genres, radically altering them with transformations that show signs of the birth of a new sound. But very few bands have managed to define a sound from the first beat of its creation the way Portishead did 17 years ago. Sure, they weren’t alone in the development of trip-hop (one of the aforementioned hybrid genre tags — the one most commonly used regarding Portishead) as a nascent sound. The British band Massive Attack put their fingers into the primary influences of trip-hop — jazz, electronica, and hip-hop (a hip-hop sound that differed from the hip-hop/rap that was popular in the U.S. at the time because the U.K. hip-hop scene tended to sample more from Jamaican influences) — three years prior with their debut album Blue Lines.

But whereas Massive Attack showed a glimpse of what was on the horizon, Portishead was that horizon, all encompassing.

When Portishead’s debut album Dummy dropped in 1994, it was like a new musical species had been discovered. When their eponymous second album hit in 1997, after three years of artists’ responses to Dummy (Massive Attack’s Protection, Tricky’s own Maxinquaye, DJ Shadow’s debut Endtroducing….., etc.), the sound was cemented. But then, a decade of near silence.

In that decade, trip-hop all but ran its course, and for a while it seemed as though Portishead was to go down as some sort of anomalous alien entity that dropped in to show the way, then disappeared once their work was done — like a musical Harper Lee. Then the iconoclastic Third surfaced. (The iconoclasm being directed at themselves this time.)

With Third, Portishead took the sound they’d created, and deconstructed it to show us the inner-workings of the rare species underneath. They stripped themselves of the exact characteristics (aside from Beth Gibbons’ utterly unique and haunting voice) that defined them, yet somehow managed to still sound exactly like themselves. As producer/multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow put it to Pitchfork when the album first came out: “That was a definite thing for us. That was the difficult thing. We really wanted to sound like ourselves but not sound like ourselves. It was always going to be difficult.”

And while it isn’t going to kick off another genre the likes of what came after them in the 1990s, Third, an album that might be best described as the sonic equivalent of a film noir flick, is no less original than their first two albums. A large part of why it doesn’t sound as though Third is the sui generis album that Dummy and Portishead were is that while those first two albums had their own all consuming (if not self-consuming) sound, Third is far more diverse. It contains tracks that are twice as fast as anything Portishead has before released, like the opener “Silence” (an appropriate title for a post-decadal-hiatus opening track). But it also has tracks that are twice as sparse (temporally as well as sonically), like the minute-and-a-half track “Deep Waters.”

One of the most noticeable ways Third differs from its predecessors is that the percussion on most of these new songs is frequently faint (“Hunter”), buried under layers of twitchy dissonance (“Small”), or sometimes cut-up to the point of hardly even existing at all (“Plastic”). And though it’s still there at points when it needs to be, the percussion is much more propulsive than the heavier, slower beats Portishead’s music had before exhibited (“The Rip,” “We Carry On”).

The band also engages in some moments of wholly original sonic exploration — most notably on the song “Magic Doors,” where a horn breakdown that could possibly be described as the world’s first elephant-trunk-solo briefly barges in on the song’s groove (in the best way).

The sonic quality that exists as the common thread is the brooding voice of Gibbons. With her delicate quivers that can suddenly rise to piercing howls before falling away, all the while never losing that beautiful anxious timbre, Gibbons’ voice is quite possibly the most recognizable component of the band.

Despite Third’s huge success, no North American tour has come out of it till now (the band’s first live tour in North America since 1998). In a recent press release from the band, Portishead producer/multi-instrumentalist, Adrian Utley, said, “We’ve always thought that we must come back to tour in the States — something we wanted to do with the release of Third — but our schedule just wouldn’t allow it. We are absolutely delighted to come back.”

:: Portishead ::

:: 1ST Bank Center :: October 27 ::


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