PORTISHEAD: Third (Island Records)


Posted on Apr 25th 2008 12:47 am

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Portishead: Third

Island Records 2008
11 Tracks. 50mins06secs

In the mid nineties, Britain was still struggling to deal with a recent past which had left some pretty deep social scares. The strikes, high unemployment and economic meltdown of the early eighties had been topped up with the hangover that followed the mighty party of the late eighties and early nighties, and it would be a while yet for things to ‘get better’. The depression that followed and the state of mind of the nation at that particular point was documented by a bunch of misfits from Bristol. Alongside Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead, a trio hailing from the grim seaside town of the same name, a few miles outside Bristol, were establishing the foundations of a sound that would mark a generation.

While Massive Attack and Tricky relied heavily on soul and hip-hop, Portishead projected a much more cinematic sound, infused with sixties and seventies soundtrack music, heavily processed to take away their natural sheen and rendered instead in charcoal overtones and gritty textures, a process that marked the band’s debut, Dummy, and even more so their eponymous follow up, released almost four years later. Since, the only evidence of life to come from the Portishead front has been Beth Gibbons’s collaboration with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, AKA Rustin’ Man on the stunning Out Of Season, released in 2002. Ten years on from their sophomore effort, Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and guitarist Adrian Utley deliver a mighty blow with their third album, soberly entitled Third.

Gone are the film noir ambiences and the widescreen soundscapes, replaced with claustrophobic spaces, dark psychedelia and hypnotic electronics. Fragments of late sixties futuristic pop, krautrock and early eighties new wave and post industrial electronica are found throughout the album, referencing acts as diverse as Silver Apples, Cabaret Voltaire, Neu! and Joy Division to give the songs resolutely dark and dense settings. Where Dummy and Portishead relied on slumbering grooves and impressionist touches, Third is raw, gritty and, above all, expressionist. Third has blood running through its veins. Third is human, with all that it implies. On Silence, the trio create an oppressive soundtrack based around dissonant chords and a somewhat deadpan theme, underlined by monotone strings upon which electric guitars reverberate. Plastic appears to want to escape from the cut up roll of drums that echoes throughout by lying low, but cannot quite manage it. The hypnotic We Carry On sees layers of sound progressively enveloping Gibbons’s voice until it is almost entirely swallowed, while the magnificent Machine Gun, with its backdrop filled almost entirely with military electronic drums, with occasional pulsating sub-bass adding to the tension of the piece, sees Portishead evolving in a disconcertingly post modern electronic wasteland which hasn’t been populated since Cabaret Voltaire left it in the early eighties. In comparison, the moody Threads draws its feet and twists and turns until gloomy wails tear its very core as it fades out.

There are also moments where the trio withdraw to more pastoral grounds, evoking at times the soft tones of Gibbons’s Out Of Season. The first half of the beautiful and touching The Rip develop around the gentle swirls of an acoustic guitar before heading for a second half inhabited by the ghosts of Neu! and Harmonia. Later, Small begins with just voice and acoustic guitar, but the latter is then supplanted by the drone-like hum of an electric guitar which is made to sound surprisingly close to an electric cello. The song then evolves into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of electronic effects, cutting electric guitars and drums which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Broadcast record. Only Deep Water, with its George Formby on helium chorus, sounds like an experiment that has gone terribly awry.

Ten years on from their last outburst, Portishead are almost totally unrecognisable, wouldn’t it for Beth Gibbons’s omnipresent voice. Third may disconcert some, but it is ultimately the work of a band that, despite a long hiatus, have continued to develop and open to new sounds. While its two predecessors were filled with timeless murder ballads, Third, with its much more organic and raw textures, sounds like a murderer on a rampage. Portishead may have taken a long time to bring out this record, but it was well worth the wait.


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