Any band that takes ten years to come out with its third album has either dramatically run out of ideas, or has taken its time for very good reasons. After seeing Portishead perform at the Alcatraz in Milan on Sunday night, I am very glad to report that it’s the latter.
I’ve always thought that their music had a peculiar cinematic quality: it would make a haunting soundtrack to a 1950s noir, or a sci-fi flick, or (as my friend Max suggested) one of the better James Bond movies. As they unfurled their rich tapestry of sound the other night, it became clear that they are much more than a trip-hop band from Bristol. They’ve done their homework, so to speak. The same way Bill Viola is no mere video artist, but has become a scholar steeped in his Pontormo, his Wagner and his Zen Buddhism, Portishead have delved into the encyclopedias of our musical heritage, dug out a few distinctive and unrelated sounds that interested them, and remixed them to come up with something that belongs uniquely to Portishead, yet pays homage to those ur-sounds in our collective memory.
Their Milan performance was powerfully “in the flow”, as that of an athlete winning a race, and opened up glimpses into their psychedelic roots. Max said they sounded like the Pink Floyd in the Pompeii period. Pink Floyd, of course, didn’t have a contralto lead singer, and only occasionally collaborated with female vocalists (one would like, though, to hear Beth Gibbons’s cover version of The Great Gig in the Sky, now that I think about it). Texture, complexity and distortion are some of the attributes that link their music to the glorious era of progressive rock.
Their new album, called Third, comes out this month. To read more about its birth (and the band’s instrumentation, including the “lovely old harmonium” elegantly squatting in their studio, bought on eBay for £29), check out this article by Ben Thompson.