Sweet ’n’ sour times
PORTISHEAD Third Universal Trip-hop is dead. Or at least its 1990s dinner-party soundtrack variation is. When they emerged with Dummy in 1994, this Bristol trio wrote a new musical blueprint – one of slo-mo beats, skewed rhythms and vaguely apocalyptic lyrics. They were a revelation, not just for how Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley managed to fashion such idiosyncratically beguiling music, but also for the introduction of one of the best female singers of the past few decades – the fragile yet weighty vocal stylings of Beth Gibbons.
Unnerved by their huge critical success, the band managed only one other studio album in the 1990s (and a live collection) before disappearing as quickly as they arrived, but the odd gig over the past few years promised much – their new songs had a harsher and edgier feel and they were clearly ploughing a new furrow.
The first single here, Machine Gun, is so different from anything on Dummy or Portishead that you’d take it as the new Depeche Mode single – it’s a bass-heavy industrial beats type affair that clearly shrieks of wholesale musical changes. Gone is the other-worldly, sci-fi soundtrack approach, to be replaced by a series of sinewy and dark rhythms with artful use of synths and dense drum loops.
Gibbons’s voice is still a work of wonder, not least on Nylon Smile, which sounds like Nick Drake backed by Aphex Twin. The Rip has a similar folky undertow but is soon layered with all manner of sinister synth arpeggios. On Hunter, they veer into Scott Walker territory, but maybe hit the effects pedal a bit too gratuitously.
You can’t help feeling that they’re consciously trying (perhaps over-trying) to escape their past, and at times some of Third sounds like unfinished jam sessions. They’ve certainly scuffed up their edges and hardened their sound. It is, though, the same Portishead, albeit with tattoos and body-piercings. www.portishead.co.uk BRIAN BOYD Download tracks: Nylon Smile, The Rip