Sweet ’n’ sour times

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Musicreviews -

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

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