Saturday, 26 May 2012

Portico Quartet - Portico Quartet


Portico Quartet, the London four-piece, often describe themselves as reinventing a more Worldy sound for the future - a sort of post-new-avant-garde instrumental montage, if you will. Of course, there's no denying the 'quartet' section of that description - there are four of them after all - but even if the rest of that description is somewhat of a indigestion-inducing mouthful, Portico Quartet still remain interesting in that, in some respect, this self-professed description actually holds true in some areas. Their previous two albums, 'Isla' & 'Knee-Deep In The North Sea' certainly held the strong connotation of experimentalism; influences from jazz and avant-garde musicians creeping into places you wouldn't necessarily see workable. Their third self-titled record, while the sound remains true and honest to this self-created establishment, sees the band continue to use said experimentation alongside the current generation of applied effects and composite mixing of global sounds.

'Window Seat' opens up the album with a similarly blended mix of minimal ambience and orchestration Portico had sought for in their previous two records. But here, the result is something far more withdrawn and compact in comparison. The progression is somewhat barebones, but there are some interesting little twinkles of violins and synths here. Follower 'Ruins', thankfully, is a lot more upbeat and daring in its energetic suburban vibes of hi-hat drums and doodling bass here and there. But almost immediately, the brass ensemble builds up to emerge from out of the borders and into the heart of what is now more a metropolis of a track. The band know not to make the same mistake of relying heavily on just one instrument and the composition does shift in and out of these citadel-like vibes, string instruments keeping momentum in as similar a pace.

There is a case here that there seems to be a wider geographic of sounds and influence on this album. No longer is there this self-made assumption - and probably a correct assumption at that - of a band unfortunately confined to a tiny portion of genres and ideas on how to experiment and illustrate this longing for reaching out. As stated, the band have always hoped for people to see them as conveying old sounds in a new and more contemporary manner. Whether they've favored branching out and, as a result, rejected this philosophy altogether is uncertain. 'Rubidium' shows the band's openness towards intercontinental geography - a mixture of tropic percussion, european strings and retro analog electronics that sound like something straight out of a 70s or 80s resurgence. It's here that the track begins to morph and twist into this rougher and more independent sound, the simple chirping of synths leading this bizarre juxtapose of a calm before the storm, and the storm itself.

'Lacker Boo' in contrast tends to go straight for the intensity of the situation, again there is some immediate change of direction regarding the music's construction and benefitting elements. There's something quite ethereal about the way this track lays itself out - soft brushes of percussion laying atop a backing of orchestration and deep synth beats alike. It's enough to render the track in some form of mellow and withdrawn setting, but again, the fact that the track itself shifts and the way it pushes itself away from one extreme straight to the other, is quite testing from a neutral perspective. It's nothing that's going to captivate or enthrall a listener like you or I, but what it does do is test the very idea that a solitary recording has to lay within the same grounds as it started in. And I'm not talking about the simple nature of progression, but what I'm referring to is, like is shown here on this very album, the notion of twisting and turning to the point that by the end, the track has returned in a majority, to its original form.

Of course, the other issue with this record, both good and bad depending on where your preference lays, is the continuing playing around with different directions in sound. 'Steepless' sees the band take a more trip-hop/downtempo approach, vocals holding that similar jazz-infused rhythmic vibe alongside a testing tread of piano and electronic beats. Surprisingly, the track actually works rather well and while it does, in some respect, shun the band's more instrumental ventures, it still showcases the band's maturity with both organic and synthetic sounds. Here, the softening palette of piano isn't overly consuming, and at the drum machines and sequencers that add to the background give off a precise and rhythmical eeriness to the track.

The penultimate track on this album 'City of Glass' - and the final full-length 3-minutes-plus composition, if you want to go into further detail - has a certain degree of irony regarding its placement on the record, as it feels the more representative of the album's, and indeed the band's, shift in direction here. Balancing between the aesthetic jazz and the contemporary vibes of the percussion playing - bass peaking through the spaces in-between - it sums pretty well the benefits, but also the hinderance as to where this level of free-form transgression can be in music. Again, there is a case of distortion and shift in sound here, and while it does bring about some interesting results regarding how the individual recordings and instruments gel, it also suggests this sense of indecisiveness in the band's line of thinking. That, and even for a song roughly six-and-a-half minutes in length, there are some major sections here - either flowing well, or being pushed and pulled in places - that feel lacking in been given enough time and room to pull off something that may, in another outcome, may have been quite beautiful. Instead, there's a sense that this just a doodle or sketch of something far greater...and nothing more.

But I think that's one of the key issues you're going to face whenever you incorporate such wide, and in places, foreign sounds into something that may to some people come across as too contemporary and modern to work well with others. I don't doubt Portico Quartet's ambition here, and in places it's that same ambition of both looking for something new and capturing the old in similar fashion, that actually manages to work really well. Maybe this will be a record that finds itself tested by an age that it sought to express a sound for, and will ultimately succeed in relating to what we will eventually come to call the past, in ten to twenty years time. Overall though, the crucial point isn't about reflection or relation on this self-titled album. Regardless of what the band have set out to achieve, the element most prudent here is direction. It's up to Portico Quartet whether that very direction in their music, is one of content or one of context, because while this album showcases this widening of instrument choice and shift in focus over which ones take priority, there's no guarantee of whether this mind-set will, in result, be for better, or for worse.
~Jordan

7.2

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