Enigmatic is a word I love to use, but rarely a word that I find applicable to a band. A large number of high profile acts seem to revel in PR; giving interviews, doing tours and hinting at their songs’ meaning or origin. Even musicians whose entire life has been surrounded by an aura of mystery, such as Bob Dylan, have at least shed some insight into their life and work. Portishead are such a band that, for most of their existence, has not been like this. They appeared on the scene out of seemingly nowhere in 1994 with their debut album Dummy, which was a big success in the UK and popularized the up and coming genre of trip-hop. The album won the coveted Mercury Prize despite facing perhaps the toughest competition ever in one year. (PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love included) Then, three years of silence before another album emerged, this one stranger and more sinister than the last. And then nothing. No tours, no albums, no interviews. The three members each went their separate ways for side projects. Portishead looked to be dead in the water.
Then, 2005 came, and the band started to tour again and announced they were writing new songs. It was good news, but puzzling news. The genre of trip-hop that Portishead pioneered was extremely short lived; lasting perhaps the guts of the nineties, if even. After 2 albums, Portishead definitely had a distinctive sound that was unmistakably trip-hop, so what else could they do in a new album? Would they try to retain their signature sound, or would they attempt to update their sound to match the sound of the times? As it turns out, they did neither.
Third opens with a sound byte of someone speaking Portugese. I don’t know what it translates as, but to me it’s like the band announcing their new musical direction; their rejection of the familiar, and perhaps an awareness that their own fans wouldn’t understand the music like they couldn’t understand the language. And the first song, Silence, certainly gives way for bewilderment. Known for their downtempo, chilled out recordings, the band had completely forgone that approach, instead bringing in harrowing industrial drums, dissonant guitar and haunting strings. Beth Gibbon’s voice, always quite enigmatic and spooky, draws out her lines with a sorrowful inflection. Yes, it’s Portishead, but Portishead on steroids. Welcome to the 21st century folks.
Yet the second song, Hunter, is much different again. It shows yet another side to the band. Quiet and folksy, it’s in stark contrast to the first track, yet it contains some elements of menace. A jarring electric guitar chord here, an ominous synth pattern there. Similarly, Nylon Smile experiments with electronics with a reversed synth pattern as a recurring motif. Once again, Beth Gibbons vocals are mysterious and sorrowful.
With the tone of the album firmly established as an eclectic mixture of industrial, electronic and folk, the band decides it’s time to let one of their best songs loose: The Rip. What begins as a tender folk ballad is quickly transformed into a melancholy, pulsating song punctuated with synthesizers and the most tragic vocal Beth Gibbons has ever delivered. “Wild white horses/They will take me away.” A standout song that truly showcases Portishead’s new musical direction, combining their folk sensibilities with their new (sometimes harsh) electronic approach.
We Carry On, one of the longest songs, is a pounding, trance-like, futuristic, industrial, chaotic song. With its military-like drums and foreboding organ and synth, it sounds like something from a Terminator film. The influence of Joy Division is perhaps most evident on this track with the very Bernard Sumner-esque guitar. “On and on/We carry on” is sung with a real sense of stoicism and fear by Gibbons. The atmosphere is so harrowing and haunting, you wouldn’t think Portishead were capable of such dissonance and fear. That is until Machine Gun.
To be perfectly honest, Machine Gun sounds exactly like what it says. The whole song is built on industrial, compressed drum samples that sound like a machine gun firing. The uncompromising, sheer brutality of this sound is unprecedented, from either Portishead or any other band. Most of the song consists of these repeating blasts of electronics and Gibbons’ haunting voice. It ends with an overwhelming synth coda, drawing the song to an earth-shattering conclusion. Despite not mentioning it in the lyrics, Machine Gun feels very anti-war by its brutal approach to the sound of the weaponry, the ghostly vocals and the bone-crunching ending.
Third has other, minor songs that I won’t mention here, but suffice to say that they’re all in much the same ideal as each other. The album sounds melancholy, mournful, futuristic, ominous and cataclysmic. From a band formerly known for their chilled out sound, Third is anything but. Its jarring and nihilistic edge is probably enough to throw any fans of their first two albums off. Yet Third is a triumph because of this direction. It doesn’t sound much like Portishead – it doesn’t sound much like anything! And for a well known, influential band like Portishead to go in this direction shows some guts.
Words - Adam