Monday, April 07, 2008

Portishead - Third Review

Portishead - Third (Island Records)

The release of Third by Portishead has been imbued with a heavy cultural significance. It has been reviewed on the Late Review, generated acres of coverage in the music press and broadsheet newspapers and there is a growing online buzz. It feels less like a release more an event.

In a music scene so deprived of anything approaching sonic innovation, there is a desperate desire for Third to be an audio panacea. That it will push the envelope, blur boundaries, feed our imaginations and extend out expectations. Relight the fire of experimental wonder at the crossroads of dance music and indie.

It’s been ten years since the misfiring second LP Portishead. Ten years? Is that too much of a wait or even a weight.? Has it been worth it? Frankly, no!

Back in 1994 it seemed that Portishead had discovered the future sound of heartache. Dummy inverted hip-hop. Slowing down the beats, removing the machismo and replacing it with angst and twisted song writing. Geoff Barrow strip mined the sonic template of hip-hop, capsizing the structure. These static Luna landscapes and haunted dancehalls where the perfect foil for Beth Gibbon’s smoky evocations.

The signifiers we all too quickly collected collated and copied by a host of pale imitators. The skinny latte genre of Trip Hop was commoditised and packaged. Now blaming Portishead for the likes of Sneaker Pimps is like blaming Elvis for Cliff Richard or The Beatles for Oasis the source material might be the same, the outcomes somewhat different.

The bands reaction to the wholesale larceny of their sound was to get darker, harder and grittier. The second LP, confusingly titled Portishead, replaced samples with live recordings and melancholy with full blown despair. It sounded like a band fighting too hard to distance themselves from their original sonic blueprint. The resulting songs where sterile and still born. Somewhere along the way they lost the magic that coursed through crackled hissing grooves of Dummy.

Third is much closer to the disappointing harsh metallic sounds of the bands second LP. The songs are overloaded with heavy bleeding synths, high whining strings, heavy strained rhythm patterns and a far too many turgid guitars.

Yes Third is dense but devoid of tension. It aims to be abrasive and harsh but comes across merely ingenuous and brash. You get the feeling that the band where aiming for something edgy, maybe the nightmarish soundscapes of Scott Walker’s Drift. If that was there intention they are wildly wide of the mark.

The Drift is bone chilling, a myriad mix of disconnected sound and complex Gnostic lyricism. A scream into the dark emotional void of the 21st Century. The only blood curdling aspect of Third is Beth Gibbon’s appalling lyrics. They are thrown into a stark and unforgiving spotlight, much more audible than on previous releases. They are so pitiful, sub teenage Goth platitudes that would be unforgivable for a teenager. That the author is over the age of 40 beggars’ belief.

The lyric issue wouldn’t be so crippling if the music wasn’t so grey, ponderous and lacking in dynamism. Yes the have attempted to broaden their palate and range. Acoustic guitars and folk melodies intertwine with the beats and strings. Unfortunately you soon realize that Beth Gibbons wouldn’t even scrape a living as a folk artist on the Bristol Pub circuit. The material on display is so pallid and clich├ęd. The Rip is awful collision of Fairport Convention and Kraftwerk, all flimsy pastoral imagery, wishful melodies and analogue synths. The hook to Machine Gun is a stunningly prosaic rhythm track. A slowed down blunted version of that kick drum pattern that powers New Orders Blue Monday, repeated over and over again.

Third starts promisingly enough. Silence rattles along on some frantic percussion and descending bass notes, the guitars spidery and inert. Portishead by number maybe, with it’s grainy film nor atmospherics but it is the stand out track. Hunter is a lacklustre folky lament with a pedestrian rhythm that is juxtaposed with a bleeping synth interlude in a failed attempt to inject some interest.

Disappointingly ordinary, you can help but feeling the alchemy that Portishead summoned up on Dummy was a fluke.

Tony Heywood ©