From jazz mags to Electronic Sound, it’s been a strange trip for the group formerly known as Portico Quartet
So that’s it then. Portico Quartet really are no more. This may come as no surprise to anyone who followed their evolution from acoustic jazz through to the merging of electronic minimalism and real percussion on their self-titled third album. But it didn’t take a genius to notice that this path was unsustainable: something had to give. Or someone. And it transpired that someone was hang player and percussionist Keir Vine.
Judging by the echoing soundscapes and mournful vocals of ‘Living Fields’, severing ties makes complete sense. This is less of an evolution and more of a creative leap. It’s not compatible with the past that contained treasures like ‘Knee-Deep In The North Sea’ and ‘Window Seat’, and Portico are adamant about that. You could also read much into the fact that their last album was on Real World and this one is on Ninja Tune. This, they clearly state, is not album number four, it’s the debut.
Perhaps the most obvious change is that ‘Living Fields’ has vocals on eight of the nine tracks. Previously, Portico Quartet were a group who’d made their Mercury-nominated name in precision-pitched instrumentals, with the notable exception of ‘Steepless’, featuring Swedish singer Cornelia Dahlgren. What’s surprising is that this new devotion to vocals doesn’t go in the Cinematic Orchestra-esque direction that ‘Steepless’ suggested. On tracks like ‘101’ and ‘Bright Luck’, arpeggiated chords merge and entwine like curling cigarette smoke. In terms of mood, Burial and James Blake are clearly touchstones, but the urban, neon-lit panoramas of Portico are in thrall to neither.
So well-wrought are these songs that, despite the contrasting styles of the three vocalists used – mannered Joe Newman of alt-J, the expressive Jono McCleery, and the R&B stylings of Jamie Woon – they sit on the album together perfectly, each illustrating and illuminating contrasting aspects of the Portico vision. What they all have in common is an intimacy that’s in stark contrast to the icy synths and permafrost percussion.
On ‘Brittle’, the reverb drenched setting and stuttering drum machines allow the vocals of alt-J’s Joe Newman to blossom, achieving an emotional impact of a kind that will surprise alt-J watchers. But the star here is ‘Bright Luck’. Jono McCleery’s enveloping vocals spiral off to infinity, as synths fizz and fall apart in a different room. It’s a breathtaking achievement, a piece of such staggering beauty that it could bring a stone to tears.
Goodbye Portico Quartet and hello Portico. Welcome to a light-night haze of haunted 4am cab rides and untethered emotions. Welcome to a melancholic world dappled with moments of euphoria. Welcome to one of the finest records of the year so far.