After a ten year hiatus, trip-hop pioneers Portishead are finally back with a new studio album - Third. Rumours have been flying around that this was in the works for a good 5 years, so it may come as something of a surprise to actually have it playing on your stereo. Reasons for the hiatus have never been explained, other than the members "keeping their heads down" with other projects. Beth Gibbons had the most notable success with her album with Rustin Man - Out Of Season, while Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrows have been mostly operating behind the scenes, producing and remixing bands as varied as The Pharcyde and The Coral.
The limelight is clearly a place this band don't like to be and the trauma that seems to be involved in them making music seems intense. Stepping back may have been the only answer, although by ducking out you can surely do little more than increase the pressure on your eventual return, which may explain the drawn-out production schedule of this third record.
With the driving drums of thumping opener Silence, the pressure builds immediately before abruptly pulling back as Beth Gibbons' haunting vocals quickly suck you back into the presence of your old favourite band. Where Dummy and Portishead had the big, expansive feel of epic movie soundtracks, Third takes a much more minimal and I suppose 'modern' approach. By modern, I mean 80's rather than 70's - as where the widescreen sounds of Dummy recalled Lalo Schifrin's 60's and 70's film scores for the likes of Dirty Harry or Bullitt, Third has a distinctive 80's sound - recalling the electronic horror scores of John Carpenter or the sci-fi future of Vangelis.
This is a record that makes very few concessions and takes no prisoners, which should be commended for such a mainstream, high profile release. The brash goobledegook electonic interruptions of Hunter, the distorted intro to Machine Gun or the abstracted Jazz solo towards the end of Magic Door do not make for immediate, easy listening - but every sound has its place and nothing feels overcooked. The superb production counterpoints every rough edge with a moment of magic, such as Machine Gun's desolate, Blade Runner-like finale.
The Rip is the sublime high-point of the album - reminding us of everything that was so ethereal about Portishead's original output, but bringing a newer sound and dimension to the music. Starting with a rising electronic pulse, Gibbons' vocals lift the song up into the clouds before hypnotic, pulstating scales recalling the analog electronica of Jean Michel Jarre or Giorgio Moroder take over, letting the song fly off on its own.
Beth Gibbons' subsequent solo career seems to have upped her presence in the band, with some notable tracks focusing on the less-electronic themes she followed with her solo album - notably the wireless-radio-era sound of Deep Water. An album like this creates a demand for the sound you know, the sound you remember and the sound you love - but this new found eclecticism adds a further dimension. The highlights here certainly tick those retro boxes - but not without the introduction of some welcome new touches.
Bands like Portishead defined this sound, so it's no surprise to hear them pushing it further and moving it on - even with trip-hop at this mature stage. The anticipation for this record may have created a seemingly unachievable sense of expectation and in some ways I can't help but be a little disappointed. Every single track is not a bonifide masterpiece from start to finish, and some feel like they could have been developed further; but there are many highlights and it stands proud as an excellent record. The Rip is worth the price of admission alone and is one of several tracks to suggest that the highest of expectations can sometimes be soundly beaten.