Back in the mid-90s, before Russell Brand was born, before reality television had increased the volume of the nation’s drool, Portishead were laying down a kind cruelly suggestive sound that almost single handedly coalesced a ‘scene’. Their shimmering music – trapped somewhere between malignant rock and a bashfully meditative drum n bass – was expansive, experimental pop, of a kind that hasn’t heard for some time. Radiohead’s more propulsive tunes are a distant relation, but achieve proximity by default. Their classic albums ‘Dummy’ (1994) and ‘Portishead’ (1997) tripped out such memorable and unsettling tracks such as ‘Glory Box’, ‘Sour Times‘ and the irresistibly epic ‘All Mine‘.
11 interminable years later and Portishead return with ‘Third’. By all accounts the band have been working hard since the turn of the century but solo projects, such as lead singer Beth Gibbons’ solo album and guitarist Adrian Utley’s wonderful excursion into the far reaches of elctroblip ‘Warminster’, and various personal battles have delayed this highly anticipated release. ‘Third’ will not disappoint fans of the band. The sound is coherent with the previous output and the tracks are ordered as a kind of transition from the past into the present: ‘Silence’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Nylon smile’ are all vividly reminiscent of the gorgeous glum that Portishead do best, with their idiosyncratic aural-glimmers etching sinister shadows in the imagination. However, as the record progresses with ‘Plastic’, ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Machine Gun‘, the sound becomes harsher and more aggressive in tone. Everything the band does carries a recognizable point of entry, a seductive hook – but sections of ‘third’ certainly wield a sharper edge than you might expect. Between these jagged edges rests the beautiful and vulnerable lament of ‘Deep Water‘, an uncharacteristically simple and tender little tune. The final three tracks, ‘Small’, ‘Magic doors’, and ‘Threads‘ are poised with a wicked snarl. As the band hit their new, impressive stride, you can hear them uncoiling after their hibernation. As is the way with all great bands, you can’t help wondering what’s next. But with Portishead, you might be in for a wait. Still, there’s so much to enjoy here, so many dark corridors to wander down that you won’t be in a hurry to leave behind its hypnotic, growling whirls.