Speaking as part of Don Letts’ wonderful Westway To The World documentary on The Clash shortly before his untimely death, Joe Strummer intoned: “Whatever a group is, it’s the chemical mixture of those people that make that group work. You can take one away and replace him with whoever you like or 10 men; it’s never going to work.” Quite what he’d make of Portico Quartet’s decision to not only change its line-up but also its musical stylings in the space of one record would make for an interesting discussion.
Hanghang player Nick Mulvey has departed for solo pastures, and the band’s largely acoustic sound follows him out of the door. And while the hanghang is still a part of the Portico Quartet sound, in comes Keir Vine and an array of loops and samples. The question is whether all the chopping and changing has in any way altered the sometime Mercury nominees’ focus. As Window Seat pulses into life, ably assisted with great swooping arcs of plaintive violin lines, there’s a sense that there’s a near perfect meshing of the old and the traditional. Neither element overpowers the other, instead bringing their own unique charms to the track.
The more brooding Ruins builds over sparse drums, adding beautiful, almost mournful saxophone to create a haunting, widescreen sonic amalgamation, while following track Spinner presents a new direction that will become a recurring theme throughout the rest of the album. Urgent and percussive electronic beats and ominous basslines are countenanced with sweeping and calming traces of the more traditional instrumentation Portico Quartet are known for, be it Jack Wylie’s subtle and mournful saxophone (an album-long highlight) or Duncan Bellamy’s delicate piano. It produces a curiously serene, sanguine undercurrent, much like – to use an abstract example – the feedback prevalent throughout The Jesus & Mary Chain‘s Psychocandy. It ceases to be intrusive after a time and instead becomes an eerily calm feature. It’s a trick best exhibited on penultimate track City Of Glass.
The only true misstep on the album is at the mid point in the shape of Steepless. For the most part this album’s music is to be basked in, and after half an album of instrumentals, being suddenly presented with vocals is rather jarring. The vocals themselves are waifish bordering on the ineffectual, and add little to the track. Pared down to its instrumental heart, the track would have made a charming and beatific midpoint to the album’s order, along with the glorious Rubidium.
The addition of samples, loops and beats have taken the Portico Quartet out of the acoustic territory of their earlier records and taken them firmly towards the territory of The Album Leaf‘s Chorus Of Storytellers. Both amalgamate arrangements of modern and traditional instruments to devastating, hypnotic effect. It remains to be seen how their change of direction will sit with fans of their previous work, but based purely on its own merits it’s a marvel. The human condition is primed to believe change is a bad thing, making the fact that the group have grappled with it and seemingly come out on top all the more impressive.