Those hoping that the fourth Portishead album might arrive with just a modicum more haste than the third may be disappointed to discover that Geoff Barrow is once again indulging his extra-curricular activities. Not content with having released an album with his excellent motorik band BEAK>, he has now teamed up with soundtrack composer Ben Salisbury to make this lengthy fanboy homage to the comic 2000AD. Salisbury’s name may be unfamiliar but his music may not be – at least to anyone who has enjoyed any of Sir David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries.
Anyone not obsessed with this dark and violent world of crime and vigilantism need not run away, however. Drokk is interesting as much for its magnificent deployment of vintage synthesisers as it is for its incisive musical depiction of the stark psychogeography of Mega-City One. Whilst some will dismiss this as a detour into the world of ‘soundtrack’ music (as if such a thing could ever be intrinsically bad) at the expense of songwriting, there is also much common ground between this and Barrow’s other work, even that of Portishead.
Much of Third had a murky, claustrophobic, perhaps even frightening undertow, and a similar sense of menace and threat pervades much of Drokk. This music is also characterised by a steely and rigorous minimalism. Nothing here is extraneous, Barrrow and Salisbury seemingly on a mission to use as few notes as possible to create the broadest possible effect.
An all-too-obvious reference point has to be Vangelis and the Blade Runner soundtrack, a sound now somewhat pervasive in the electronic world. There’s also of course the unassuming, quietly visionary soundtracks John Carpenter composed for his own movies. The news that Barrow has also licensed the score for the ultra-violent thriller Drive also makes a good deal more sense in light of this carefully crafted suite, although it’s important to emphasise that Drokk is nowhere near as day-glo sleek or close to pastiche as that music.
There is little, if any, room for anything pretty, sweet or touching in Barrow and Salisbury’s world. Every choice of sound seems designed to create an atmosphere of tension and creeping unease. The distant siren sounds at the end of Scope The Block eventually give way to the whirring helicopter percussion. Many tracks, like this one, end suddenly, leaving a silence that is every bit as threatening as the sounds that have preceded it.
There are also, perhaps importantly, some moments that see Barrow leave his comfort zone. The layered hums and drones of Exhale suggest more of a sound collage approach – something not too far removed from the soundscapes of Emeralds or Oneohtrix Point Never. The helicopter percussion reappears again but it drops out almost immediately. Barrow and Salisbury seem to love the tantilising introduction of an element, only to revel in its withdrawal.
Barrow may, nevertheless, be most at home when there is a cyclical or repetitive motif underpinning the mesmeric, merciless arrangements. With its endlessly repeating foundations, Miami Lawgiver hints back at Portishead’s Chase The Tear, whilst its deceptively simple melody comes closest to concealing the disturbing dark heart of this music. Inhale sees the guesting BEAK> confront a mass of combative, thrilling noise. Drokk should not be dismissed as a niche project – it’s dark, rich and compelling in its own right.