When Portico Quartet made the Mercury Prize shortlist in 2008 for their debut album Knee-Deep In The North Sea, it was as the ‘token jazz nomination’, a label that for many years clung sheepishly to a prize that’s never been won by a jazz album. Another genre that’s always been accompanied by the word ‘token’ when brought up in the context of the Mercury Prize is folk, and interestingly, former Portico Quartet member Nick Mulvey made the shortlist in 2014 as a folk nominee for his excellent solo album First Mind.
This neatly demonstrates the particular change in direction taken by Mulvey, crossing genres, but continuing to stay just outside the mainstream of popular music. But Portico Quartet sans Mulvey have also changed. The signs of this first started to appear in their self-titled 2011 album, which introduced electronic layers to their jazz scaffold. A self-titled album is often seen as a statement that a band have settled into the sound they intend to stick by, but the group have now undergone another evolution in sound, along with a change of name.
Dropping the quartet tag has clearly been a practical decision in one respect: the band is now a three piece, with percussionist Keir Vine having left last year. But there is something more symbolic in it too; quartet is suggestive of the jazz act that the band started out as, and while the self-titled Portico Quartet album remained at its core a jazz record, Living Fields is more glitchy electronic pop. It’s not so much a new chapter for the group, but a whole new book. Portico have stated that they wish to be considered a completely new band, and Living Fields is therefore to be taken as a debut album. They are now signed to Ninja Tune, as befits their new sound.
The big difference between Portico and Portico Quartet is that here we have songs, complete with vocals, rather than fluid instrumentals. Three guest vocalists contribute: Portico’s new label-mate Jono McCleery, alt-J’s Joe Newman (who has previously borrowed the title of Portico Quartet’s debut album, Knee-Deep In The North Sea to use as a line in the alt-J song Dissolve Me), and for just one track, downtempo golden boy Jamie Woon.
The differences in the vocal styles of the three are quite subtle, so there is none of the disjointedness that a big cast of guest vocalists can sometimes introduce to an album; with both singing any lyrics they ensure that the album feels consistent. At times, Newman’s distinctive tone can be slightly overpowering; his best performance is also his most subtle, on Atacama. Of the three singers, McCleery feels most at one with the music, positioning himself just forward of it, but never overshadowing it.
As for the music itself, it ranges from soft, composed and soulful to powerful and resounding, with occasional elements that wouldn’t be out of place in a dubstep record. With Vine gone, so too is the hang, the distinctive percussion instrument that was characteristic of Portico Quartet’s sound. It’s replaced by synths, some of which come fairly close to replicating its mellow, hollow tone, as in 101. Jack Wylie’s sax also seems to have disappeared, and it’s not always clear what each member of the group is doing at any given moment.
Indeed, it’s not apparent how far traditional instruments are involved at all, and how big a part drum machines and samplers are playing. This is testament to the group’s craft and production skills; Portico have certainly succeeded in reinventing themselves, and they sound like a completely different band to Portico Quartet. The flipside of this is less positive: with their synth textures and post-dubstep influences, they don’t sound all that different from much of the pop music being made at the moment.