Album Reviews

Portico Quartet – Monument

(Gondwana) UK release date: 5 November 2021

Portico Quartet - Monument After arriving with a bang when their debut album, Knee-Deep In The North Sea, was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Prize, London-based instrumental collective Portico Quartet have quietly released a series of meticulously crafted records since without ever quite achieving the same levels of acclaim. This is rather a shame, as over a decade on, they remain as accomplished and interesting as ever.

Originally perceived as predominantly a jazz/world music fusion group, mostly using live instruments (including their signature Hang, a metallic lap drum not dissimilar to a Caribbean steel drum), the departure of founder member Nick Mulvey to reinvent himself as a singer-songwriter saw the band he left also branch out to pursue a new direction as purveyors of sweeping, hypnotic electronica: a template Portico Quartet are still largely following today, although they have never completely abandoned the experimental, globe trotting elements that characterised their earlier work.

Monument follows hot on the heels of Terrain, a collection of three lengthy, minimalist compositions released just six months ago. But while Terrain was ambient and stark, its follow up is an altogether more upbeat, accessible affair. As the Quartet’s Jack Wyllie explains: “It’s possibly our most direct album to date. It’s melodic, structured and there’s an economy to it that is very efficient. There’s not much searching or wastage within the music itself, it is all finalised ideas, precisely sculpted and presented as a polished artefact.”

On a first listen, Monument can feel a little samey, but deeper investigation shows the subtle variations in tone and mood Portico Quartet create. For example, Ever Present is blissfully mellow, starting off as a simple piano refrain before a wistful saxophone melody floats serenely over a gently rhythmic drum and bass groove. In contrast, AOE feels altogether more urgent and tense, with the saxophone now fractured and discordant and the synths shimmering with latent menace.

Completing a run of the album’s strongest tracks, Warm Data is a complex tapestry of percussive and electronic textures, subtly woven together before suddenly unravelling and ebbing away into silence. The album hits another, late peak with On The Light, which blends atonal Middle Eastern influences with skittering drums and minimalist piano to deliver an evocative finale.

Sitting somewhere between the propulsive modern jazz of labelmates GoGo Penguin and the soaring, experimental electronica of acts like Fuck Buttons, Monument is another addition to what’s becoming one of the most quietly consistent back catalogues in UK instrumental music, and proof that while others may begin to run out of ideas at this stage of their careers, Portico Quartet are sounding as fresh as ever.

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Portico Quartet – Memory Streams
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This Music Made Me: Portico
Portico Quartet @ Roundhouse, London