When a band releases a self-titled record, it’s usually their way of saying, “We’ve finally arrived at the sound we always had in our heads.” So it is with East London’s Portico Quartet, who have audibly evolved many miles onward since 2010′s second album, Isla.
When that dazzling record was nominated for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize, it opened British ears not only to the vibey and inventive 20-something future-jazz quartet who’d made it, but also to the “hang” — the UFO-shaped steel percussion instrument, which one of their number, Nick Mulvey, brought to their sound.
Mulvey’s departure soon afterwards necessitated that the band re-plot their coordinates, initially by triggering hang samples on digi-pads, then feeding in all manner of loops and live samples, and finally adding Keir Vine, a hang player, keyboard-ist and all-round electronic freak to their ranks.
That this hastily reconstituted foursome have now served up Portico Quartet is staggering – it represents a shift every bit as seismic as Radiohead underwent between OK Computer and Kid A, blending with similar dexterity their trad and hi-tech instrumentation.
“Window Seat” opens the proceedings more like a mid-’90s Aphex Twin record than any known jazz one, as loops and classical strings swirl in a weirdly synchronized overture. From there, tracks unfold with all the wonder of a children’s adventure story, sometimes weaving gleefully through eight minutes of recorded sound, reveling in unexpected developments. “Rubidium,” for instance, launches off amid Sakamoto-esque oriental loopy scales, before saxman Jack Wyllie colors it in with gorgeous swathes of brass; somehow, a deranged synth pattern phases in and we land in a drum solo, stumbling and arrhythmic, only for that, too, to recede, leaving Wyllie’s blue sax-notes, tickles of cymbal, and loops drifting on through to a blissful infinity.
On “Spinner,” Duncan Bellamy (drums) and Milo Fitzpatrick (bass) kick off in a rhythmic structure more familiar from their (and jazz’s) past, perfect for Wyllie to blow over, but Vine’s shimmering tech-backdrop ushers the whole tune into a different dimension. His layered post-millennial drones on “4096 Colours,” set against Wyllie’s desolate Miles Davis trumpet improv, suggest Burial doing Bitches Brew. The sense of the unscripted hits a peak, when Swedish singer Cornelia breaks Portico’s vocal silence thus far, with some sweetly-crooned yet acrobatic singing on “Steepless.”
Portico Quartet is, then, an epic journey, a fabulously sequenced aural experience, whose component parts have quite possibly never been gathered on one album before. Initial reactions of open-mouthed astonishment soon give way to another kind of awe: Never mind the shock of the new, it’s the shock of the excellence which keeps you coming back for more.