I can still remember the kerfuffle Portico Quartet sparked off at Womad 2012…Where’s the hang drum? What’s this, loops? Is this dance music? For a crowd expecting the pastoral acoustic soundscapes of their first two records, the Mercury nominated ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’ and follow up ‘Isla’, the sweeping electronica fused with upfront beats may have been a shock but it defined a band who, even then, were committed to their own progression. That resolve won over the festival tent that day and has continued to be the bedrock of Portico Quartet music whatever the direction they have taken over the course of their impressive thirteen year/nine album trajectory.
Now comes the next instalment, ‘Monument’ available on Gondwana Records from 12th November, an LP that, as its title suggests, may be a marker of some significance for Portico Quartet. The ‘band’s’ music today revolves around the intuitive understanding of two of its founding members, Duncan Bellamy (electronics and rhythms) and Jack Wylie (electronics and sax). Six months ago the pair put out the meandering free form ‘Terrain’, a record of expansive ambience that soundtracked a world that had been forced to look in on itself. ‘Monument’ seems to want be break free from those lockdown days, to be direct, to be noticed, to demand we listen.
The initial hint of something transitional going on comes on the first track ‘Opening’. The staple Portico peeling hang drum loop and aerobatic sax may sound familiar but the upfront loose and live drum sound less so. That rhythmic emphasis pushes more bullishly into the spotlight on ‘Impressions’ where the shimmering beats keep a steady focus while a quivering synth pattern supports the sax and voice conversation. It’s there again on ‘Ultraviolet’ which soon breaks out those big beats to anchor the track’s succulent melody. There’s a warm playful eighties electronic pop feel here, a swish of Jean -Michel Jarre and a clear reference to structure that’s refreshing.
That use of repeated lines, tuneful hooks and a pumping pulse to build anticipation shines through again on the title track. The lyrical quality of the song’s main theme gets heightened by a gradual instrumental swell until that subtle ‘drop’ moment. Your take on the track’s fade may depend on which side of the Portico Quartet fence you start from. Die-hards may feel that the tune could have been stretched out in an improvisational quest for a way out. Others more open to the band’s economic approach will welcome the decision to reel things in or, as Jack Wylie puts it, their focus on ‘not much searching or wastage …’.
This resolve to keep things streamlined across Monument’s ten tracks could have made for a clinical, restrained album but Bellamy and Wylie’s astute handling ensures that was never going to be the outcome. There may be precision and discipline but nothing gets stifled as a result. The piano-led jazz fusion of ‘Ever Present’ flourishes with all the cavernous power of a reverberating EST anthem and the locomotive ‘A.O.E.’ builds momentum like label mates Go-Go Penguin at their most forceful. Bass line heavy with dub sensibilities, cascading synths plus sax overlays that weep and wail, it’s a pivotal track that leads onto another highlight, the dynamic ‘Warm Data’. Here the minimal patterns stack together with ever increasing density like an overwhelming coding conversation while floating choral sounds and plaintive piano attempt to restore calm. It’s a perfectly crafted piece of music that, during its intense eight minute journey, captures the full intention of the album as a whole.
It does seem that the broad sweep of electronic music has been having a moment recently. Maybe during the imposed solitude of the COVID period people took more time to listen, explore and uncover the emotional range disguised by hasty labelling. Perhaps the musicians themselves escaped the constraints of the cerebral and technical and, like the rest of us, broke out of lock down desperate to re-connect. ‘Monument’ in its bold, unashamed realisation is very much music of this moment. To cut to the chase- it’s a corker.