Album review: Portico Quartet – ‘Terrain’: a truly reflective journey

The Breakdown

Terrain is what we need to listen to when we're ready for the beginning of a truly reflective journey. God knows we've all had that year.

PORTICO QUARTET have always been a vibe. Since their formation, in my opinion they’re one of the few instrumental jazz-psyechedelic-electronic bands to live up to that musical blend, and furthermore, they’ve always been able to tell a story.

Their latest album, Terrain, actually exceeded all my expectations in that sense, delivering a much more emotionally charged sound to the otherwise cool and collected soundscape of their previous work. Terrain is what the title suggests: an exploration of life during lockdown, the solitude, the discovery, the anxiety, the fear, and once you moved beyond that, hope.

Terrain is essentially a three-part suite, brilliantly given ‘freestanding’ titles, if you will, of “I”, “II” and “III”. Drawing on American minimalism alongside their own rich heritage, the band explore new, evocative musical vistas. The lockdown became the leading driving force for the album, written by founders Duncan Bellamy and Jack Wyllie in their East London Studio in May 2020. Like most bands, it forced them to rethink their creative approach when it came to the time they allocated for composing and recording. This proved to be highly successful, as creatively their sound developed into quite the artistic plethora of both the musical, visual and literary worlds. The band remark how the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy expressed the sense of grief and rupture from the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”.

Each track of Terrain is a direct embodiment of those kinds of conversations. “I” is like the calm before the storm, with wildly beautiful sax lines signaling the beginning of an adventure through time and space, atop and incessant and pristine rhythm sessions with unbelievably vivid harmonics. It becomes clear that at the core of the album sound repeated patterns play a huge part in the compositions, at times as free and open as you would expect on a calm sea, and others almost as if you were running up a hill to find that freedom of an open space. About halfway through “I” it became clear to me this was a story about a person fleeing from the unknown. Keir Vine, the band’s keyboardist does an especially wonderful job in holding the space for his bandmates to steadily build between freedom and structure.

There is need a lot of genius blending of cultures, in particular a highly stylised nod to Japanese pentatonic harmony infused with a wonderful array of non-Western melodies. Indeed, the band remark how they were “particularly inspired by the work of Japanese composer Midori Takada. Her approach, particularly on Through The Looking Glass, where she moves through different worlds incorporating elements of minimalism with non-Western instruments and melodies, were at the front of [our minds] when writing this music.”

There is certainly a shared motif among the three tracks, a shared journey moving through different realms with pivotal moments of music momentum. “II” is the movement in that sense of pattern of a kind of surrender to the things you can make sense of in the universe. Bellamy and Wyllie most undeniably draw on these patterns to make sense of the often ‘improvised’ nature of the universe, so ‘II” features improvisations that highlight the quiet yet powerful resolution to life’s unpredictability. Milo Fitzpatrick is a bassist whose musicality holds this juxtaposition of sounds together. It’s one of those sublime cases where art truly imitates life.

With that in mind, the last track, “III”, is the most sporadic and spatial of the album, both musically and as a story. It echoes with a deeply unsettling melancholy, infused by the rhythmic buildup (and masterful delivery from Bellamy) to the otherwise minimalist backdrop.

Make no mistake, the 38 minutes of this album are by no means minimalist in content. They have to be listened to in their entirety to realise their real magic. The album ends as naturally therefore, as a conversation would, on a questionable note. Yet, there is a feeling of acceptance, that we live both in the here and now, with a backdrop of the past in our minds and hearts. We yearn to return to the exterior world of freedom, our own ‘Terrain’, in search of happiness.

Terrain is what we need to listen to when we’re ready for the beginning of a truly reflective journey. God knows we’ve all had that year.

Portico Quartet’s Terrain is out now on Gondwana Records and is available on all platforms here.

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