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Portishead “Third” Review

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What has been roughly 10 years in the making finally sees release in the form of Portishead’s Third, the aptly titled release from the Bristol-based trio largely known for helping standardize trip hop in the mid ’90s. With the exception of a few scattered contributions and a Beth Gibbons solo album, the group has been largely unspoken for in commercial recording since its 1997 self titled release. Since then mystique and anticipation have blossomed around the band’s absence. Now releasing an album of new material, matching its first two releases with an 11 song track listing, Third may act as a question rather than an answer to the band’s layoff. Not only does Third‘s release serve to question whether or not Portishead is still a relevant in a changed musical landscape, but it also suggests it valid to ask whether or not the trip hop Chinese Democracy was simply worth the wait.

Performing its first full set in roughly a decade at last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties: A Nightmare Before Christmas festival, the group presented five new, and at the time still-untitled, tracks. Capturing the interest of fans the world over, the new material was received with a stark feeling of separation when contrasted with of the sounds of both Dummy and Portishead. The thoughts of a music departure are quite suitable, for to call the new music trip hop would be a disgrace to both what the term came to represent and to the honest beauty of the variation in Portishead’s sound visibly apparent with Third.

“I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you and I don’t know what I’ll do without you” moans Gibbons on “Nylon Smile.” Almost serving as an echoing conclusion to 97’s “Only You,” Gibbons now playing the role of a songstress who has achieved her romantic grasping. Much in the same sense, Third seems to repeal any bloated stabs at grandeur which may be expected, rather its tracks are heavy with reaching innovation and variety in place of excessive beat-hugging.

“The Rip” blooms with a stench of cheap 90s ambiance, accounting for a sound that could be construed as appropriate of the album if out of the context of the rest of its songs. But its sound grows appropriately while adjusting to the delicateness of Gibbons’ lyrics in a way that Air’s denser electronic may have melded with Charlotte Gainsbourg had her 5:55 taken a darker direction. Likewise the track’s following sounds further shed any idea of repetition between this and any other Portishead album; “Plastic” determined in its minimalist orchestral texture, and “We Carry On” sounding of deceiving gypsy with Adrian Utley’s guitar acting as a deceptive monkey scouring for unguarded pocket change.

And as the album continues to relax, “Deep Water” surprises as a ukulele-driven ballad, waxing just before Third chomps with “Machine Gun.” The song’s Downward Spiral beat provides a uniquely hard shell, an environment surprisingly suitable for the harmonically quenching Gibbons. Its beat unfolds into a psudo-industrialist electronic rhythm, one a bit too basic to be a Squarepusher anthem, though it teases some of Tom Jenkinson’s earlier subtleties.

Perhaps “Threads” is as close to what was last heard from Portishead, post-Portishead. The song’s early violin moan captures a hair of what was 1998′s live Roseland NYC album, Utley and Geoff Barrow adding haze to the near-transparent sound. “I’m always so unsure” groans Gibbons as “Threads” begins to wail, possibly attributing a few words to the theme to not just the album but the group’s prolonged recording hiatus. When so much is expected of a band so talented, yet so remotely unusual, uncertainty is not merely granted but presumed; however Third as a solid body of work fulfills in its surprising assuredness, failing to even whisper suggestions that Portishead was ever irrelevant. Third is 10 years worth of anticipation fulfilled.