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Long awaited comeback from Bristol trip-hop outfit proves worth the wait

Rating: 8 / 10

Paul Nolan, 15 Apr 2008

When it comes to prolificacy of output, Portishead make The Stone Roses look like workaholics; Third arrives a full decade-and-a-half after the Bristol group’s self-titled second album. In fairness, the lack of new material in the intervening period wasn’t for the want of trying.

Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley actually attempted to kickstart the third Portishead record in Sydney in 2001 but, disappointed with the results, they put the project on the backburner and didn’t commence work on Third for another three years. Given that the album they have finally created is filled with such boldly daring and imaginative music, it’s a good job the duo decided to take their time.

One of the most notable aspects of Third is its inventive use of rhythm: many of the tracks are propelled forward by forceful and dynamic beats. ‘Nylon Smile’, for example, features almost tribal-style drumming merged with various atmospheric sound effects, whilst ‘The Rip’ begins with just acoustic guitar and ghostly vocals from Beth Gibbons (whose incredible voice remains Portishead’s ace card), before a hypnotic groove kicks in and the song is transformed into a beautifully rhythmic electro workout.

After the smoky trip-hop of ‘Plastic’ comes one of the album’s stand-out tracks, ‘We Carry On’. Built around intense drums and electro rhythms, the song is actually reminiscent of Scott Walker’s unsettling leftfield masterworks Tilt and The Drift. Like those albums, the lyrics of ‘We Carry On’ are contaminated by a kind of existential nausea, with Gibbons keening lines like, “The pace of time I cannot survive/It’s grinding down the view”. Like a Francis Bacon painting, it’s new territory for Portishead and sounds absolutely magnificent.

By way of respite, the short (1 min 33 seconds) and bittersweet ‘Deep Water’ begins with Gibbons accompanying herself on – of all things – Hawaiian guitar, singing lyrics such as “I’m drifting in deep waters/Alone with my self-doubt”. However, as this is Portishead, there is an inevitable curveball thrown into the mix, in this case choral backing vocals that sound like a robot barbershop quartet.

The first single, ‘Machine Gun’, puts you right back in the dead of night, with its non-stop barrage of industrial beats and electronic sounds, including a futuristic, Vangelis-like synth swell at the finish. ‘Small’, meanwhile, is really two tracks pieced together, Abbey Road style. Starting out with just Gibbons’ vocals and a series of forlorn guitar notes, it eventually kicks into a mesmerising trip-hop landscape. Ending with a collision of pounding beats, squalling noise and reverb-laden guitar, it really is quite the sonic trip.

Third finishes with ‘Threads’ which, given that it sounds like a cut from an obscure-but-brilliant film soundtrack, and boasts Gibbons delivering an emotionally raw lyric (“I’m tired of my mind/I’m worn out of thinking why I’m always so unsure”), is perhaps the best song of all. Fittingly for such a spooked record, it ends with a repeated noise that closely resembles a distress signal.

After listening to Third, I felt like I’d taken a walk on the wild side. Maybe more bands should take 10 years between albums.

Key track: ‘Threads’

Rating: 8 / 10
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