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The Bloody Classics - Portishead

Portishead, Portishead, 1997, Go Discs

Track List

  1. Cowboys

  2. All Mine

  3. Undenied

  4. Half Day Closing

  5. Over

  6. Humming

  7. Mourning Air

  8. Seven Months

  9. Only You

  10. Elysium

  11. Western Eyes

Trip hop pioneers Portishead come from Bristol and named themselves after another town near their home. Formed in 1991, they released their first album in 1994 to great critical acclaim but then waited three years to release their eponymous second. It entered the album chart at number 2 beaten to the top spot by last week’s classic Urban Hymns and though Portishead’s heavy synth style was very different to The Verve, this was still a commercial success.

Cowboys has a weird jangly horror movie style start. It’s malevolent and disturbing and I kind of love it. Lyrically All Mine feels like it could be a big band number and there are some horn samples in there which add to this feeling. It’s cool and languid. Undenied is delicate but the drums run through it like a heartbeat, the vocal is so low you almost have to strain to hear it. Half Day Closing weaves itself into your consciousness with heavily distorted, slow vocals but then hits you with an effect that sounds a bit like a warning alarm, the vocal then morphs into the synth and sounds a lot like a screaming computer, it’s pretty spacey. Single release Over starts with a standard guitar, it’s stripped back and the vocal is full of soul. The opening to Humming sounds so much like it’s from a Hammer Horror film it’s almost funny and the drumbeat heavy track retains its deliberate air of menace throughout. The bass seems to carry you away with it here. Despite the warm horn section Mourning Air feels painfully raw, like intruding on a heartbreak. Seven Months has a jarringly loud start and all I can think of is: Bond Theme. Only You is a return to slow burn malevolence. Both Elysium and Western Eyes are piano heavy which brings a bit of warmth to the darkness at the end of the album.

The atmosphere of the album is malevolent and dark, it definitely feels like a created soundscape, antarctic in its coldness and quite abrasive in places with scratching turntables and hissing sounds both vocal and created. Listening feels like a job, you wouldn’t really just put it on in the background as you’d feel you were somehow betraying it by doing other stuff. The guitars are as important as the synths which means the sound only feels cold when it’s supposed to, it never falls into the trap of trying to create that more aloof 1980s synth sound. I’m not sure if I enjoyed it, but I certainly didn't dislike it and it was definitely an experience. You can hear the level of skill that’s gone into creating it, and it works brilliantly at sucking you into its world for the entire length of the album. I can’t see myself wanting to listen again any time soon though.

Portishead and in particular their first two albums remain an important touchstone in the hip-hop world, indeed Kanye West cites them as an influence.

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