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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Portico Quartet - Isla

Portico Quartet - Isla
2010, Real World Records

Four lads from England leap miles beyond their peers with a sound so fresh and new it turns heads. The Beatles? The Stones? Wrong genre. The band that sparks such interest amongst musical cognoscenti these days is Portico Quartet. Staying mostly acoustic in an era of electronic excess, Portico Quartet creates somewhere in the seams between pop, classical, world, new age and jazz. Portico Quartet started out busking on London's South Bank, but quickly rose to prominence, earning a Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2008. Much of their distinctive sound can be attributed to the Hang, a melodic percussion instrument similar to the gamelan. Portico Quartet returns on today with Isla, produced by John Leckie (Radiohead, Stone Roses, Spiritualized).

Isla opens with "Paper Scissors Stone", a driven jazz breakdown with something of a progressive rock attitude. Jack Wyllie leads the way on saxophone, but Nick Mulvey builds ambience with the Hang; the sound is complete with a swirl of flutes and percussion. It's an intriguing opening that's a bit like Kenny G with machismo. "The Visitor" is wrapped in a veil of mystery; giving a sense of paths traveled and decisions made that is both familiar and foreign. "Dawn Patrol" features a vibrant bass line from Mike Fitzpatrick that drives the piece like a heartbeat. All of the other instrumentation here, while vital, is simply playing off the rhythms Fitzpatrick creates.

"Line" finds Portico Quartet branching out into more ethereal ground with a meandering and ambient exploration of muse. Obscure and melodic, "Line" has the rambling new age sensibility that suggests not so much a complete melody as Portico Quartet's capturing a few minutes in a timeline that may well go on forever. "Clipper" paints an aural picture of bouncing over waves; falling out of form in a breakdown that explores pure sonic exploration over structure. "Life Mask" is seven-plus minutes of melodic contemplation in a sparse yet pretty arrangement. The presentation here perhaps overstays a bit, but is no less welcome. "Isla" is full of an urgent energy, blurring the lines between jazz, world, pop and classical in a tuneful dance that runs deep in inner tension. "Shed Song (Improv No. 1)" is an eight-plus minute exploration in ambient jazz and rhythmic experimentation. Pro-forma structure leads to extensive noodling over the mirror-glass surface of water-like instrumental swells in a performance that will delight those with more avant-garde tastes. Portico Quartet closes with the somewhat more channeled "Su-Bo's Mental Meltdown", a bonus track that sticks to the same boundless exploration but does so over a vibrant and vaguely funky bass line. The boys from East London are more aggressive in their pursuit of a serious groove that could lead to a dynamic and commercially successful remix in the hands of the right DJ.

Portico Quartet is a refined musical taste; a band that will attract musicians, dreamers, experimenters and the sort of electronic music fans who always wondered what it would sound like if Pete Namlook worked in an acoustic environment. Portico Quartet goes where they wilt on Isla, leaving no question as to their talent, and no answers as to their motivation; meandering through styles like a butterfly crossing yards. If you can keep up it's a rewarding listen.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about the Portico Quartet at or is available from as a CD or Download.

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