The first "Third" Review from SPEX Magazine

Text: Mark Stewart Foto: Universal Music / Miron Zownir / Monitorpop\    - source:

The wait is over! The new Portishead-album »Third« is coming out on April 25th, and all our expectations are being exceeded. Mark Stewart, founding member of The Pop Group and these days back with a new The Maffia-album, listened to the new Portishead as one of the first people worldwide – and he wrote down his impressions of »Third« exclusively for SPEX Magazine (German Version).
Portishead: Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley (Foto: © Universal Music)
Similar to Massive Attack’s recent experimentation with stern electronics, throwing open the doors to a musical perspective far beyond their towering hits, Portishead, too, readjust the parameters on »Third«, their new album. More noise, more eclecticism, embedded in a sound that fosters continuity. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that once artists reach the status of Portishead or Massive Attack, they spend most of their time battling expectations and preconceptions. What could be easier than a straightforward rehash of their well-loved, trademark sound – a record made for the coffee table?

On »Third«, Portishead deliberately reject this approach in favour of an old technique, known as crate digging in DJ circles: the quest for those weird and wonderful sounds nobody else has ever used. I remember the times when DJ Milo, leader of Bristol’s seminal Wild Bunch sound system, would make a point of scratching and painting the labels of his records to make sure that nobody could figure out what he was spinning. At the time, competition between the sound systems was so fierce that no-one would ever betray their sources. Musicians go crate digging for a similar reason: You pick out a record and play your band mates or producer a break or sound you would like to hear on your own record. On »Third«, I can make out several treasures that most likely found their way onto the record that way. For example, »Small« reminds me of Pierre Henry’s »Psyche Rock«.

The very German-sounding »We Carry On« sees Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley clashing Joy Division with Techno beats and Blixa Bargeld guitars. Most of all, however, I detect several references to fairly cheesy Progressive Rock – as played by the likes of Nektar or Embryo in the 1970s. Here, these references actually sound more like excerpts from the soundtracks of amazing horror B-movies. One of the album’s most interesting new tracks, »Magic Doors«, reverts to the old DJ method: Portishead take a Funk beat and slow it down, pitch it right down to half-speed, then add one of Beth Gibbons mournful litanies. In this, Portishead follow the lead of Led Zeppelin who, a few decades earlier, took Blues numbers from the 1930s and slowed them down to half their speed.

Where Led Zeppelin take Blues and turn it into Rock, Portishead transform Funk into Rock. A pretty cool trick. The saxophone solo at the end of »Magic Doors« is especially fascinating. When I listen to this solo, what I hear is pure Free Jazz – as if Portishead had invited John Zorn for a jam session. For the extraordinary one-and-a-half minutes of »Deep Water« Portishead hired a male choir, arranged like one of those traditional barbershop choirs from the 1920s - back in the days, when hairdressers would not only cut hair, but also entertain their customers with pitch-perfect a capella harmonies. For a brief moment, Portishead reference and revive an endearing English song tradition. ‘Third’ is the first ever Portishead album to emphasise these folk influences, as already evident on Beth Gibbons’ solo album.

Nevertheless, one of the album’s most stunning songs is its first single, »Machine Gun«, based on an electronic machine groove. Dispensing with any obvious chorus, the track sounds like a thinly-veiled homage to John Carpenter. I, for one, hear references to »Assault On Precinct 13«, without the band ever resorting to straightforward sampling. And while we are on the subject of soundtracks – back then, all of the Bristol sound systems used film scores. The culprit was a video store, »20th Century Flicks«, where everyone went for films all the time. We found that even the most boring cyber thrillers would have moments of interesting music or sounds that we could sneak into our own music.

This article will also be published in SPEX Magazine #313 (from February 22nd on Sale). The German version of the text – translated by Sonja Commentz – can be found here. More on Portishead in april in SPEX #314. Mark Stewarts new album »Edit« will be released by Crippled Dick Hot Wax! in April 2008).