After making fans wait over ten years to follow up their self-titled sophomore album, Portishead have officially returned with Third. When a band takes a solid decade to complete a new album, it is fairly safe to assume that the results will be a bit different than the sounds that fans would have expected. While the core of the band is most definitely still there, Adrian Utley, Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons have offered up a brilliant masterpiece of cool beats and soundscapes that proves that they are as innovative today as they were back when they shook the trip-hop genre with their debut, Dummy.
Categorizing exactly what genre Portishead resides in is now completely impossible, although that is not a bad thing in the slightest. Most of their trip-hop roots have been eliminated, replaced with dub, rock and a full-blown assault of other influences. Third is one of the most original albums you will hear this year, one that requires multiple listens from a patient music fan, but pays off in the end.
The album begins with the '60s influenced rumbling of drums of "Silence." The track almost feels like an instrumental, with simple yet beautiful strings and muffled guitars eventually leading up to Beth Gibbons' haunting vocals, kissed with a glorious coating of echo. The moody atmospheres that Portishead did so well in the '90s remain intact, which continue on the stunning "Hunter." Gibbons hushed vocals are at times overpowered by the buzz of a guitar, breaking up the overall chilled-out mood of the song.
Third really hits its stride with the absolute beauty of "The Rip." Beginning with little more than a haunting keyboard and the gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar, Gibbons' vocals lead us to a chilling moment halfway through when the subtle beat and keyboard arpeggios kick in. This song is just about as perfect as you can get. Breathtaking vocals and spine-tingling melodies coming together without sounding forced or overproduced. It doesn't get much better than this.
For the old-school fans craving just a taste of the earlier sounds from Portishead, "Plastic" should satisfy that hunger. The drums sequence could have easily been pulled from the Dummy sessions, but this doesn't have the flow of their old material. Rather, the track has interesting stops and starts, pausing for breaks to push up the volume on the guitars and keys. This offers a great contrast to the band's forward direction in sound, such as on the single "Machine Gun." All that remains from their past on this is Gibbons' voice, backed by an aggressive, industrial beat that does indeed have the vibe of gunfire. At times it comes across as a smoothed out, accessible moment from Squarepusher, showing that Utley and Barrow are dabbling much more frequently in experimental territory these days.
"Magic Doors" has a bass line that looks back to the band's earlier days, which is partnered nicely with chunky pianos chords, a grooving drum beat and of course, the chilling vocals of Gibbons. Album closer "Threads" saves some raw emotion for the end, rocking out as only Portishead can. The thin sound of the recording on this particular song gives it a strong '60s vibe, as if it came from one seriously twisted spy film. As always, the band knows exactly how and when to use an orchestra, which adds just enough oomph to this finale.
I have no problem admitting that I've been a longtime, devoted fan of Portishead. From the first time I heard "Sour Times" back in my younger days, I've been fascinated by the unique sounds and influences that they have combined to make up the bulk of their sound. Even after such a long hiatus, this trio hasn't missed a single step. They have marked their triumphant return with an album filled with chilling moodiness and haunting melodies. For an album that I have waited to hear for nearly one-third of my existence (you do the math), Third is even better than I hoped it would be. Portishead could very well be even more relevant in 2008 than they were in 1994.