Artist Spotlight: Portishead

There was a brief period during the latter half of my teen years where I watched MTV. During those years, one of my favorite MTV shows was Twelve Angry Viewers, where twelve…people…would discuss a set of music videos and declare which of those videos was the winner of the episode. There were many different types of songs presented on the show. The winner of one of the episodes was “Only You” by Portishead, and it was like nothing that I had heard before. There was plenty of record scratches, which would have suggested some sort of party-rap had the song not been so achingly slow, with singing that was quietly fragile and resigned. The melody was sparse, with only a few little elements here and there so it was not just the descending bassline and the scratches. I really didn’t like it; I thought that it was boring as anything. And the accompanying music video of someone drowning did not help. At the same time, that song that I disliked so much got stuck in the back of my mind for five years; I don’t even remember what the other songs were in that episode. So when I noticed two Portishead albums in an outdoor market, I decided on a whim to buy them, and I loved them.

Portishead formed in Bristol, England in 1991 and is named after a small nearby town. Beth Gibbons is the singer-songwriter. Geoff Barrow is the percussionist, turntablist, and sample…manager. Adrian Utley guitarist, bass guitarist, and keyboardist. They were one of the pioneers of the genre of Trip-Hop…which is…uh…I guess a moody and mopey version of hip hop. Yeah, it is more complicated than that, whatever. Portishead leaned heavily on samples from 60s and 70s music, held together with a driving beat and vulnerable vocals by Gibbons. Though the guitar work sometimes sounds like the work of Enrico Morricone, many people have thought that the music seemed like it came straight out of a James Bond movie, myself included. Unfortunately for the band, they came on the scene just as the goofy Brosnan era of Bond was about to take hold, and they would have been a bad fit back then. I am not sure if they particularly appreciated the talk about Bond movies anyways.

One of their earliest releases was a short film called To Kill a Dead Man in 1994. It is about…uh…death and betrayal…or something; it’s art. In any case, the theme to the video is an instrumental that is mostly piano, guitar, and synth strings over a driving beat. So, basically the prototype for early Portishead except without vocals. There is other music in it, such as a bit from Sour Times. But most of the rest is Bondian variations on the main theme, so it may be a little difficult to figure out when the actual track starts.

To Kill a Dead Man – 10:32

Dummy (1994)

Portishead’s debut album arrived not long afterwards. And it fulfilled the promises from To Kill a Dead Man. It was eerie, it was sensuous, it was sad, it was thoughtful, it was beautiful, it was Portishead. Granted, it took me a little bit to get into this album, but not that long.

I will admit that I hated Strangers for a while, mostly because of the hodgepodge of samples that interrupted the distorted and buzzy main riff, but the charm of that very same hodgepodge gradually won me over. From the spare guitar bit in the first verse to the little piano bit in some of the choruses and that little string section about halfway through.

Strangers – 3:57

The quiet Roads is probably one of the busier songs in terms of production, with the keyboard bass, the wah-wah guitars, and the big string section.

Roads – 5:03

Glorybox closes out the album using an Isaac Hayes sample that would also be used by fellow Trip Hopper Tricky that same year, along with that song “Here” by Alessia Cara that was released a couple of years ago. It also includes a bit of wailing electric guitar and a breakdown near the end that kind of reminds me of a breathing apparatus.

Glorybox – 5:03

Portishead (1997)

Portishead’s self-titled album has the same tone as Dummy, but with slight differences. The vibe sometimes occasionally has an air of menace on top of the doomy gloom. Sometimes this is simply the songs being louder or more dissonant, but there is also a definite bite in certain tracks.

Cowboys is the first song off of the album; noisy and aggressive, with an example of Gibbon’s nasally vocals and the scratches.

Cowboys – 4:42

Mourning Air is a kind of 60s jazzy number with an airy production that makes it sound like it is struggling to keep from disappearing before it eventually fades out.

Mourning Air – 4:15

And, of course, there is Only You – 5:08

Aside from an excellent live album and a one-off song recorded in 1999, Portishead went on hiatus. It got to the point where there was talk that they had broken up. In the meantime, each of the members had their own musical projects. However, they reunited in 2005 and revealed that they were working on a new album…which still took quite a bit of time to get out.

Third (2008)

Finally…the third album…Third. It was still the same spooky Portishead, but different still. It kept the samples from the 60s and 70s, but used them for semi-experimental melodies instead of the melodic accompaniment for hip hop beats and DJ scratches. Between the production and the musical stylings, there is little to explicitly reveal that this album to have come out after 1978 aside from maybe a few synth sounds here and there or a few kind of 90s-sounding guitars. And even then, one could imagine those being sounds out of the 60s or 70s.

The lack of the trip hop trappings is pretty obvious from the outset, with Silence employing a lighter and busier touch with the percussion to have it match with the disconcerting dissonance of the guitar melody and wavering string sounds. The abrupt ending might suggest a direct transition to the next song, but nope; the track just stops.

Silence – 5:06

The Rip starts out with an acoustic guitar and a theramin playing at low volume before being joined by an electric guitar, and then a synthesizer and a drum about halfway through. One odd element is that it seems like part of the vocals gets looped to make it sound like a synth tone.

The Rip – 4:37

Okay, I may have exaggerated when I said that this album could have been made in the 1970s, as Machine Gun relies primarily on obnoxious drum machine sounds and synth noises that had not been widely used until at least the 1980s.

Machine Gun – 4:46


And…that was it. It has been nine years since Portishead’s last album. Almost every year, there is speculation that a new album is around the corner. And the occasional one-off track here and there only fuels the speculation. But, given that the last wait was over ten years, I suppose that we can wait at least one more year…or two…just in time for the next Bond movie, right?