Band Rating: 4

  • Dummy
  • Portishead
  • Third

    Dummy (1994)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    A seminal entry in the obscure and short-lived trip hop movement, Dummy is an album of devastating beauty, a tenebrous journey marked by haunting instrumentation that acts as an aural backdrop for Beth Gibbons' heart wrenching vocals.

    Dummy's frequently been branded as a mood album, and while there's certainly a strong case for that designation it's truly an unjust diminishment. The album evokes a relentlessly bleak, depressive atmosphere, but where most albums would be content to simply cultivate this mood Dummy goes much further. Each track is a fully fleshed out entity, a well constructed song featuring abundant hooks and memorable melodies. No track settles for merely setting a particular mood without providing more musical substance; the atmosphere is always present, but never at the expense of the group's songwriting craftsmanship.

    While the trip hop backings are indeed fascinating and an integral part of the sound, Beth Gibbons' vocals are undeniably the main feature. She effortlessly shifts between alluring, frail, playful and emotionally crushing vocals, never sounding forced or artificial. On Roads, in particular, her vocals are completely devastating, in one of the most moving vocal performances I've encountered.

    One might suspect that turntable shenanigans would mar the mood of a consummately serious, depressing album such as this, but in reality they're never especially intrusive and actually seem to complement the music quite well. The songwriting is extremely impressive, and while most of the hooks are delivered courtesy of Gibbons' vocals they only succeed because of how perfectly they match the musical backing.

    Glory Box is the fan favorite, but, as it's not really superior to the other tracks, one would suspect that it's extra attention is due to the fact that while each song is distinct the other tracks share a very specific tone that engenders a cohesive feel in them. Glory Box is at least a slight departure from that sound, thus enabling it to stand out to a degree. Additionally, it's somewhat more accessible and less relentlessly bleak than the other tracks, making it an apt candidate for acceptance by more casual fans. It's certainly a great track, making brilliant use of an Isaac Hayes sample, but by no means does it have the right to overshadow the other tracks.

    Dummy is an exceptional album, marrying an incredible, unique and emotionally resonant atmosphere with brilliant songwriting, haunting music and unforgettable vocal performances. It's one of the most powerful emotional musical experiences one will find, and so penetrating that repeated listens won't dilute its potency. Every detail on the album combines to create a truly immersive experience, and the listener will invariably be entranced by its hypnotic charms. It's not for the weak hearted; it's one of the darkest, most depressing albums you'll encounter. But for those prepared for it, it's a one of a kind experience that's bound to become a favorite in your collection. It's a pity that trip hop died such an abrupt, anonymous death, as this album displays that it was a genre with quite a bit of potential. Still, even if this album had been the sole product of the movement, it was still very much worth it.

    Portishead (1997)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    This eponymous swansong is Portishead's Closer as Dummy was their Unknown Pleasures. Both Joy Division and Portishead possessed a unique, striking signature sound, and where both adapted these sounds into a more accessible form on their debuts both elected to push their sounds even farther on their final outings, even at the expense of more direct, instantly gratifying melodies.

    Where Dummy could be said to be the comparatively poppy album, as Unknown Pleasures was for Joy Division, Portishead eschews all semblances of poppiness, opting to focus more on sonic texture and trip hop stylings. Gibbons' vocal hooks are just as hard hitting, but they're less conventional in nature and resultantly somewhat less memorable or catchy.

    The album is even darker than its predecessor, often teetering on the brink of dissonance to further its tenebrous atmosphere. Like Joy Division's Closer, Portishead seems to turn the group's sound almost into a religion, deadly serious and solemn, utterly devoid of any of the playfulness briefly exhibited on their debut.

    From a sonic perspective the album is fascinating, and the group have truly taken the genre to new heights. The occasional aural ugliness is used effectively and never mars the melody to a detrimental extent. The music itself is more significant than on Dummy, feeling less like a backdrop for Gibbons' vocal gymnastics and more like the primary focus of the sound.

    That's not to say that Gibbons is shunted out of the spotlight altogether; her vocals are still an essential component of the album, and her performance is as enthralling as ever. She displays enormous versatility, and her voice is supremely evocative and moving as always.

    On the whole the album was a huge success, depicting trip hop at its pinnacle. I still prefer the more accessible and thus ultimately more resonant sound of the debut; there are few instances of the catharsis inducing potency of Dummy. Additionally the quality of the songwriting was somewhat impeded by the focus on sound and atmosphere, with fewer memorable melodies, but this is still a great album, and a must own for any Portishead fan.

    Third (2008)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    When Portishead burst onto the nineties music scene as pioneers in the fledgling trip-hop genre, they swiftly became one of the most influential rock outfits in quite some time. Despite the fact that Portishead acted as a prominent inspiration for their contemporaries, no other group has ever sounded quite like them, a fact that can be attributed to the inimitable complexity, passion and defiantly uncategorizable character of the band. Myriad groups emulated Portishead, but only on the most superficial of levels, adopting the trappings of trip hop while egregiously missing the essence of the band.

    Thus it's unsurprising that a group as far ahead of their times as Portishead sound just as fresh and distinctive after a decade-plus long sabbatical without radically altering their style; the group sound much the same as they always have even after an eleven year hiatus, yet they remain as cutting-edge as they were in their prime.

    Much like its predecessors Third is a work of tenebrous beauty, a haunting voyage through soundcapes of elegant melancholy, viscerally charged despair and overpowering bleakness and grief. As always there's an eloquent pathos expressed through every note of Beth Gibbons' catharsis-inducing vocals, as she easily matches her incredible performances on the band's prior efforts.

    Few bands can craft a sonic experience as bewitching and immersive as Portishead in top form, as the listener becomes enveloped in an intricately orchestrated and deeply nuanced world of depression and heartache. This is never forced, manufactured angst but rather sorrow at its most concentrated and refined form, transparently emotional without being primitive or childish.

    Best of all is the fact that this inherent darkness is filtered through the medium of strong songwriting; well developed melodies and unforgettable hooks abound, as the band maintains the perfect balance between emphasizing their moody instrumentation and Gibbons' incredible vocal performances.

    The album opens on an auspicious note with Silence, an atmospheric anthem featuring hypnotic music and fragile, tender vocals. Other highlights include Nylon Smile with its palpable sense of desperation in Gibbons' vocals, some of her most moving on the entire album. Another peak moment arrives in the form of Machine Gun, which showcases Gibbons' delicate singing superimposed over a barrage of pounding industrial beats, deftly creating an inspired contrast at the heart of the song.

    While the album relies heavily on mood and atmosphere it never does so at the expense of the music, and it's heartening to see that the band have made no concessions to the contemporary rock scene, rather producing work that could easily have been penned and performed by Portishead circa Dummy. No compromises have been made to attract a new, younger audience, and the album panders to neither Portishead veterans nor first time listeners. The group are simply making the type of music they want to make, and they haven't lost a step in the decade since their last outing.

    Thus Third is a truly great album, a mesmerizing experience on par with both Portishead's debut and sophomore effort. Admittedly I'd rate Dummy slightly higher than Third, but I actually prefer the latter to their eponymous outing as it strikes a better balance between melody and atmosphere, even though it could be asserted that it's a bit tamer when it comes to the pervasive darkness and occasional ugliness depicted on Portishead's second venture.

    The album's close resemblance to its predecessors can be forgiven due to the simple fact that no one else makes music that sounds like this. Portishead are a deeply unique, special band, and the idea that their work sounds like it's from another world can be supported by the fact that after all this time their albums still sound quite similar, as if a new album can be conjured from that universe at any time and still bear such a pronounced resemblance to the rest of their material. All the band has to do is import more music from this other world and the resulting album will always be this fascinating and striking.