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Portishead

+ {Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man} + {Beth Gibbons}

A hive of trip-hop activity after MASSIVE ATTACK emerged from the pack in the early 90s, Bristol, England unearthed two other major propositions: TRICKY and PORTISHEAD. Spiced with a sprinkling of obscure samples and topped off by the sublime lament of Beth Gibbons’ icy vocals and lyrics, the sound PORTISHEAD created was one of the most striking definitions of the phenomena that would come to be known as trip-hop – an alliance between hip hop and sampled acid-jazz. Along with MASSIVE ATTACK, TRICKY et all, the duo/trio of Gibbons, synth/programmer Geoff Barrow (and jazz guitarist Adrian Utley) insisted the tag was a lazy attempt at pigeon-holing. What really set PORTISHEAD apart was simply the otherness of their sleek, dark-cabaret 60s spy soundtrack style, a strange grace that made the unrelenting lyrical bleakness and despair bearable.
Drawing inspiration from MASSIVE’s “Blue Lines”, Barrow – from the coastal shipping town of Portishead close to Bristol – incorporated working as that group’s studio runner in 1991 with the formation of PORTISHEAD, alongside pub covers band stalwart, Gibbons. A remixer by trade, Geoff co-scribed one of the better songs (`Somedays’) on NENEH CHERRY’s “Homebrew” album of October ’92, while the Exeter-born Beth grounded her subtle vox by listening to Edith Piaf, NINA SIMONE, Elizabeth Fraser and SADE; from the ranks of Big John Patton (and The Jazz Messengers), Adrian Utley joined PORTISHEAD, officially as their inaugural debut loomed.
On the strength of their Alexander Hemming-directed 11-minute retro-spy pastiche, To Kill A Dead Man, the trio inked a deal at Go! Beat Records (an off-shoot of Go! Discs); it starred the PORTISHEAD trio in an acting capacity, while its accompanying 60s-esque spy score was indicative of the cinematic LALO SCHIFFRIN melodrama which would characterise the band’s ground-breaking material. Released in August 1994 amid much anticipation, and preceded by the singles `Numb’ and `Sour Times’ (from the short movie itself), DUMMY {*10} was a wracked, claustrophobic melange of painfully slow trip hop rhythms, droning Hammond, knife-edge guitar and rumbling bass. Spine-tingling and chilling vibes characterised the Theremin of `Mysterons’, while melancholia rained over the WEATHER REPORT-enhanced `Strangers’; other sampling came via WAR’s “Magic Mountain” for `Wandering Star’, JOHNNIE RAY’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (slowed down!) for `Biscuit’ and ISAAC HAYES’s “Ike’s Rap II” for the wondrous finale of Top 20 hit, `Glory Box’.
Who knew if winning the Mercury Music Prize the following year may have cheered them up a bit, but it would be a long journey before they would resurface; meanwhile, Barrow guested on EARTHLING’s `Radar’ album. During the summer of ‘97, PORTISHEAD delivered their first product in over two years, albeit a limited-edition 12-inch-only single, `Cowboys’. Nevertheless, the piece was indeed a modern day classic, subsequently appearing on the flip of their Top 10 single, `All Mine’ – Beth was never better. As close to Shirley Bassey in her JOHN BARRY/Bond days, Beth was now up there with all the tortured diva greats. As for their sophomore parent album, PORTISHEAD (1997) {*8} – which also reached No.2 (and one place off the Top 20 in America!) – it offered up above the said singles as opening salvos. Claustrophobic and cathartic, the sonic and sophisticated `Undenied’ (not forgetting the sci-fi-esque `Humming’), plus the other hit 45s `Over’ and `Only You’, gave the set that nightmare-ish menace; incidentally, their samples led musos on a wild goose chase running up extra google time, only to find that the group themselves were behind the film noir-type cuttings. Just when the fans thought it might take until the year 2000 for a third set, a live stop-gap, ROSELAND NYC LIVE (1998) {*6}, hit the lower regions of the charts.
The session-friendly collaborative BETH GIBBONS & RUSTIN MAN (the nom de plume of former TALK TALK player Paul Webb) united for OUT OF SEASON (2002) {*7}. Shorn of the cinematic production which framed her vocals in PORTISHEAD, the result was as disarming as it was natural, the sorrowful songstress finally having her voice accompanied (by sympathetic, restrained, jazz-folksy instrumentation), rather than providing the final layer in an aural collage. From `Mysteries-1’ to the self-titled `Rustin Man’ – with best bits `Tom The Model’, `Show’ and `Drake’ in between – another route back to the swinging sixties transpired.
Island Records (Mercury in the States) would take up the mantle for 2008’s welcome return of the PORTISHEAD trio by way of the aptly-titled THIRD {*8}. A transatlantic Top 10 trip of looped experimentation, the passionate and intense Beth starred on the uneasy but spine-tingling `Silence’. Plucking rhythms from cinematic reels of “Third Man”-like film-noir, `Hunter’ went even deeper; a lovelorn Beth searching for a spy-who-loved-her – but without much luck. The earthy beats of `Nylon Smile’ created atmosphere one could cut with a switch-blade, while the kraut-rock intro of `The Rip’ and the helicopter-swirling `Plastic’ (plus the cathartic `Magic Doors’), mirrored a PORTISHEAD still at the top of their musical Cold War. After time spent in Beak> (a couple of sets) and hip hop supergroup, Quakers (for one album), in 2012 and 2015 (Ben Salisbury and) GEOFF BARROW issued `Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega-City One’ and `Ex-Machina – original motion picture soundtrack’. A PORTISHEAD return in the future? – never say never.
Another four years down the line and without any signs of a group album in the pipeline, chanteuse BETH GIBBONS turned back the clock – in more ways than one – to a November 2014 live recording in a belatedly-issued classical album, HENRYK GORECKI: SYMPHONY NO.3 – “SYMPHONY OF SORROWFUL SONGS” (2019) {*7}. Consisting of three lengthy pieces (Beth playing a role once performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw), the PORTISHEAD singer featured when called upon. The opening side-long `Lento, Sostenuto Tranquillo Ma Catabile’ – based on a centuries-old story depicting Mary singing to her son Jesus on the cross – was the polar opposite to her past work. Whether the majestic Beth would subsequently pursue her love of classical music was as yet unknown.
© MC Strong 1998-2006/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Aug2015-Jun2019

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