They call it "Bristol time". As well as being a historical reference to when Bristol's clocks struck the hour later than they did in the capital, it's a dismissive term for a city whose musicians live far enough from frenetic London to get up when they're ready and, cliché has it, smoke a spliff or two before considering their options. Somehow, the early Nineties saw a series of such apparently slothful types seize control of the musical agenda. Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead were at the vanguard of what they hated to be called trip-hop, while Roni Size won the 1997 Mercury Prize for turning jungle music into avant-garde dance-jazz with New Forms.
Now, in 2008, they are all back. There is huge expectation around Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack's new albums. The latter are also curating the London Southbank Centre's Meltdown festival. Size has rebooted and re-released New Forms, and Goldfrapp and Martina Topley-Bird, fellow travellers from the old Bristol days, have lauded, imaginative new records, too. It's a remarkable renaissance, begging the question of just what was so special about this scene in the first place, and where its originators have been.
The Bristol sound was Britpop's shadow. Oasis and co were bullishly life-affirming, patriotic and hedonistic, embracing their celebrity and partying like they were in The Faces in 1973. They made their massive mid-Nineties audience buzz with all those qualities. Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, by contrast, offered a crepuscular world, dealing in guilt and apocalyptic despair.
They instinctively distrusted journalists, and successfully sought anonymity. Though drawing on hip-hop and dub, they also continued the punk project, insisting on intellectual aggression, provocation and artistic transformation. "Right from the start, we never made music in line with the tempos that were required in clubs," Massive Attack's Grant Marshall noted. "It's made for after clubs, when you want to chill out, learn how to breathe again." As Portishead's Geoff Barrow admitted: "There is a Bristol sound... where punk meets hip-hop and reggae, like [Mark Stewart's punk-funk iconoclasts] The Pop Group and early Massive Attack and [sound-system veterans] Smith and Mighty. Tricky was absolutely that. He was more a punk than a rapper."
When Portishead's debut, Dummy (1994), fuelled by its use on Nineties twentysomething zeitgeist soap This Life and winning the 1995 Mercury, famously became aspirational dinner-party music (to the band's disgust), it was the Bristol scene's greatest triumph. For such edgy, noir-inflected songs insidiously to become a middle-class soundtrack was as strange as Pink Floyd's previous omnipresence in such homes, with their own anonymous, alienated sound-world.
The nature of the city helped make the scene unique. With its past in the slave trade, it was also a port with one of Britain's oldest West Indian populations, a West Country Liverpool. This was the most genuinely multi-racial scene since Coventry's 2-Tone, a decade before. With its easy use of dub and hip-hop for millennial torch songs such as Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy", its musical miscegenation was, if anything, still greater.
Bristol's small size also saw accidental chain reactions occur as disparate artists collided, at a speed impossible in London. So Tricky met his future muse, musical partner and mother of his child Martina Topley-Bird outside mutual friend Mark Stewart's house. Size worked at the youth club where Robert del Naja of Massive Attack's punk band, The Lunatic Fringe, played. And Portishead linchpin Geoff Barrow was the tape-op, watching and learning, as Massive completed their classic debut, Blue Lines (1991).
Portishead are the first of the scene's major players to return, with the appropriately named album Third. And they are the classic example of why Bristol's great generation never did quite conquer the world, and instead seemed to vanish for so long.
Listen to Dummy today, now its mid-Nineties over-exposure has worn off, and it is still a shockingly strange record. Its combination of abrasive scratching, ambient vinyl hiss, the spy-movie guitar of jazz veteran Adrian Utley, and the sensual but untouchably distant vocals of Beth Gibbons, remains potently unique. So unique, in fact, that Portishead themselves were unable to capitalise on it.
Selling well over a million in the year of Britpop's triumphalist high-water mark, they shunned success. "We heard a lot of the sounds that we used on Dummy on TV adverts in England and on other people's records," Barrow noted. "It made us massively distrust what we were doing." The template they had set was so instantly perfect that following it up proved almost impossible. "We were in hell for 13 months," Barrow admitted of the next record's gestation. "We were afraid to finish a song because there was so much to live up to." Portishead (1997) now stands as a bold, extreme refashioning of their signature sound. At the time, it seemed more of the same.
Eleven years later, Third is here. In the interim, Barrow and Utley both divorced, the latter quit the music business for four years, and Gibbons fell ill and returned to her native Devon (also managing a solo album, Out of Season ). "We have a policy which is one step forward, eight steps back," Barrow confessed to Uncut of these latest traumas. "We've never felt any pressure from outside, it's all internal – there's a lot of self-doubt in Portishead."
Third is so radically different from the first two records, abandoning cinematic melancholy for crude synth grooves and exposed folk, that the decade of depression and doubt it represents has paid off, creatively. The messianic self-belief of, say, Manchester musicians may permit repetitive, pointless records, and the commercial momentum that sustains. But that is not the Bristol way. As Del Naja once noted, the place gives "a slightly misguided sense of independence... Some people say Bristol's the graveyard of ambition. But I love it that if you don't want to fucking do anything, don't do it."
"People talk about the amount of time between Portishead albums," considers Will Gregory, now half of Goldfrapp, who played sax with Portishead in the early days (and guests on Third). "But the first one changed the face of music. And that's quite a task to set yourself. Geoff's got this wide-ranging, self-critical mind, that's interested in taking the hardest route. Alison [Goldfrapp] and I have that spirit, too. It's pointless pumping out music if you don't have anything to say."
Gregory was in Bristol throughout the 1980s. He met Alison Goldfrapp at a Startled Insects theatrical show at a near-derelict studio in the city. He has much experience of Bristol time, and its effect. "The Aardman studio also started in Bristol, where you move one tiny figure one micro-centimetre," he explains. "There's that culture of building through increments for months on end. And then people stop and go to the pub. Bristol felt rural in the Nineties. There's a bit of the hayseed floating through it. It's just slower. As you travel down the M4, time tends to dilate. By the time you get to Bristol, clocks are running slower. People are listening to music that is not current. What's now, what's fashionable, have disappeared, and people are putting on V C the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Neil Young. People are more aware of music as a whole, not chasing 'now'. Back then, there wasn't this urgency to get a job and pay the rent. You can't imagine any of those bands in London, where there's a frenzy to make it. In Bristol, everyone was down the York Café having their three-course £1.50 dinners, and in the pub spending a little bit of their dole, surviving on cheap rents. It meant that people could have artistic integrity about what they were doing. Because, in that time, there was a little enclave from Thatcher's Britain, where the climate was conducive."
Massive Attack have been that scene's one apparent constant. Its core trio of Robert del Naja (aka 3D), Grant Marshall (G) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom), as well as Nellee Hooper (later producer for Soul II Soul and Madonna) and Tricky, came together in the city's now-legendary 1980s sound system, The Wild Bunch. Blue Lines and "Unfinished Sympathy" took Bristol into the mainstream. But first Vowles left, then so did Marshall (back now, for the new album). Blue Lines' front-line singer, Shara Nelson, and rapper Tricky were soon replaced by a rolling cast including the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser and Sinead O'Connor.
"We were very aware that we weren't a personality-driven band," Del Naja tells me. "We were coming much more from the collaborative world of sound systems, and creating a look for each record that is based around the mood of something, rather than the people, which always changed from project to project. Always trying to be radically different is one of the philosophies behind working with different people. Bowie, The Beatles, The Clash and Public Image Ltd were very important on that level – those artists all had a really big influence, in that after finishing one album, you want to do something else."
There's one other element to Bristol's slow-burning scene, and why it has taken so long to gather itself. Geoff Barrow once confessed to an interviewer that he lived expecting humanity to be extinct within eight years, not expecting us to survive the Nineties. Tricky's third album, Pre-Millennium Tension (1997), caught the same fin de siècle mood, forgotten now. And Tricky, the loosest of Bristol's loose cannons, didn't need dates to lose himself in the darkness. Famously, he picked up the blue mood of Billie Holliday's music as a child, when his grandmother would play her records while staring at him, convinced she could see his mother, dead since he was four, in his eyes. "Sometimes, I think everything is going to fall apart," he would tell interviewers. "Sometimes I feel this is the living hell." The great critic Ian MacDonald (a depressive who later committed suicide) warned Tricky against such corrosive misanthropy. But his classic debut, Maxinquaye (1995), fed on the paranoia of a diet of spliffs, alcohol and cocaine.
I remember one extraordinary night at London's Hackney Empire in 1997 when it seemed this unlikely, damaged character was the true genius, not only of the Bristol scene, but the world. He played in darkness, a silhouette rooted to the spot by a leg brace, with the young Alison Goldfrapp taking over from Topley-Bird as the singer locking her body into his groove. Words were repeated into irrelevance, the music's dense noise crushed the idea of songs, and you almost wanted to scream. I have still not seen anything like it since. He left for New York years ago, and his many subsequent albums have been the product, not of Bristol time, but individual fragility. Called the scene's Sly Stone after Maxinquaye, he is really its Syd Barrett: a fragile casualty of drugs, and his demons. "I had a lot of problems," he admitted in 2001. "Depression, mood swings... It's astonishing how dark your life can get without you even noticing. It slips further and further." His comeback in July with Knowle West Boy, named after his old Bristol neighbourhood, is the one invested with the least expectation, but the most hope.
"Tricky gave musicians like Alison space to be themselves," Gregory says. "That idea of improvisation was part of what all that Bristol scene were doing. It's important to what we do in Goldfrapp. That's where time's important – when you're improvising music, it takes time to arrive at the magic." Suddenly, despite the fits of melancholy self-doubt, fractures and feuds, here they all are again. London has blazed through a hundred trends in the interim. But Bristol time always comes back round.
'Third' by Portishead is out on Island on 28 April
Goldfrapp's secret isn't so much what they did next, as what Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory did first. Gregory arrived in the wake of Bristol's only previous rock success, Pigbag's punk-funk in the Eighties. While he played sax with Portishead, Goldfrapp became her friend Topley Bird's substitute singing with Tricky. The pair's first album as Goldfrapp, Felt Mountain (2000) seemed very much in Portishead's film noir/trip-hop mode, though Gregory says: "We shared a sensibility, but I didn't want to explore their territory."
After their debut, the duo retreated to Somerset and reinvented themselves. Black Cherry (2003) and Supernature (2005) saw Alison's conceptual artistic background in play, kitting out herself and her dancers in mirrored horse's heads and tails, or Brazilian showgirl undress. It was hard to equate with the non-glamour of the Bristol scene. But the desire to shape-shift, not to repeat music, is one Massive Attack would recognise. It brought hits such as "Ooh La La" and huge sales.
New album Seventh Tree abandons all that for rustic psychedelia. Drawing on Nick Drake and The Wicker Man's folk-horror soundtrack, Alison's new image as a clown undercuts her sexiness."We can't do it any other way," Gregory considers. "If something starts to not be connected to the music, it just seems wrong."
Goldfrapp play the Royal Festival Hall on 18 April
Tricky abandoned Britain for New York in the late Nineties, leaving behind "silly bad boy behaviour". The change didn't do him much good. The Tricky I had seen in mesmeric control of something like genius in two 1997 London shows was, by the next year, croaking in a half-empty hall. Prodigious dope-smoking seemed to have shaken an already delicate sense of self.
Later albums such as Angels With Dirty Faces (1998), Juxtapose (1999) and Blowback (2001) saw him attempt to re-engage with the US hip-hop that had so inspired him. All three records were largely self-pitying. Tricky's problem has been a bit like Prince's; constant material from a natural musical mind, with no one on his wavelength to help sift it.
Vulnerable (2003), an attempt to return to basics, found few fans still interested. But, five years on, Knowle West Boy could be different. Cautiously, welcome back.
Blue Lines (1991) and "Unfinished Sympathy" still define Massive Attack, the moment dance and rock sparked into something new. Their story since has been one of unmet expectations, although Mezzanine (1998) was perhaps their masterpiece. Since then, it has been a struggle. Only Robert Del Naja (above, left) remained to make 100th Window (2003); Grant Marshall (right) was absent. The album was a UK No 1, but the suspicion remained that this was Massive Attack in name only.
However, the band enter 2008 stronger than ever. Del Naja is a committed political activist, using his artistic skills for a gallery show of antiwar album art. Being invited to curate the Meltdown Festival seals the band's status. A new album, tentatively titled Weather Underground, will test their musical future.
Meltdown starts on 14 June
Of the whole Bristol scene, Portishead seemed the most likely to be destroyed by their own success. Dummy's distressed, vinyl-scratched samples simply seemed unimprovable, to the band as much as anyone. The nature of its adoption by the mainstream also worried their leader, Geoff Barrow. "The idea of people having dinner parties with it meant that the mood of the record was overlooked a bit," he told Uncut. "Because that wasn't really very nice."
Portishead responded in a mood of self-sabotage. Where Dummy had seen obscure, digital samples from soundtrack albums and Isaac Hayes put on vinyl acetates for that authentic crackle and hiss, Portishead was made with samples recorded from scratch by the band, with full orchestras – an insanely time-consuming method. The Fender Rhodes organ and tremolo guitar sounds that defined Dummy were banned at first. In the long decade since, as we've learnt to live without any Portishead music, its emotionally and sonically extreme recasting of their original template sounds strong. But Roseland NYC Live (1998), in which an orchestra helps re-imagine their songs without samples and Beth Gibbons cuts loose, couldn't shake the suspicion that the band were a one-trick pony – however fine that trick was.
Beth Gibbons' collaboration with Talk Talk's Paul Webb, aka Rustin Man, on Out of Season (2002) was a well-received surprise. But for four years in their seemingly interminable absence, Barrow walked away altogether, to run a small indie label in Australia. Adrian Utley did soundtracks. Portishead, riven by personal problems and shattered after their last, 1998 tour, were effectively finished. It's not a normal career path, outside of Bristol. But it was the break they needed. Curating last Christmas's All Tomorrow's Parties, they invited the underground US bands who inspired them now. Third sees them refreshed, and reborn.
MARTINA TOPLEY BIRD
Martina Topley Bird was discovered as a 15-year-old, when the then-equally unknown Tricky saw her waiting on the wall outside the house of Mark Stewart (of The Pop Group, the linchpin in Bristol's post-punk scene). He asked her if she could sing, and they started recording, and a relationship. They had a child, and made four of his albums together (Maxinquaye , Nearly God , Pre-Millennium Tension  and Angels with Dirty Faces ), before splitting. "It was highly acrimonious between those two, and I was caught in the middle," Alison Goldfrapp remembered, of replacing Topley Bird in Tricky's band.
Typically of the Bristol scene, Topley Bird only really arrived with her solo debut, Quixotic (including collaborations with David Holmes and Tricky) in 2003. "I find it weird when people remark that it takes a long time to make a record," she tells me. "I find that rude, ignorant and ridiculous."
But an audience remained who remembered her coolly feminine counterpoint, vocally and on video, to the often equally feminine, cross-dressing Tricky in his prime. It was Mercury-nominated. Its follow-up, The Blue God, produced by Gnarls Barkley's Danger Mouse, fulfils much of her early promise. Its slightly psychedelic torch songs are all sugary threat and noir mystery. These days, she sounds more Portishead than Portishead. Here, she looks back on Bristol's effect on her.
"I spent three years in Bristol," she recalls. "It was the most crucial period of growing up for me, from 13 to 16. We'd been in West Sussex, and it was a bigger town, a bigger school. I'm a West Country girl and we'd go on the Downs, to escape and be a bit mad. I had my share of adventures there. But Bristol's an old port town, it's mixed. It's weird – you could call it cosmopolitan, because it's not got that big-city vibe. But it's been there long enough to have an entrenched character. It's not a transient place, like most university towns."
With her looks and fashion sense, Topley Bird could have parlayed her start into stardom long ago. But, as with her fellow West Country chanteuses Beth Gibbons and even Goldfrapp, such hungry, London notions mean nothing to her. "It is a weird anomaly that none of the musicians who've come from there have any interest in being stars," she agrees.
"I suppose if you start out with a certain ethos, then you won't think about playing the pop game. I didn't even know what the game was. I didn't go through stage school. I met someone [Tricky], and it was quite an organic thing. I didn't create the early days of that Bristol scene. I was caught up in all that stuff. So trying to make myself an industry model is uncomfortable to me.
"Me and Tricky had really different upbringings," she continues, considering her one-time partner. "But we just had an affinity. I suppose we recognised a little bit of hurt in each other. We had similar things in our backgrounds. Both of us had parents who had died. We'd grown up around other people who were really sad about it. But we weren't. It's a thing that takes a really long time to understand. It caused perplexity, as much as sadness. We weren't depressed people, hanging out being miserable.
"Things change as you get older," she says of her split with Tricky. "We turned out to be wired differently. I met him when I was a teenager, and was very open to – whatever. As far as our creative interaction, I made him a mix-tape, when I was hanging out with him, when I was still at school. Michelle Shocked was on there, and probably a lot of the alternative music I was listening to then, like Jane's Addiction. And then we did a couple of songs, including "Aftermath", and then I left Bristol. Two years later, he signed to Island, and we started working on Maxinquaye. Mainly, he worked on the music with Mark Saunders. I was given lyrics on bits of paper. Then I'd do vocals.
"Bristol was the backdrop for my teenage years of massive change, 13 to 16," she says, recalling how she left it. "And I met who I met, and that had quite a long-reaching effect on my life now [she has a 12-year-old child with Tricky]. I was sorry I left for a little while. I was being feisty at the time and went to study in Cambridge. I missed the identity and the atmosphere of Bristol then. The Cambridge music scene was quite hippie, there wasn't one black person. The only racist bad stuff that ever happened to me was there. It was empty and bleak and lonely. Whereas Bristol was quite melancholy. But we weren't lonely. Maybe we were happy being melancholy together.
"My musical identity was still forming when I left Bristol. I had beliefs then that I still have now. But I've changed 100 per cent, even from Quixotic to The Blue God. I almost feel sorry for people trying to compare my work now to what I did with Tricky, or other people from Bristol. The new record's hooky, direct, not too subtle. But it's characteristic of me that I got bored with that after a few songs. It's deliberately more direct, simple and solid. Brian Burton [Danger Mouse] was really eager to make it psychedelic – he played me some Pink Floyd tracks. But the voices are really weak on that music, so I toned it down. Some vague bits of psychedelia remain, but we made it more pop. More Fleetwood Mac."
Topley Bird may have left Bristol after only the briefest stay, when still a child. But in her chameleon musical sense, and mule-headed individuality, it has certainly left its mark.
'The Blue God' is out 11 May on IndependienteReuse content