Portishead, Apollo, Manchester
Glory days are back with a vengeance
Sunday 13 April 2008
'After a certain age," wrote Albert Camus, "each man is responsible for his own face." Divas, as we all know, only truly come into their own in later life. We like our female stars to have lived a little, and suffered a little.
Even back in 1994, a mere child of 29, Beth Gibbons already had that kind of aura. After a decade in the shadows (her natural element), during which the notoriously diffident singer has spoken barely a word, her enigma has only increased.
You can understand why she, and Portishead, wanted to take a breather. The fate of all originators is to sit and watch a parade of poor imitators, and so it was that the Bristol trio who, having inadvertently created trip hop (a phrase they loathe), had to see countless talent-vacuums rake in the riches.
Overexposure to even the sweetest flavours cloys, and Dummy, a stunning blend of spooked-out cinematic samples, ghostly theremins, spy-movie basslines, slo-mo scratching, and that extraordinary lady-in-the-radiator-from-Eraserhead voice, was one of those records that the whole world had to own.
But it's been long enough now. Long enough, indeed, that when one thinks of divas called Beth, a younger, chubbier one comes to mind (of whom, more later). Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, the musical wing of the band, have had their heads turned by avant-noise. Their cunningly titled comeback album, Third, draws upon drone-rock and krautrock influences, but Gibbons' voice, as haunted as ever, sits in this new context surprisingly well. Caught in green vortices, dwarfed by a screen showing childhood home movies, the six members of the Portishead live band return to recontextualise Dummy in the context of Third, and vice versa.
The 1994 material has been augmented to fit the band's 2008 aesthetic without being ruined: midway through "Glory Box", when Gibbons sings "This is the beginning of for ever... and ever", it breaks down into eight bars of mesmerising dub echo. And when you hear the pulverising drums of "Machine Gun", you're in no doubt that the new noisenik Portishead has a place alongside the old.
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