At one point in my life, Portishead was easily my favorite musical group. It was probably just after the release of their amazing self-titled release and definitely after their debut had long since been carved in stone as a classic. They made their music, put out a decent (but not great) live album and seemingly fell off the face of the map. Sure, Beth Gibbons teamed up with Rustin Man on the occasionally-excellent Out Of Season, but it wasn't really the same.
And now, closing in on ten years since the release of said live album (and over a decade since their last studio effort), Portishead is suddenly back. Third has been whispered about for a long time (often under the title Alien) and was hinted at even further as the original trio of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley showed up and played some random, unannounced pub gigs last summer. Then, later in the year the group actually announced the release, curated the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, and played their first bonified live shows in roughly ten years.
Whenever a group that I love takes a bit of a hiatus before releasing new work, I always tell myself in my head to approach that album with trepidation. It's all about managing expectations and trying to place old work properly in context while also absorbing the new. Fortunately, regardless of your expections, Third should be thrilling. It certainly doesn't find the group treading the same old ground as past albums, and it's simultaneously about as adventurous as one could possibly expect from a major-label group who has taken a decade-long break.
In essence, it's not safe at all, and they synthesize everything from folk to krautrock and psychedelic pop into an eleven song, fifty minute release that should be a surprise to just about everyone checking in. It opens with a spoken word sample before galloping into the murky, synth-laced gem of "Silence," which cracks off for a quiet midsection before blistering through with firey guitars and rib-rattling bass to an abrupt ending. "Hunter" follows it with another exciting juxtaposition, as tranquil, almost fairy-tale passages with quiet vocals from Gibbons are offset with frantic synth races and even some moaning guitars.
And really, Third is all over the place from there out without sounding like it's over-reaching. "The Rip" blends seamlessly from a pastoral first half of quiet guitars, vocals, and humming synths before racing into a latter section with multiple layers of analogue synths and cracking percussion. "We Carry On" continues the analogue synth love, with a pumping rhythm and more noisy electronic layers that mingle with rough-edged guitars and intense vocals from Gibbons, who sounds like she hasn't missed a step in the time away.
Nowhere is the sheer variety of the album made more apparent than on the one-two punch of "Deep Water" and "Machine Gun." The former finds Gibbons singing solo along with a simple strumming mandolin (and some old-timey male backup vocalists), while the latter blisters massive, industrial-sounding percussion over the top of haunting, layered vocals from Gibbons. As I mentioned above, I approached Third with a bit of hesitation, but it seems that the group has created what is possibly their most adventurous and sonically-interesting release to date. It's one of the most vital releases I've heard this year, and while I can hear fans of their past work being a bit puzzled, I simply can't imagine anyone not being at least a bit thrilled by it.