Album Review: Portico Quartet – Art in the Age of Automation (Gondwana)

Four is the perfect number

Portico Quartet have not always been thus, their last album Living Fields was made by only three members of the band when Keir Vine left the group and, so the Quartet suffix was dropped. But Vine’s hang playing is a key element of the Portico sound, the hang is a type of hollow metal percussion instrument that I’ve not heard elsewhere, so his return to the fold could have meant a return to the Portico Quartet sound of old. But this is not the case, the largely acoustic nature of the instrumentation has been augmented by electronics to bring a whole new aspect to their sound.

Portico Quartet is Duncan Bellamy on drums and electronics, Milo Fitzpatrick on bass, Jack Wylie on tenor and soprano sax and keys and the aforementioned Mr Vine on hang and keys. Unlike their last outing there are no featured vocalists, Art in the Age of Automation is a purely instrumental album and in many respects a return to form for this London based ensemble. Fans may be interested to note that they are playing in October around the UK and in Berlin, but their gigs earlier in the year sold out quickly, so don’t tarry.

The sound on Art in the Age of Automation amalgamates the acoustic and electronic with considerable fluency and aplomb, the electronic element is immediately obvious but it doesn’t undermine the timbre and shine of the acoustic instrumentation. Rather it augments them with reverb and effects that spread the sound out into the room and smooth the hard edge of brass and woodwind instruments. No one is credited with the flute so one must assume that it’s Wylie, but this instrument carries the melody on several of the 11 tracks, but its character is not as one would expect. The opener and first single Endless is reminiscent of The Cinematic Orchestra, a good band with which to be compared, this is achieved with a straightforward rhythm, nicely extended synth bass, flute and strings. Real strings given a bit of treatment so that they don’t jar but contribute to the overall flow. The sound is open and plush, not too polished but rich in texture and tone. This sets the pattern for about half of the tracks on the album but there is plenty of variation introduced by different instrumentation and rhythmic changes.

On Objects To Place In A Tomb the drums assert themselves in a fashion that’s reminiscent of another British alt jazz outfit Go Go Penguin, Portico Quartet don’t emulate that acts stuttering rhythms but they mix it up with just as much relish. This track also finds various instruments harmonised to good effect, sax and electronics proving a particularly successful combo. The highlight of the album is Beyond Dialogue which is the closest to the sound that the Quartet had on its earlier albums, electronics are played down to begin with and what sounds like a double bass provides a low rhythmic anchor while horn notes circle above. This track exemplifies the way in which Portico Quartet are so good at layering their various sounds and creating a three dimensional musical collage in which to immerse yourself.

Art in the Age of Automation lets you float away from your worries and cares but keeps you in the room with lovely chewy bass. Frankly it’s hard to see what’s not to like.

– Jason Kennedy

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