Portico Quartet are an instrumental music ensemble from the UK, but nothing about them sounds overtly English. Their sound is comprised of saxophone and auxiliary percussion matched to a conventional rhythm section, yet they are not jazz. Their new album Isla comes to us courtesy of Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, yet any implications of this being considered “world music” feels too broad, generic, and undermining. Isla is also produced by John Leckie, but it has nothing to do with Public Image Ltd., XTC, or the Stone Roses. So just who in the name of warm lager and Abbey Road studios are these guys, and what exactly is their style?
This is the kind of music that doesn’t avoid categorization in order to be defiant. It’s one thing to crisscross musical genres. It’s another to make it sound like second nature, and Portico Quartet’s highly unique contemporary music collision unfolds exactly like that. So pigeonholing them not only seems trivial but also stifling. The Real World release of Isla in the United States tells us what the British press already knew when they first heard this album last fall: the music does the talking.
Still, I am tasked to write this review, so I best begin somewhere. One unique component to Portico’s sound is their use of a percussion instrument known as the Hang, a pitched percussion invention that the press release likens to a gamelan or Tibetan prayer bells. The addition of such an odd and esoteric instrument is likely to scream “Look at me! Brownie points for world music!” But in practice it is quite the subtle sound, one that glides along the saxophone lead and electronic backings, barely calling attention to itself.
The members of Portico Quartet pride themselves on listening to anything and everything, including Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Queen. Their collective influences can have a jumbled appearance, but everything travels through their wringer in equal measure. This quartet has streamlined their process into something breathtaking and cinematic, only without the unnecessary drama. Their side-stepping of genres with built-in clichés is so straightforward it could sicken any musician prone to jealousy.
The Abbey Road sessions lead by John Leckie allowed the four members to play in a circle, keeping eye contact. The rise and fall of “Dawn Patrol” is a telltale indication of this musical telepathy, as is the soft gear shifts of “Paper Scissors Stone” and the steady simmer of “Line”. The mystery thickens in the face of “Life Mask (Interlude)” and its parent track, which paints a dismal, futuristic picture. “Clipper”, in the meantime, thrives on a simple melody and a light washing of noise batted back and forth competitively.
The music of Portico Quartet is one of those strange paradoxes of the new: It is music that sounds unlike anything else, yet has familiar elements. The cozy cocoon that these four young men have created is the result of many disparate styles coming together over the course of many years (apparently, some of them are childhood friends). The quartet has gently honed these parts into something that sounds delicate but feels strong. Their approach may seem unorthodox, but the final result is as compelling as it is accessible. It is jazz? Minimal? Chamber? Classical? Neo-something? Something-garde? Yes and no to all of these, and many more. My rhetorical question from the first paragraph may not have a definitive answer, but when it comes to Portico Quartet, your time may be better spent listening than reading.