The shift from Portico Quartet to Portico wasn't an evolution; it was a dismantling, a removal of so much of the soul that once made them vital.
What do we call this shift? Portico dropped the “Quartet” and stopped playing jazz. The newly reformed trio is experimenting in electronic and downtempo, placing synths where saxophones once were. All bands that want to survive must change in some way, replacing outdated ideas to stay relevant, but Living Fields is too toothless to signal an evolution. No, Portico’s change in the last few years is a dismantling, removing so much of the soul that once made them vital.
As Portico Quartet, the UK-based group had an impressive streak of releases that put them in league with fellow jazz scientists Badbadnotgood. Both groups were dedicated to mutating the genre they loved with darkness. On songs like “Ruins”, Portico Quartet felt uneasy and singular. While BBNG mixed jazz with hip-hop, Portico Quartet looked inward to evolve the music. That’s what makes Living Fields so infuriating: Portico feel like they’re playing backup on their own album.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Living Fields to Quartet-era work, but, even on its own terms this new incarnation feels lifeless. With the exception of the short interlude “Dissolution”, Living Fields has a guest vocalist on every track. It’s not a bad idea on paper; Portico have a knack for nuance and textures in their songs that could be the perfect backdrop for a guest. Unfortunately, Portico dissolve into the background on most of Living Fields. Fellow Ninja Tune artist Jono McCleery is the most obvious guest, as he takes command of four of the songs. He’s a fine singer, but his dynamic range isn’t enough to raise the songs beyond slippery, hazy atmosphere. McCleery’s a pop singer at heart; his performances bring to mind the '80s heyday of synth-pop, but everything here falls a bit flat. He never seems to be saying anything interesting enough to hook the listener. The title track comes the closest to working, with McCleery committing to a soaring falsetto, duetting with himself over the eerie breath of Portico’s beats.
The tracks with alt-J frontman Joe Newman sink even lower. Newman’s trademark nasally croon dominates every song he’s on, pushing Portico even further into the mist. Considering alt-j’s electronic leaning work on This is All Yours, these tracks sound like they’re from a Newman solo project. There’s not a note that screams “Hey, this is Portico!” when Newman takes over.
Portico momentarily come alive as the album closes. The aforementioned “Dissolution” has a heavenly amount of glossy reverb that rings out like it was recorded in a cathedral. It’s shockingly gorgeous, but it’s a damn shame it only lasts for a minute and a half. “Bright Luck” and “Brittle”, though easily forgettable, do have hold Portico’s best balances with McCleery and Newman, while closing track uses Jamie Woon’s malleable mewling to great effect over the woozy ambiance.
It’s telling that Portico’s best song in their new form is a sub-two minute snippet of a track. Living Fields has plenty of beauty outside of “Dissolution,” but none of it sticks. These songs are ethereal to a fault, unable to gain a foothold in memory. If Portico continue down this path, they’re liable to become faceless where they were once exhilarating.