I have admittedly not heard anything new from the Portico Quartet since their superb sophomore album Isla. When PopMatters’ own Nathan Stevens warned us all of what happened when the group dropped the ‘Quartet’ from their name and released Living Fields, I must have assumed it was a permanent change because I just plain forgot about them. With Terrain, the joke’s on me. Not only did they reinstate the ‘Quartet’ to their name after their brief experiment in electronic music and go back to playing highly percussive minimalist jazz, but they have also taken significant steps in transcending their highly specified subgenre.
And how do they manage to pull that off, you rightly ask? Through the long-form, simply enough. With only one movement on side one and two movements on side two, Duncan Bellamy, Jack Wyllie, and company stretch Terrain out like an ambient symphony. Normally, prospective listeners would be advised to be patient with just three tracks spanning 38 minutes. Still, there’s magic enough in Terrain‘s sounds and patterns to gently hypnotize the listener, rendering their patience a moot subject.
When reading the press release for Isla, I remember that one of the members of the Portico Quartet had a revelatory appreciation for Steve Reich‘s “Music for 18 Musicians”, likening it to the one’s first exposure to technicolor. Sure, detractors of minimalism can moan about how boring it is and how long it takes to underdevelop. To be exposed to pieces like “Music for 18 Musicians” is to realize that one is missing the point when rudely pointing out what minimalism does not do. One can hear echoes of Steven Reich in Terrain as clearly as they can hear traces of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Midori Takada, the latter of which made a big impression on Wyllie with her 1983 album Through the Looking Glass. No matter what angle you approach it, Terrain is a spellbinding amalgamation of colorful sounds.
If there is one thing in the Portico Quartet’s instrumentation to set them apart from their peers, it’s the use of the hang drum. Looking like a puffed-up cymbal and sounding like a steel drum with a softer attack, the group build unique ostinatos normally provided by keys. The hang drum pattern that gets the first movement started behaves true to minimalist form with a simple four-note pattern that alters only slightly over the first half of the movement. The entrance of the saxophone is just another textural component alongside the soft drumming and electronic sampling. Just when the listener feels that the first movement has gone to sleep for good, in comes a simple yet evocative piano that sounds like it needed a tune-up a few years ago. The hang drum reappears as it did before, wrapping up the 19 minutes of quietly tense music with long-sustaining minor chords.
The somber nature of the first movement is swapped for a lighter sound and tempo for the second movement, the shortest one at nine minutes and 16 seconds. A simple piano figure, possibly simpler than the hang drum figure of the first movement, guides much of the movement as low strings provide elongated pedal tones as a foundation. Bells, light percussion, and a hesitant saxophone fill out the surrounding space without cluttering it. The hang drum returns for the third and final movement, perhaps the most abstract one of all. All of the instruments come out to play, but it’s the drumming that pushes everything forward. Any repeated patterns are tucked back in the mix as the movement morphs into something resembling a drum solo accompanied by the discordant hum of electronic ambience and what sounds like a soprano sax. At ten minutes in length, it almost doesn’t give itself enough room for falling action once all the pieces have smashed together.
Terrain may not be a unique album in the perspective of contemporary jazz or minimalist electronic and classical music, but it certainly is unique unto the Portico Quartet. Bellamy and Wyllie have used their lockdown time well in exploring the outer capabilities of their chosen format. It’s an album where grand ambitions and warm sounds meet at an opportune intersection where texture ultimately overrules genre. Can you ask for more from a suite of music that combines ambient, minimalist classical, and jazz?