Following two sold-out headline shows at The Roundhouse last year, Portico Quartet return with ‘Memory Streams’, their fifth studio LP continuing the journey first started with 2008’s Mercury-nominated debut ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’. It’s a creative path that has seen the band embrace new technology and explore ambient/electronic influences alongside minimalism, jazz and beyond. It is a process that has encouraged change, with each album seeing them expand the scope and explore new trajectories.
From the gentle charm of their breakthrough debut’s inimitable mix of jazz, world and minimalist influences, the tight-knit brilliance of ‘Isla’, the electronic infused eponymous ‘Portico Quartet’ to ‘Art in the Age of Automation’ (their most electronic statement to date), they have never been artists to look backwards. Each record has been its own world, its own statement and offered its own meaning. It’s the mark of a singular group that has always stood its own higher ground, above being tarred with certain genre brushes, separate from any scene and prepared to challenge itself, find new things to say, and push its own limits.
It is an approach that has encouraged the band to plough their own furrow, with saxophonist Jack Wyllie commenting, “I feel more connected to other musicians these days and those relationships influence the sound we have in some way, but I wouldn’t say we feel a part of a supposed movement or fit in any pigeonhole. It still feels quite out on its own, which is cool, because it helps the music feel unique”.
The new longplayer ‘Memory Streams’ is part of the same continuum and yet, as the name hints, there’s a sense here of a remembering, shards of past influences, and hints of ideas re-forged. For Wyllie, Memory Streams “feels in some ways about the identity of the quartet, about the records we’ve made before, and the memory of them”. whereas for drummer Duncan Bellamy it suggests “a torrent of imagery, accessing and reliving archived memories, which perhaps aren’t even your own”.
Sonically, ‘Memory Streams’ embraces the classic PQ palette of drums, saxophone, bass and hang-drums, but nonetheless the output has modulated, become more modern, whilst still channeling the beauty and mystery which has always marked the very best of their music. It’s the sound of an outfit at ease with itself, who after a dozen years of recording and playing together, are able to simultaneously explore and embrace their own identity.
‘Memory Streams’ also marks a return to a more predominantly band orientated sound than ‘Art In The Age…’ and its partner release ‘Untitled’. Bellamy says “we wanted to create something that had texture, fibre and space to it. Something that felt vivid, real and alive”. During recording they re-amped a lot of the sounds, a process which lends a sense of depth and spaciousness to the audio. Wyllie adds, “we tried to reduce the elements to what really identified the group and also as a way to help us write – it’s not easy if you have unlimited possibilities. But it was also an interesting challenge, as it was about writing something new that felt like a development, whilst also drawing on the past”.
One of the first tracks they wrote for the new album, ‘With, Beside, Against’ has an expansive, quietly unfolding quality that makes it the perfect opener. ‘Signals’ is a creeping, mysterious piece that captures the spirit of the record. It’s hypnotic, rolling quality builds throughout with shades of a classic PQ tune, but with a tougher edge. The outstanding ‘Gradient’ is a more produced piece; mixing lo-fi and beautifully recorded acoustic parts together, it grows from a simple, repeated drum motif, outwards into a searching hypnotic crescendo. ‘Ways of Seeing’ is a synthesis of minimalism and more dancefloor-oriented rhythms. A lone pulse from the drum machine cuts through a haze of chiming, swirling hang-drums and pads built from shards of looped sax.
‘Memory Palace’ is a distant echo of the motif from ‘Gradient’, and is a bare, slow piano piece shrouded in a mist of saxophone noise. The punchy ‘Offset’ is all about motion and tension and Bellamy’s drums pound in response. ‘Dissident Gardens’ is an intricate, hypnotic track in 3 parts – almost prog-like in rhythm, but with a strong minimalist element, with Farfisa organs as the repetitive top lines. ‘Double Helix’ begins with string swells – stopping and jolting as if someone is switching TV channels before locking into a deep groove. The beautifully sparse, emotional heft of ‘Immediately Visible’ sits in a powerful lineage of Portico Quartet tracks like ‘Line, Rubidium’ and ‘Beyond Dialogue’. It was largely improvised in the studio and offers the perfect ending point for the album with its sense of journey and deep well of feeling.
An LP that locates their music in an age where we have unfettered access to a vast and ever-expanding archive of imagery and ideas, ‘Memory Streams’ both embraces and builds on Portico Quartet’s own unique music and legacy, and locates them firmly in the present.