ALBUM REVIEW: Portico Quartet – Isla

Unorthodox. Ethereal. Other-worldly. Now that I have got some of those lazy, oft-used albeit very apt descriptions of Portico Quartet’s music out of the way, I have to work a bit harder to do this review justice. It’s not that it’s hard to say good things about the 2008 Mercury Prize nominees and their special brand of experimental jazz; quite the contrary. In an era when hyperbole jumps out at you from every corner, the Quartet are really worth the buzz they have generated. No, the challenge is finding a novel way to big up the fellows that hasn’t already been done.

This month Milo FitzPatrick, Nick Mulvey, Jack Wyllie and Duncan Bellamy release Isla, the follow up to 2008’s critically-acclaimed Knee-Deep In the North Sea. Mostly recorded at the world famous Abbey Road Studios, Isla is yet another slice of ambient delight. Both fans and the uninitiated should be glad to know that the Quartet stays true to the sparse and haunting arrangements that have come to characterise their genre-defying sound. Wyllie (lung capacity of a deep sea diver)’s saxophone wails melodically, and as heartfelt as any jazz vocal worth its salt, over the alluring percussion of Mulvey and Bellamy’s hang drum* and the robust groove of Fitzpatrick’s double bass. True, Isla is a slow burner but that doesn’t preclude it from being a classic in the making. The album gets off to an assured start with the instant appeal of the frenetic “Paper, Scissors, Stone”; there’s the understated, cascading beauty of “The Visitor” and the epic title track manages to be both frenzied and strangely soothing at the same time. But it’s the melancholy enchantment of “Life Mask” -and the eponymous interlude -that will rightfully define this album, launching it into the soundtrack stratosphere quicker than you can say Satie’s “Gymnopedie No.1”.

*An instrument similar to the steel drum in sound and brought to the fore by the band.

Still Portico Quartet are above all a great live act and any studio album, no matter how accomplished it is, can only ever be a foretaste to the uplifting experience that is one of their gigs.

We are soon to say farewell to a decade that has seen some of the most uninspired music to assault the ears receive unwarranted attention. It is therefore reassuring that a group who remain as dedicated to the craft, with so pure and innovative a sound as Portico Quartet, continues to be one of the very worthy exceptions.

Isla is available in shops from Monday 19 October.

Official album launch at KOKO’s in Camden, London – 2 November.
Tickets available from seetickets and ticketweb for £12.50 | Portico Quartet on MySpace

Review by Tolita.