Album review: Portico Quartet's 'Isla'
There’s no way to talk about the Portico Quartet without first talking about the hang drum. A UFO-shaped oddity that looks like two welded-together woks after a couple of well-placed whacks with a ball-peen hammer, its percolating, chiming pulse provides an exotic focal point to the unique saxophone, bass and drum instrumentals by these East London twentysomethings, whose 2008 debut was nominated for a Mercury Prize in the U.K.
For the follow-up, the group has teamed with producer John Leckie, who previously worked with the Stone Roses and Radiohead. And while the quartet's sound gains a new richness with a few well-placed flourishes of strings and electronics, its unclassifiable core remains intact. With Nick Mulvey’s hang drums variously recalling a thumb piano, steel drums or even a vaguely electronic-feeling sonic backdrop, Portico Quartet’s bewitching mix can sound like a noirish jungle cruise scored by Wayne Shorter and Steve Reich.
Rising out of an insistent bass line, the moody “Dawn Patrol” boils over into a flurry of saxophone and percussion acrobatics, while the hypnotic maze of ringing hang drums in “Line” recalls the widescreen sweep of Moby's early ambient days. Blending an almost futuristically elegant sense of atmosphere with flashes of raw, flesh-and-blood expression, Portico Quartet isn’t the first to carve out such a pan-global sonic world, but it's created one that's welcoming to visit.
-- Chris Barton