Portishead changed the game, and completely messed up my world on the first listen. The trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley were taking note of what their fellow Bristol mates Massive Attack was doing with the new sound they introduced: the brilliantly-titled “Bristol sound,” a slow, simmering, and seductive style of music with influences from hip-hop, funk, and R&B, and they took it to the next level. Portishead’s 1994 debut Dummy helped establish the major tenets of the Bristol sound which would soon become known abroad as trip-hop. They slowed the BPMs to a torpid, almost drug-addled pace, added a lush and dramatic flair to the music, and had an ace in the vocalist Gibbons, whose pain, vulnerability and doubt oozed out over the music. Dummy was a landmark record for its emotion and style, and established the group along with Massive Attack as the torchbearers for this new movement, influencing many later acts.
Portishead wasn’t phased by the attention, and took their time crafting a follow up, which eventually arrived in 1997 as Portishead. For me, this album was another one of those records which had a hand in my musical upbringing…and what a trip it was! Portishead is raw and abrasive, eschewing the lush and floaty mood of their debut for a direction that is much more harsh, grainy, and absolutely spacy. Like, not of this planet. Instead of being a sultry siren, Gibbons’ performances are like knives under your fingernails, but still with a twinge of sadness and pain. The sound is deliberately deprecated and lo-fi, with the instruments sounding like they came right off a cheap cassette tape. The group’s work here is wretched, twisted, and brilliant.
“Half Day Closing” is one of my favorites from the record right from the get-go: The opening crawl, with the strings and the ominous bass absolutely sets the tone for the song, and hell, the album in general. The pace is excruciatingly slow, Gibbon’s vocals start off shrill and distant, and the song itself begins to degrade towards the end. It’s quite a listen.