Portico Quartet - Isla ****


RealWorld| Jack Wyllie (s, elec, kys, glock), Duncan Bellamy (d, perc),Milo Fitzpatrick (b) and Nick Mulvey (hang)

Portico Quartet, the jaunty, chilled, Mercury nominated busking post-jazzers of 2008, isn’t a band that you’d imagine has a dark side. But – and credit due to highly influential rock producer John Leckie for what must have been a major part in this – the follow-up to the Mercury debut has a brooding ambience and is much more focused in intent than the bittier, pastoral, world-groove debut. That’s more surprising considering they’ve just signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World, a well-renowned world music label. But it also demonstrates, to all the nay-sayers especially, the young lads’ commitment to evolving and creative music-making. Bass and drums are high in the mix and hints of electronics and string overdubs have added a haunting sonic texture in places. The hang is still Portico’s secret weapon though, a Swiss-made hand drum that chimes with an ethereal, as much as hypnotic, presence this time round.

‘The Visitor’, starts with a bass melody that’s close to the intro of Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’, yet goes on to sound like Acoustic Ladyland performing in a chill out lounge. While interlocking cycles of rhythm patterns informed by the band’s love of minimalist music still anchor the grooves, for example on the Michael Nyman-like ‘Line’, drummer Duncan Bellamy also shows a looser jazz-like timing and Jack Wyllie’s soprano sax occasionally hints at the split tone shrieks of Albert Ayler as well as Middle Eastern and oboe-toned classical inflections. The ECM-type ballad ‘Life Mask’ is a standout, as is the final tune ‘Shed Song’, an improvisation with a sax theme that recalls George Harrison’s ‘Within You Without You’’s Indo-psych haze, rather appropriately considering that too was recorded in the Beatles’ old Studio 2 at Abbey Road. All this stylistic tinkering will almost certainly annoy the purists but this highly atmospheric album stands on its own merits. Selwyn Harris