It’s always been hard to peg down the precise sound of the Portico Quartet. The group with the baddest hang (the steel drum, not the conceptual loitering full of camaraderie) in the game has always had electronica elements melded into jazz sensibilities, and with previous efforts to swing the pendulum away from the jazz genre, it’s been even more difficult to know what exactly these guys have been up to. However, they’ve always been master craftsmen and their return back to an earlier sensibility as the Portico Quartet after their 2015 excursion into a more electronic direction, the staid discipline of their sound remains but the jazz sensibility persists nevertheless in their latest album, Art in the Age of Automation, out now on Gondwana Records.
The assorted musical influences — jazz, electronica, ambient — all remain here and gel as they have before just as impressively as always. The lead single, “Endless”, gets things going right away as the album opener, reminding us why this group’s albums are appointment listening. Yet, with each following song, the band constantly pulls the head nods graduating to the compulsion to dance. This album is made for clubs– full of just enough innovation to find something new in each listen but patterned enough to let one’s mind and body drift away in the beats.
However, Portico’s ability to build a mood is stronger than ever. Their use of space is top notch, milking everything out of rises and falls. In fact, the length of many of these tunes are a testimony to that space, letting each instrument and note breathe while also functioning as building blocks to some greater feeling, not just a sound. The title track with its soothing strings and that staccato hang feels as much like a meditation as it does a tune. “Beyond Dialogue” ties each component of this quartet together handily and beautifully as if it were a thesis statement for this group, beginning and ending on that propulsive hang and orbiting around it like celestial bodies.
After moving away from this core sound for a time, Art in the Age of Automation is a return to form for the Portico Quartet, epitomizing everything that has always worked so well for this group. They aren’t necessarily retreading old ground, but the surroundings are familiar. But when you’re a band with the baddest hang in the game and there really isn’t anything out there that sounds quite like you, especially when you always sound this good as a semi-jazz that knows how to make ambient club bangers, it’s not a bad idea to keep a hold on this corner of the weird aural block.
Art in the Age of Automation, the latest album from the Portico Quartet, is out now on Gondwana Records. You can buy it on their Bandcamp.
Duncan Bellamy – drums and electronics
Jack Wyllie – saxophones and keyboards
Milo Fitzpatrick – electric and double-bass
Keir Vine – keyboards
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.