Artist: Portico Quartet
Album: Untitled (AITAOA #2)
Genre: Future Jazz, Ambient
Quality: mp3, 320 kbps
Double Space (02:53)
In Where We Meet (01:16)
View from a Satellite (05:20)
Celestial Wife (03:58)
Reflected in Neon (02:22)
2017’s Art In The Age Of Automation was a welcome return for Portico Quartet. After a brief, and somewhat disappointing electronic-based excursion as a three-piece named Portico, it was a relief to see the band return to their roots as a quartet with an album that blended jazz, electronica and ambient stylings with confidence. With five years between the release of the band’s self-titled third album and Art In The Age Of Automation it’s perhaps not surprising that the group had a lot of musical ideas to explore – more than one album could realistically contain.
That’s where this new record comes in. Untitled (AITAOA #2) is, as it’s name suggests, an unplanned companion album to Art In The Age Of Automation. The band have taken tracks written and recorded alongside the ones that made it onto their fourth record and packaged them together. For Portico Quartet this is evidence of a particularly fertile period of creativity, and much more than just a collection of tracks that originally ended up on the cutting room floor.
Tonally, the nine tracks that make up Untitled are not too dissimilar from those that appeared on Art In The Age Of Automation. The band skews closer to their electronic influences, whilst still retaining the structure and improvisational quality of jazz that has characterised all of their records, but unlike other records, the tracks here feel more like sketches than finished pieces. There’s none of the depth or progression that characterises the band’s stronger work like ‘Luminous Beam’ or ‘Laker Boo’. Tracks that introduce a central motif, be it a rattling percussive beat that fades in and out of the track, or a twinkling synthesiser, and then build layers upon that gradually and carefully. Those tracks often push past six or seven minutes, meaning that the group has time to iterate on those ideas and develop the song in a way that feels organic. With only two songs pushing past the five-minute barrier, Untitled suffers from not giving the tracks adequate time to explore the space and motifs created.
The album’s opening track, ‘Double Space’ is a perfect example of this. It starts with this weird, almost organic synthesiser melody, with squarks of saxophone. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith album. But then, just as it feels like it’s building to something, it cuts out abruptly and switches to a completely different aesthetic one of melancholic looped piano and slow, stirring strings. It’s an incredibly jarring 180 twist with the two halves of the song completely at odds with one another.
Other tracks aren’t quite as whiplash-inducing as ‘Double Space’ but suffer from the same problems of lack of space to develop. ‘Celestial Wife’ is a beautiful track that builds itself around a bright, brisk flute melody and grand strings. The problem is that for much of it’s runtime it feels like it’s building to something that ultimately never arrives. On another album the first few minutes of this track would be a stunning, soaring opening to a song, but here it simply fades away just as a synthesiser melody enters to mark the track’s closing moments. ‘Celestial Wife’ and tracks like ‘Berlin’ also lack the percussive quality, either from drum pads, drum kits or the hang, that is common throughout Portico Quartet’s albums, making them feel even more alien.
Where the album really works is in the longer tracks. Pieces like ‘Unrest’ and ‘View From A Satellite’ feel like they can comfortably stand shoulder to shoulder with the band’s better work. ‘Unrest’ has a wonderful, infectious rhythm that gallops underneath the chiming timbre of the hang, with the tempo changing gear halfway through to cut an infectious groove befitting the track’s title. ‘View From A Satellite’ meanwhile, eases in comfortably from the previous track ‘In Where We Meet’ to build a spacey, atmospheric tone. On top of this the band layers slow, echoing saxophone and a steady build-up of percussion, starting with snares, then adding in hi-hat.
Untitled (AITAOA #2) isn’t really the best starting point for people new to Portico Quartet’s music, but then I suspect that wasn’t really the point of the album. As a companion piece to last year’s Art In The Age Of Automation it’s certainly an interesting, if a little unsatisfying, insight into the ideas that didn’t quite make it – and there are certainly weird, intriguing moments on this record that leave you wondering what they’d be like if fleshed out to a full song. Perhaps the best way to view Untitled is as the bonus disc to a deluxe edition of its predecessor – something to satisfy the fans who, after a five-year gap between albums three and four, are still eager for more.
by Robert Whitfield