Electronic music is one of the most successful and truly one of the most innovative forms of music ever created. Whether it be Dance (Electronic Dance Music), Dubstep, Trip-Hop, Industrial, Dream pop, Industrial rock, Techno, House, etc. All of these genres are essential in the inception and continued rise of Electronic music.
One of the influential and underrated bands of electronic music is the band Portishead. Operating under the Trip hop subgenre and flirting with Alternative and experimental rock, Portishead, formed by vocalist Beth Gibbons and keyboardist Geoff Barrow, was birthed in Bristol, England with a town close by that shares the band name, in 1991. Barrow began his career before Portishead, working in local studios in Bristol. While working in the studio environment, Geoff produced and did remixes for Primal Screen, Depeche Mode and Tricky. The latter was also another vital figure in the trip hop genre. Geoff also did tape operation for Massive Attack’s (an important band in Electronic music, especially trip hop) classic debut Blue Lines. Beth Gibbons, originally from Exeter, Devon (England), moved to Bristol at the age of 22 and met Geoff while they were both at a local unemployment office. The two later on met up with guitarist Adrian Utley and programmer Dave McDonald. The initial recordings of the band were based around samples of Spy movies and using a Theremin on songs. The Theremin, is an electronic instrument that was originally used in Russia and created by physicist Leon Theremin as a research device for proximity sensors. The complex but intricate device was also used on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album on the track Good Vibrations. These types of recordings from Portishead, were just a taste of the music that was yet to come.
In 1994 the band released their debut studio album Dummy on Go! Beat Records.
The album was said upon its release, to be the album responsible for truly launching the genre of Trip hop into the mainstream. Led by singer Beth Gibbons, the album’s ambient, laidback, and very groovy music was accompanied by the intricate and clean guitar work of Adrian Lutley and well placed electronics of McDonald and Barrow, the album was a great a critical success for the band. Lead single Sour Times was a huge success for the group in their homeland and in the states. The song, which samples Argentene composer Lalo Schifrin’s Danube Incident, is a somber and groovy piece, that is centered around the distinct vocals of Gibbons as well as the jazzy, groovy elements provided by the other band members. The video itself which was played in the states on MTV in heavy rotation, was taken from scenes from the band’s own short film, To Kill A Dead Man. The album also featured the song Glory Box, which samples Issac Hayes’ Ike’s Rap 2. The track was also used sort of, when fellow trip hop artist Tricky sampled the same Hayes song, the same year of 1995.
After the success of Dummy the band continued to release music and tour, but the appeal in the states shifted more towards the underground. Their 1997 self-titled album Portishead, which featured the songs All Mine, Over and Only You was hailed as the album of year in 1997 on many UK music publication’s end of the year lists but the band went on hiatus for a while and did not release any music for eleven years.
In December 2007, the band played a live set at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England and debuted new material from their first album in eleven years. About four months later in 2008, the group returned with their third album, simply titled Third. With the elements of Dummy and the second album, the band took their sound higher and elevated it to something more daring and experimental. Third was instantly celebrated by music critics and marked a new chapter for the band. After the release of Third, Portishead went on to tour and play several music festivals, but of course fans wanted new music. Speaking to Rolling Stone in September 2011, keyboardist Barrow spoke on beginning work in 2012 on a new album, but” It could take another ten years”. Let’s hope not.
The influence that the trippy Bristol natives have left on music in general is felt very strongly to this day. Toronto dark R&B act The Weeknd ( Abel Tesfaye) who surfaced in 2011 with the critically acclaimed House Of Balloons, has music that is full of trip hop, experimental and chillwave tunes that launched a new subgenre “PBR&B (Pabst Blue Ribbon, being the indie and or hipster drink of choice). Several artists followed suit including Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko, Miguel, JMSN, XXYYXX, Rochelle Jordan and Jessie Ware and Marsha Ambrosius. The two latter artists drew inspiration from Beth Gibbons’ upclose and distinctly smoky and sultry vocals. Ambrosius even did a cover of the 1994 hit Sour Times on her 2011 album Late Nights and Early Mornings. All of these artists in the past two years have been successful here in the states in overseas, with the new sound being led by The Weeknd, but even his influence, to influence others, was inspired and drawn back to Portishead.
From a personal perspective, I must say that Portishead as had an impact on me creatively. Within some of the music I create, I am always trying to use electronic instruments and synths to do experimental and trippy but groovy music. Sonically the music of the band is something I will always be drawn to. It’s the personal and avant garde apparoach that I enjoy the most from them. Lyrically and musically. I have always talked about the underrated and overlooked quality in Trip hop and when I continue to do so I’ll be sure to let folks know who one of the main torchbearers are…Portishead.