Mercury Prize-nominated Portico Quartet has always been an impossible band to pin down. Sending out echoes of jazz, electronica, ambient music and minimalism, the group created their own singular, cinematic sound over the course of three studio albums, from their 2007 breakthrough Knee-Deep in the North Sea, and 2010 John Leckie produced Isla, to their self titled record in 2012. Now rebooted as Portico Quartet after a brief spell as the three-piece Portico, the group release their fourth studio album Art In The Age Of Automation.
Recorded at Fish Factory Studios in London at the beginning of 2017 and mixed at Vox studios, Berlin, Art In The Age Of Automation finds the band building on the sound world they first explored with their eponymous debut, mixing the cinematic minimalism, that first made their name, with electronic and ambient textures alongside a welcome return for Jack Wyllie's ethereal saxophone and Duncan Bellamy's unique mixture of live and electronic drums as well of course as the band's signature sound, the chiming other worldy tones of the hang drum.
The album opens with the insistent, catchy "Endless," which references the classic Portico Quartet sound, but expands outwards into a hypnotic, blissful collage of strings, hangs, electronics, saxophones and Bellamy's unique drumming. It's a sound that permeates the whole record, feeling both familiarly Portico Quartet, but transformed into something bold and new, sounding somehow bigger than ever but even more detailed. Elsewhere "Rushing" draws on the bands love of minimalist music, a repeated piano motif merges with a contorted vocal sample that twists its way through juxtaposed spaces to reach an uplifting resolve.
Meanwhile the title track offers a moment of down-tempo respite: the hang drum is joined by a full horns and string section, culminating in a orchestral outro where cellos and violins blend with saxophones and hang drum to form a densely layered blanket of sound. On "A Luminous Beam" an infectious drum grove drives the piece while synths, flutes and strings are layered with the saxophone floating freely over the top. "Beyond Dialogue" is classic Portico Quartet, exploiting the ethereal, otherworldly timbre of the hang drums and Jack's saxophone to create a hypnotic track that references minimalism and ambient music to create something beautiful and new.
"Current History" has nods towards more electronic and urban music as drum machines underpin a collage of hang drums and saxophones. The album finishes on the aptly tilted "Lines Glow," the saxophone weaving its melody over an organ and string section culminating in an epic, euphoric moment of release. It's a fittingly uplifting way to end an album that announces the return of one of the UK's most singular, and influential bands, one that a decade from their founding are still pushing the boundaries of their music into the future and still sound like nothing you ever heard before.