Portico Quartets' album Knee-Deep In The North Sea is of the most mesmerising, inspiring albums ever released; a bold statement entirely deserved. Initially released in 2007, Knee-Deep In The North Sea's outstanding, innovative sound was recognised in 2008 by its Mercury Music Prize nomination, and now too by its re-release, remixed by producer John Leckie, bringing Portico Quartets' divine instrumental blend right back to the surface.
Though often described as modern jazz, Portico Quartets' unique sound deserves to stand clear from the jazz pigeonhole which many people intentionally avoid. Blending influence of contemporary classical and film composers (Philip Glass and Steve Reich et al) and world musical cultures, in particular Balinese Gamelan which two members previously studied, together with contemporary jazz influences such as Jan Garbarek and EST, Portico Quartet have perfected a unique sound. The London four-piece's sound is made distinctive by their line up; drums, double bass, soprano/alto saxophones and, most particularly, the hang, an instrument native to Switzerland that looks almost like two inverted steel pans stuck together. The hang has a beautiful warm, mellow, soothing yet metallic sound that the Portico Quartet have innovatively replaced any standard chordal instrument with (guitar/piano) which, amongst many of their unique characteristics, sets them far above average.
Knee-Deep In The North Sea opens with 'News From Verona', which grows from a bed of mesmerising, undulating hang harmonies flanked by non-intrusive drums and gentle picked bass which together, in simple progression, builds a soft ground for Jack Wyllie's beautifully crisp soprano saxophone melody. The accompaniment remains non-intrusive until around two and a half minutes in when the bass part busies and becomes more prominent, at times doubling the sax melody. Throughout the track, in fact throughout the album, the music drops and fades and swells in and out all the time in waves of intensity, all the time sounding this beautiful, undulating accompaniment from the distinctive timbre of the hang.
Over atmospheric, spacey bowed bass in the opening moments of 'Zavodovski Island', Nick Mulvey constructs a gradual hang melody; bowed bass notes gradually become richer sounding as the melody develops, creating much suspense. When the sax enters, the spacey, atmospheric feel changes entirely; firstly a stronger, marching beat kicks in with the soprano sax emphasising the beats equally as prominently as snare and bass. In a second gear change, 'Zavodovski Island' then kicks into a funky groove; some of the hang notes are palm-muted adding a percussive flavour to the distinctive timbre, before the quartet snap back to the stomping feel. The instrumentalists build suspense in their combination of harmonies and the sax creeps higher and higher before a tight, snappy picked bass and hang outro.
Each track on Knee-Deep In The North Sea, though not tediously lengthy as many tracks of Portico Quartets' pretentious jazz or classical predecessors may have been, is a finely constructed masterpiece in its' own right. Throughout the album, passages of blissful hypnotic calm, dominated by the beautiful undulating melodies of the hang, are contrasted by more upbeat, stomping, funky passages; passages that are altogether louder, busier and more frantic, as in the title track, are contrasted with a latin vibe ('Too Many Cooks'), and so on. As the bass dominant halfway point, 'Steps In The Wrong Direction' proves, the quartet of tight and contemporary instrumentalists ooze both a soothing progression of undulations, a swelling and fading body of sound, and beautifully evolving melodies into their blend. The three live tracks tagged onto the tracklisting from the original release then further emphasise Portico Quartet's talent with slight variations to the studio recordings of the tracks, but every bit the same meticulous yet effortless precision and beauty and even more expression.
The music speaks for itself; Knee-Deep In The North See is undeniably a truly stunning release.