LIVE: Portico Quartet @ KOKO, London

Sumptuously cinematic, Portico Quartet's KOKO comeback marked how far they've come from their earlier experimentalism.
Posted: 11 May 2022 Words: Caspar Latham

Portico Quartet occupy a unique space somewhere between jazz, ambient and electronic music. Their 2007 breakthrough album Knee-Deep in the North Sea - which was nominated for a Mercury Prize Award - first presented their signature sound in the form of percussive hang drum chords, extended Coltrane-esque saxophone improvisations and complex, interlocking drum rhythms coupled with double bass. This was replicated, albeit in darker form in their 2009 album Isla

Since then, the band have gradually moved away from this jazz-influenced sound. In their recent KOKO performance, occasional hang drum melodies sounded more like a buried echo of their early work, indistinguishably mixed into a wall of sound. Silhouetted against flickering strobe lighting and performing uninterrupted, the event more closely resembled a Leon Vynehall or Floating Points set than a gig by a jazz-influenced band. 

The swelling soundscape of ‘Opening’ marked the beginning of their set - over one sustained bass note, contrapuntal hang drum arpeggios gently emerged out of a blackness punctuated only by shimmering squares of white, followed by soaring string melodies and extended melodic lines on saxophone. The piece marked a strong opening to a set that proved how far Portico Quartet have come from their early jazz experiments. 

Harnessing the skill and technical accomplishment of Duncan Bellamy on drums, the set was beat-driven, featuring multiple drum solos. An accelerated and electrified rendition of ‘A Luminous Beam’ nodded backwards to their 2017 album Art in the Age of Automation. The set was dominated, however, by pieces from their 2021 album Monument, including hypnotic rhythms and staggered synth chords (‘Impressions’) and filmic piano parts (‘On the Light’). The final piece of the set, ‘Ultraviolet’, formed a minimalist soundscape punctuated by driving rhythms. 

Although Portico Quartet’s updated sound is in danger of veering towards an indistinguishable monotony in tracks such as ‘Ultraviolet’, the carefully orchestrated light show meant that the execution in this venue was powerful. Alongside the likes of Radiohead and Cinematic Orchestra, Portico Quartet have succeeded in giving their music a cinematic quality which nevertheless manages to avoid cliché.

To see more of Portico Quartet's upcoming tour dates, click here.

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