IN A WORLD dominated by Britpop, someone had to bring the British scene back to reality with a bang. Who better to do that than Bristol Trip-Hop band Portishead? Their debut album, Dummy, released this week in 1994, has stood the test of time as a beautiful yet mournful piece or musical art. In the midst of sing-a-long choruses from the likes of Blur, Oasis and Radiohead, Portishead proved that subtly is was key.
With the exception of maybe one track, you won’t find any big choruses or in your face instrumentation of Dummy. Beth Gibbon’s angelic vocals give every track an ethereal nature, even if there may be violent or menacing undertones to the lyrics she is singing. Underneath these haunting stories comes a mash-up of Hip-Hop drum machines, sample loops, cinematic string sections and chunky keys and guitars. It’s a combination that shouldn’t rightly work, but Portishead make something beautiful out of it.
Opening with a gentle guitar strum layered over theremin and a snare driven drum beat, ‘Mysterons’ is one of the best tracks on the album. Named after the Captain Scarlet villains of the same name, the theremin gives the song an out of this world feel, while Gibbons sings of graphic and disturbing imagery. Compare that to, says, ‘Roads’, a track later on in the album that’s perhaps one of Dummy’s most beautiful moments. Featuring some strong, majestic string arrangements, ‘Roads’ is an ode to loneliness that has pain and emotion at its very core.
Then you have moments of grating angst and anger on tracks such as ‘Biscuit’ and ‘Sour Times’. The use of heavy keys or guitar and unusual percussion creates a haunting and disturbing atmosphere on both songs, with Geoff Barrow’s sampling and mixing adding a little extra something to the song, giving it an unusual edge. ‘Who am I, what and why?/’Cause all I have left are my memories from yesterday/Oh these sour times’ Gibbons croons in ‘Sour Times’. The running theme of loneliness and isolation is forever lurking on Dummy, and the minimalist and often sparse music compliments this perfectly.
Finally, we have the closing track ‘Glory Box’, perhaps Portishead’s most well known track. It’s not hard to see why; the slow walking bass, the looped string sample, the swing guitar and perfectly paced vocals all make ‘Glory Box’ the perfect end to Dummy. Unlike a lot of the other tracks on the album, ‘Glory Box’ feels very full and luscious. The tone of the vocals and the almost swung music is like a wry smile at the end of a very sombre album.
Dummy was the beginning of Portishead’s critically acclaimed career; 21 years on, and the band have only released two more studio albums, focussing on quality over quantity. Dummy is perhaps their greatest work yet though; with some truly moving, emotional moments, with some raw, gritty, yet stunning music.
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