14 July 2008

Rock epic of the month: "We Carry On" (Portishead) 2008

Rock epics of the month is a series of posts where I'll look back on classic examples of what I think is the greatest excess of rock and roll - the rock epic.

I'm going to go for something relatively recent here this month. Portishead have just released their third proper longplayer (not counting the live one) and it is currently getting a serious workout whenever I can get the chance to listen to it.

Portishead formed as the second part of a holy trinity of what became known as the Bristol Trip Hop Scene, after Massive Attack and they released their first album, Dummy at about the same time as former Massive Attack alumnus Tricky released his first solo record.

The Bristol trip hop scene really was just a lazy media's way of describing the fact that (a) these musicians did, in fact come from Bristol, and (b) they were attempting a laid back and somewhat trippy take on Hip Hop.

Up until this point, hip hop was largely an unfamiliar genre to the Brits. During the time that hip hop went through the somewhat huge Gangster Rap and G-Funk phases in the States, the Brits were more into the rave scene which was dominated by electronic music genres such as House and later, various Techno sub-genres.

At about this time, the Brits were getting thoroughly confused by the first wave of what went on to be called Drum 'n Bass, and it occurred to some (notably in Bristol) that this hip hop stuff that the Yanks were getting into might be worth giving a second glance to.

Massive Attack released their devastatingly influential Blue Lines album, and suddenly it was game on.

Portishead were formed by Beth Gibbons (vocals), Adrian Utley (guitars) and Geoff Barrow (everything else) in 1991. Barrow had done some work for Massive Attack and Tricky, Gibbons had sung in various things around town and Utley was a known jazz axe-slinger for hire.

And where American hip hop was, at the time, dominated by the g-funk coming out of Dr Dre's stable such as Snoop "Doggy" Dogg and Warren G, Portishead's first album, Dummy, released in 1994 mined its samples from decidedly un-funky sources such as old movie soundtracks and Serge Gainsbourg.

Their eponymous second album, Portishead followed in 1997 and then they began a huge lay-off where the members worked on other stuff - Barrow moved to Sydney and did a tonne of work in the Australian hip hop scene amongst other things.

It took until 2008 for their Third album to come out, which featured sounds that were quite a bit harsher than what they had worked with in the past.

I've chosen to do "We Carry On" this month, because, at 6:27, its a true epic, and, quite frankly, it rocks.

It's one that likes a bit of a groove, and it's one that is a real grower. Utley's guitar is about as angular and primal as Portishead get - someone said to me that it's a bit reminiscent of Will Sargent's work with Echo and the Bunnymen - they could be right. I reckon that there's a bit of post-OK Computer Radiohead in there as well.

This video is a gem of Portishead performing this live on Jools Holland's show on UK TV. I love the pained way that Gibbons delivers the vocals, together with Utley and another guitarist fairly fanging away on their guitars towards the end of this. Barrow looks like he's having fun on the drums during this, too.

Hope that you like it - I did.

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