‘It’s amazing’ said the bloke behind the counter at Piccadilly Records as he handed me my receipt and my copy of Monument last Friday. I knew already of course, but I happily feigned ignorance and thanked him for his micro review. This course of events wasn’t one I had anticipated after dispassionately hitting play on my phone seven days prior. But sometimes you just know from the first listen of an album that it’s one you have to have. And so it was just a week later.
Urgent and evocative, this album ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s a bit jazzy, it’s a bit electronic, it’s a bit cinematic. Ok, it’s a lot cinematic – they always have been – describing themselves as makers of ‘widescreen instrumental music’. Still, it’s definitely Portico Quartet, but on Monument they’ve ventured into a sound space more familiar to fans of acts like Bonobo, rather than what you might expect from something still sitting proudly in the ‘Jazz’ section of your Local Independent Record Store™, or the experimental minimalism of their other 2021 album Terrain.
So what makes Monument unmistakeably a Portico Quartet album? Their distinctive use of hang drum is still there – the album opens with ‘Opening’ and a four-note hang sample to remind us of Portico Quartet’s trademark sound – but it takes a backseat on the first half of the album to electronic sounds, subtly discordant strings, reverb-y piano, big bass, saxophone with impeccably judged dynamics and some impossibly quick percussion. All these parts add up, unexpectedly, into a kind of jazz that you could dance to in a club. ‘Opening’ builds and builds, until not quite crashing apart, steadfastly setting out the intent of Monument from the get-go.
Saying that Bicep are a definite influence is probably a stretch (and the shared colour scheme of two of their album covers is surely a coincidence), but I’m convinced Portico Quartet have been listening to the way the dance duo build a tune. The choral-like sounds on ‘Impressions’ come very close to Bicep’s use of vocal samples too. This album makes me feel young again; this would be exactly the sort of thing I would have been loving late at night at a festival ten years ago.
Monument peaks with the hypnotic repeating rhythms of third track, ‘Ultraviolet’. It’s layered with saxophone and synth melodies, the triplet effect of the main riff contrasting yet melding perfectly with the syncopated drum beat. You’ll be closing your eyes, scrunching your nose, nodding your head and sticking one hand in the air without even realising it. That’s exactly how Portico Quartet sneak, rather than get, under your skin on Monument.
That piano sound I mentioned first hits your ears on ‘Ever Present’, accompanying a far dreamier saxophone. The hang is back on interlude ‘Gateway’, ‘A.O.E’ with its hints of dub and early 90s house, and title track ‘Monument’ where dreamy sax returns. Despite all the other influences converging here, it’s in the second half of the album where the band let their jazzier and more experimental side loose. Had ‘Warm Data’ been entirely acoustic, its minimalist leanings and relatively long duration could easily have seen it appear on Terrain. Having said that, they never lose their way, always returning to the initial, composed theme of each track.
The choice of ‘On the Light’ as album closer is fitting. It has the builds and the lulls, the simple repeated minimal riffs, the contrasting rhythms, the melodic and the cacophonous sides of the saxophone and full breadth of functions of the piano from harmony to percussion, masterfully revealed with the use of only a few notes. What a way to finish.
Music like this can tread a fine line between choice and cheese. A few steps in the wrong direction and before you know it, you’re soundtracking a car or a bank advert. I don’t hear that here though. Instead, in Monument we get a quiet gem that may well have come along too late to take its rightful place in the imminent album of the year lists. One thing I know for sure is it’s going straight into my 2021 top ten.
Words by James Spearing