By JON PARELES
photo - Adam Faraday/Mojo
GEOFF BARROW has an objective for his band, Portishead. He wants it to be “the opposite of rock ’n’ roll,” even if he hasn’t entirely figured out what that is. After all, it was a taste of the rock ’n’ roll life that made Portishead disappear for a decade while the band’s otherworldly mixture of modern dread, retro samples and torch-song yearning lingered on soundtracks and boutique playlists.
On the two morosely startling albums that made Portishead’s reputation when it came out of England in the 1990s, Beth Gibbons’s voice and words were bereft and bitter, floating in music that placed vintage samples in sparse, echoey backdrops, conjuring emotional abysses and the irrevocable passage of time. The band itself was self-effacing, but word of mouth, from introvert to introvert, worked as much as radio play to cultivate devoted fans. According to Nielsen SoundScan, Portishead’s debut album, “Dummy,” sold 1.1 million copies and its second, “Portishead,” sold 635,000. Then, after touring and a live follow-up album, Portishead faded out.
Now Portishead has rematerialized, resuming a career that has always moved in slow motion. “It’s amazing how quickly 10 years can go,” said Adrian Utley, who plays guitars and keyboards, over coffee at an elegant Munich hotel the night before the band’s performance. “There was no sense that we would split up or we weren’t going to do anything again. We just didn’t want to for that time.”
This month Portishead is touring Europe and making an April 26 appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. (Those will be its only concerts for the rest of 2008, for “personal reasons,” Mr. Barrow said.)
And on April 29 Portishead releases "Third" (Mercury/Island), its third studio album and the sequel to “Portishead,” from 1997. “Third” is more polymorphous, more extreme, more propulsive and often harsher than previous Portishead albums. Instead of mellowing with age or returning to a signature sound, the band has fractured and splintered that sound, plunging even deeper into loneliness and anxiety.
“Third” is unlikely to become fashionable background music; it’s too bleak, too daring, too exposed. As if alluding to the band’s 10-year absence, the first song on the album is called “Silence.” Ms. Gibbons sings, “Empty in our hearts/Crying out in silence/Wandered out of reach/Too far to speak.”
Portishead — named after a coastal town near Bristol, where Mr. Barrow lived as a teenager — coalesced in the early 1990s, when Bristol emerged as the home of what would soon be called trip-hop: hazy, moody, late-night songs that blurred the desolate and the sultry. Mr. Barrow worked as a tape operator — making tea and getting sandwiches, he said — at the studio where Massive Attack, Bristol’s brooding R&B band, was recording with the rapper and trip-hop pioneer Tricky.
Between sessions for Massive Attack, Mr. Barrow assembled his own music, playing drums and using the hip-hop techniques of sampling, looping and scratching. But his music ended up a world away from the street or the dance floor.
Mr. Barrow found a musical partner in Ms. Gibbons, who had been singing Janis Joplin songs in pubs and would become Portishead’s lyricist and main melody writer. Partway through the making of “Dummy,” released in 1994, they brought in Mr. Utley, who had been what he calls a “skint” — which means barely getting by — jazz guitarist.
They were an unlikely alliance, disparate in age (Mr. Utley is now 50, Mr. Barrow 36 and Ms. Gibbons 43) and inclinations. But Mr. Utley and Mr. Barrow are both down-to-earth musicians.
“They’re both skilled in opposite ways, but it works,” said James Skelly of the Coral, whose 2005 album, “Invisible Invasion,” was produced by them. “Ade tries all sorts of different stuff and sounds, and you could be there all day and every sound would be great. Geoff would come in and say, ‘That’s the sound.’ ” Meanwhile, although Ms. Gibbons’s lyrics are wounded public confessions, she is so painfully shy that she dodges interviews. The refrain of the album’s closing song, “Threads,” is “I’m always so unsure.” (In a brief hello at the Munich sound check, she fretted that she might forget lyrics during the concert.)
“Beth said the other night that the reason that she actually started singing was because of her inability to communicate,” Mr. Barrow said. “Since she’s done it, people think that she’s communicating, but it’s made her ability to communicate even worse on a human level.”
Mr. Utley and Ms. Gibbons were used to club gigs; Mr. Barrow is a studio creature who gets no pleasure from performing live. “I’ve never liked it, and I never will,” Mr. Barrow said. “I don’t feel any connection between me and the people listening to it. I way prefer to release records and have my connection be like that.”
What the three members of Portishead share is a methodology: building each song around what Mr. Barrow calls “a sonic world,” often just a texture. “We are very much magpies,” he said. “We really like to hear stuff that blows us away, and then we like to do our own version of it, but I think we put it together in a weird way and it sounds like us.”
Talking about “Third,” Mr. Barrow and Mr. Utley cited Black Sabbath, Sonic Youth, Kraftwerk, Ultravox, the hip-hop producer Madlib, the Viking-helmeted proto-Minimalist composer Moondog and the glacially slow heavy metal band Sunn 0))), among many others. Mistuned instruments, lopsided mixes, low-fi microphones, expressively imprecise timing: those are things Portishead prizes from the analog era and brings to its own recordings, which sound ever more peculiar alongside albums relying on computer-quantized rhythms and auto-tuned voices.
By now familiarity and imitators can dilute some of the strangeness of early Portishead songs like “Sour Times.” Mr. Utley said: “When ‘Dummy’ came out, I remember thinking, ‘This sounds weird, some of these tracks sound really weird.’ But because it was a popular record — and thanks for that! — it got assimilated into the mainstream. Maybe it changed the language a little bit.”
So Portishead set itself new hurdles. On its second album the group didn’t simply sample old recordings; it wrote passages for orchestra, recorded them and turned them back into samples to be manipulated. By then Portishead had an international following, and it found itself touring a huge festival circuit.
“It was bigger than it should have been,” Mr. Utley said. “When things get bigger, you can feel like you’re feeding this beast. If you’re making a lot of noise, the whole thing starts to work on another level that I’m not sure we really wanted to be on. It’s not what we set out to do.”
He continued: “We were all drinking lots to get the adrenaline going, and it all got a bit rock ’n’ roll, really. Which I am not averse to, but it took its toll in the end on us. Both Geoff and I, our home lives became messed up. We were divorced.”
Portishead hired members of the New York Philharmonic to play orchestral arrangements for the 1997 concert at Roseland Ballroom that they documented for a live album and video. “I didn’t like what we did that day,” Mr. Barrow said, calling it “overblown” and “pompous.” After the tour he and Mr. Utley mixed the live album; Mr. Barrow said he had not listened to it since. And when “Roseland Live NYC” was finished, Portishead scattered.
“At the end of that time there was nothing more to say about music or anything,” Mr. Barrow said. “So I just decided that I was going to go and live my life. People usually have to decide what they’re going to do from their late teens to their mid- to late 20s, when I had been a musician. I was like some ginormous child in the outside world.”
Mr. Barrow went to Australia, where he and a partner started an independent label, Invader, that releases avant-garde jazz and extreme heavy metal. Mr. Utley “went on to do as much music with as many people as I could: writing, soundtracks, producing things and playing with people.” In 2002 Ms. Gibbons collaborated with Paul Webb, the bassist from the group Talk Talk, who was calling himself Rustin Man. Mr. Utley performed on their album, “Out of Season,” and toured with their band for a year.
“I never had any fire in my belly to go and do anything or say anything musically until 2003, 2004,” Mr. Barrow said. That’s when Portishead quietly renegotiated its major-label contract, which ends with “Third.” (The band already manages itself, with its members deciding on everything from artwork to merchandising; it found an overwhelming demand for Portishead tea mugs, which may suggest something about its audience.)
Recording the new album went slowly. “There’s a lot of frustration with not being able to write music that becomes the frustration of the record,” Mr. Barrow said. “But there’s also a lot of frustration with just how stupid people are, us included.”
The band made rules for itself, then twisted them. “For instance, we mustn’t use instruments that we’ve used before,” Mr. Utley said. “Our trademark sound, once we’ve got it, we want to destroy it and move on to something else. So we have to become something else, we have to re-emerge as something else all the time but still the same. It’s hard.”
On “Third” Portishead’s imperfect instruments, the resonant hollows of the production and Ms. Gibbons’s voice — aching, mournful, distraught — make the band immediately recognizable. But the album never takes an easy path.
“Hunter,” which could simply have been a gentle guitar ballad — Ms. Gibbons sings, “If I should fall, would you hold me/Would you pass me by?” — is zapped by feedback and jittered by Kraut-rock synthesizer blips. “Machine Gun” rides a distorted stop-start beat made by the drum module of an old electric organ. “Nylon Smile” is an ominous web of backwards guitars, tom-toms and diminished chords in which Ms. Gibbons sings, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you.”
One major shift is the rhythm. Most of Portishead’s past songs have been dirges, even when flecked with hip-hop drums. The tunes are just as stately on “Third.” But on many of the new songs, brittle double-time beats appear out of nowhere and just as suddenly fall away, adding rock’s impact and tension without the release.
The band is well aware that “Third” won’t go down as smoothly as “Dummy,” but it doesn’t mind. “The basic thing was to sound like ourselves, not to repeat ourselves,” Mr. Barrow said. “There was never a sense of throwing stuff in to freak people out. If there was, it was the healthy amount we always had.”
When Portishead arrived for sound check, Mr. Barrow’s face was glum as he surveyed the Munich Tonhalle, a utilitarian club in the middle of a recreation complex. A barnlike cinder-block shed, the Tonhalle might have been a good place, Mr. Utley said, for the Ramones — and not, he implied, for a band with the subtleties of Portishead. Munich was the stop between a triumphant gig in Florence and a large show in Berlin, where the director Wim Wenders would drop by backstage.
With its studio standards Portishead is so precise about timbre that it changes snare drums from song to song during its set. Here, the Tonhalle’s architecture, which didn’t allow the band to hang its P.A. system, demanded a full last-minute reinvention.
When the booking agent arrived, looking abashed, Mr. Barrow told him the place was “a nightmare.” Instruments made boomy echoes as the sound crew frantically tweaked every painstakingly chosen setting.
“This could be the last time we ever go on the road,” Mr. Barrow said. “It might not be, but it might be. So the reality is that playing a really bad-sounding gig — well, it hurts when we play.”
It wasn’t so bad, really. Echoes were absorbed by the 2,700 bodies in the packed house; Ms. Gibbons, clutching the microphone with both hands like someone clinging to a life raft, sang with doleful passion. As the band unveiled the relentless drumbeat, dissonant keyboard and jabbing guitar line of a new song, “We Carry On,” the shy Ms. Gibbons left the stage for the photographers’ pit, shaking hands with overjoyed fans.
“Just trying to kiss them and give them a cheap thrill,” she said backstage afterward. The tragic face she brings to her songs onstage was gone; she was giddy, even giggly. The show had turned into a rock concert, and an enthusiastic visitor bubbled over with compliments for Ms. Gibbons’s singing.
Her smile disappeared, and her face grew apprehensive. “It’s never good enough,” she said.