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Portico Quartet
Monument Vanessa Ague , November 11th, 2021 09:00

Electronic tones come to the fore on the London-based instrumental group's second album of the year

On ‘Ultraviolet,’ the third track on Portico’s latest album, Monument, lush electronics collide with distant twinkles, and somewhere far away, above those warm instrumentals, a saxophone croons. The sound is a little jazz, a little ambient, a little post rock, which is a genre-blended style that Portico Quartet has come to perfect over six studio albums. It’s also a delicate, muted form – not necessarily ultraviolet, but vibrant nonetheless.

Monument, the group’s second album of the year, presents ten tracks of placid landscapes and waterfall melodies, continuing along the path of Portico Quartet’s established musical style. Instead of purely acoustic melodies, the album is electronics-focused, letting them wash over each acoustic melody. Each track on the album takes on a different texture: Some highlight lush saxophone melodies and laid-back rhythms; others hang in the air with dreamy stillness. Monument sounds best in these moments of subtle variation, when it gently switches course but doesn’t lose broad-stroked tranquillity. 

Much of the album is made of serene atmospheres, but the most compelling tracks dabble in the art of tension and release. ‘A.O.E.’, for example, builds up from understated dissonance and a delicate counterpoint between each instrument. Part of the way through, it quickly shifts to a fast-paced beat and noodly saxophone. These tonal shifts and mood swings give the music more colours to play with. Other tracks, like ‘Impressions’, feature a mix of prickly patterns and syncopated rhythms, but always stay the same to lesser effect.

At other points on Monument, Portico Quartet expands their pitch range to provide variety. Tracks like ‘Ever Present’ again centre the delicate melodies of the piano and saxophone, letting electronic echoes swirl around them. While most tracks on the album never stray too high or too low, this piece explores a higher register. This larger range creates more melodrama and allows them to trade pure placidity for a moodier, more spacious atmosphere. But perhaps the most surprising variety on the album is the short instrumental snippets Portico Quartet splice between the longform pieces, splitting up their ruminations with passing thoughts. It’s here that their more spontaneous impulses shine, and here that they show how well they can fit long-ranging serenity into a fleeting thought.

Monument doesn’t come as a surprise when looking at Portico Quartet’s entire catalogue. The group has made their name by blurring the lines between genres, letting multiple ideas meld into one airy texture, and this album follows suit. But it’s in the spurts of tension, the swelling melancholy, the subtle melodies, that Monument feels its most compelling. It’s there that Portico Quartet’s music becomes greater than dazzling landscapes and celestial stillness. In those brief moments of uncertainty and resolution come the greatest catharsis.