One of the most popular and distinctive bands in the nebulous Bristol trip hop movement, formed 1991. Portishead is made up of Geoff Barrow, who had previously written and produced for Tricky and Neneh Cherry, on drums and production, Adrian Utley, who had played jazz guitar for The Jazz Messengers, on guitar, organ, moog and theremin, and the incomparable Beth Gibbons on vocals. Despite releasing only two studio albums over their decade of existence, and a legendary aversion to media attention, Portishead has one of the most formidable, mystique-filled reputations in modern music, and has spawned a legion of imitators, some talented in their own right, some not.
Portishead's sound is an idiosyncratic melding of slow trip hop beats, distorted samples, cabaret music, film noir soundtrack, and cool jazz, all tied together by Beth Gibbons' tortured but hauntingly pure vocals.
When Dummy, their first album was released in 1994, it seemed to have come out of nowhere. Relatively few people had heard Massive Attack's pioneering Blue Lines, and even those that had had no real idea that what Massive Attack had started could be taken in this direction. Fueled by buzz and heavy MTV rotation of the Sour Times video, Dummy became a moderate popular success, and one of the most critically lionized albums of the early '90s.
When I first heard Dummy, I must have been around 14, and I can still remember, very clearly, what a revelation it was to me, and a lot of people my age and a bit older, that music could take this kind of form. None of us really knew anything about the context of the Bristol scene, or what trip hop was, if we'd even heard the phrase, but Dummy was one of those rare albums that picked you up, whirled you away, and then set you down again 45 minutes later in an entirely different world.
After the success of Dummy, Portishead disappeared again, avoiding media attention as much as possible. They only really resurfaced again in 1997, with the release of their second, self-titled album. Many people were expecting another album like Dummy which would be absorbing from the first listen, and they were disappointed by the much denser Portishead, which only really opens up after repeated listenings. To me, Portishead is the better, more mature of the two albums, but many people never got into it.
Their last major release to date was a live album, Roseland NYC Live, in 1998, which contained no new songs, but was an interesting reworking of their previous material, backed by a 35-piece orchestra.
Since then the band seems to have once more gone to ground entirely. Reportedly, they are planning a new album, but no information about it is available, least of all a tentative release date, and much as I love Portishead, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this latest album never actually came about.