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Music / Portishead

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Making soundtracks for imaginary Film Noir spy movie fever dreams since 1994.note 

The other famous Trip Hop act from Bristol that helped codify and popularize the genre alongside Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead is an English band that has been rolling around the music scene since 1991, taking its name from a town eight miles west of Bristol. The band consists of the following members:

  • Beth Gibbons - vocals, occasional guitar
  • Geoff Barrow - Record Producer, DJ, sampler, keyboards, drums, multiple instruments
  • Adrian Utley - guitar, bass, keyboards

(Dave McDonald is also occasionally named their "fourth member", having served as engineer and producer and occasionally contributed instruments on all their albums.)

Portishead's famous Signature Style is a combination of hip hop-inspired breakbeats, dense production (often using samples), Utley's distorted guitars, dark and melancholic atmospheres, influences from spy film soundtracks, and Gibbons' haunting vocals, all of which are enhanced by their Film Noir aesthetics and Surreal Music Videos.

These elements brought them critical and commercial success right out the gate with their debut Dummy, but their future releases pursued harsher, darker sounds. While 1997's Portishead did away with samples and explored a more bleak and aggressive variant of trip hop, 2008's Third — the band's first studio release in 11 years following Barrow putting it on hiatus — forwent the genre completely for a sound with influences as eclectic as krautrock, surf rock, doo wop, and John Carpenter soundtracks. Ever since then, although the band has mainly kept active through occasional touring and single releases, statements from Barrow have maintained that a fourth album is still on the table.

In 1994, the band members also wrote and acted in a short film titled To Kill a Dead Man; while the whole thing is available in the bonus section of their Roseland NYC Live DVD, footage from the film was also converted into the music video for the song "Sour Times", and stills of it were used in the album art of Dummy. It did, however, also come with an opening disclaimer in which the band stated that they "had grossly underestimated how tough it is to write, design, act and perform a short film."

During their hiatuses, Barrow has worked solo, as a member of the trio Beak, and as a member of the hip-hop supergroup Quakers. Gibbons released one album with ex-Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, credited as Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man. Utley has done session and soundtrack work and was a member of jazz group Stonephace.


  • Dummy (1994)
  • Portishead (1997)
  • Roseland NYC Live (1998) - live album
  • Third (2008)

Portishead contains instances of the following tropes:

  • Accentuate the Negative: Their music is very gloomy. Taken up to eleven on Third.
  • Album Title Drop: Referenced in the very first sentence on Third, albeit in Portuguese:
    "Esteja alerta para a regra dos três / Beware the Rule of Three"
  • Creepy Child: The girl in the video for "All Mine."
  • Darker and Edgier: Every record after Dummy. While the lyrics don't get any more melancholy, the sound gets darker (Third's beat was a lot more industrial).
  • Fake Guest Star: Utley is not officially signed on with the band and is technically a guest contributor on each album, but everyone considers him a full-time member of the group.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The spoken Portuguese at the beginning of "Silence".
  • Gratuitous Panning: All of their videos.
  • In the Style of: "We Carry On" is a tribute to '60s electronic pioneers Silver Apples, who returned the favour by covering it in their live sets.
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Silence" ends in, well... Silence.
  • Mind Screw: Their short film To Kill a Dead Man. It's a spy film with no dialogue and nightmarish, paranoid imagery.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • "Deep Waters" in the middle of Third, which is a Hawaiian tune about a girl choosing to face her fears.
    • "Glory Box" is either a woman asking her husband to be a bit more caring and loving, or a cheating woman tired of cheating man asking the same question. Either way, the lyrics — and music, somewhat — aren't as sad as the rest of the songs on the album.
  • More Dakka: "Machine Gun" uses percussion to audibly apply this effect, though the song itself has nothing to do with the trope. This was used to good effect in the Metro: Last Light trailer, with the beats syncing up to gunfire.
  • New Sound Album: Portishead and Third.
  • Non-Appearing Title: A favorite trope of theirs (including their three most successful songs Glory Box (their breakthrough UK hit single), Sour Times (their big US rock radio hit) and All Mine(their highest charting UK single)
  • Retraux: To Kill a Dead Man, styled after Film Noir and spy films.
  • Sampling: From old spy film soundtracks, soul and jazz singles and, on Portishead, original material created by Barrow and Utley.
  • Shout-Out: "Wandering Star"'s title and chorus contain one to the Epistle of Jude from the New Testament of The Bible, specifically Jude 1:13 in the King James version:
    "Wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever."
  • Smoking Is Cool: Beth Gibbons is such a chain smoker that she is seldom seen without a cigarette during performances.
  • Surreal Music Video: Most of their videos.
  • Theremin: Played by Utley on "Mysterons". "Humming" also has a Theremin-ish sound, but that's actually a Moog. Both get used if — and when — they do play live.
  • Uncommon Time: A few songs on Third are in unusual time signatures. The song 'Small', for example, is partly in 11/4 time.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Everyone in the video for "Glory Box."