Tuesday, October 11th 2011
The Sound Academy, a venue situated a couple of miles outside of downtown Toronto, and possessing one of the most beautiful views of the city’s skyline, is arguably the most inhospitable and anarchic venue in the entire city. It is unfortunate that a band of Portishead’s prestige and importance, playing their first shows in Toronto after 14 long years, were booked to perform at this unwelcoming venue. Thankfully though, on (Canadian) Thanksgiving Day, Portishead’s remarkable near-two-hour set broke the expected conventions of a typical Sound Academy show, and transported every fan in attendance to a trance-like state of silence and awe; an astonishing feat for anybody who has stepped into that unpleasant venue.
From the moment the opening band, Thought Forms, walked on stage, the atmosphere that was to encompass the night was established. The still-growing crowd listened silently as the Wiltshire-based trio played four very complex and captivating post-rock pieces, each slowly building up from simple chords or distant croons into whole and ever-changing songs, with a complexity that evidently took influence from a wide array of musical forms ranging from South Asian melodies to the dark ambience of post-rock giants such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. With a guitar hunched on her back, Charlie Romijn played the flute on the first track, as Deej Dhariwal, gently crooned abstruse words onto a microphone, and gradually, layer upon layer was built on that simple formula, with each song expanding and exploding into glimmering soundscapes throughout a 45-minute set. The audience’s applause increased with every song – each piece dissimilar yet consistent, one resembling classical Indian ambiences while the other provoked the organic-ness of a Saucerful of Secrets-era Pink Floyd tune. It was surely a highly impressive set by a very promising band. Most of the audience was still applauding as the band was preparing to leave the stage.
Having invited a trio of post-rockers on the road with them, Portishead lay bare a significant aspect in their constant evolution. Post-rock was expanding as a genre in the late 1990s, a time that also marked Portishead’s sudden decade-long retreat from the musical landscape. Since then the genre has gradually made its way to the mainstream in the form of bands such as Mogwai, Sigur Ros, and Explosions in the Sky. When the Bristol-based band returned in 2007 with their excellent album Third, they had almost transformed into a whole new band, still encapsulating the darkness of their previous decade’s work, but under a heavier, more mature – and many would say – more frightening guise. Having catapulted back onto the heights of both artistry and relevancy, not many bands have had as much a successful reawakening as has Portishead, and the simple fact that an unabashed post-rock band has joined them on their much-anticipated tour, proves that they are once again ready to keep step with the times and reinvent themselves, much like they did with Third.
The house lights turned off at exactly 9:15, and the familiar voice of a Spanish narrator echoed throughout the venue. It was of, course, the recognizable opening narration from Silence, the first song off Third. One by one, the band stepped onto the stage. A large LED screen towered behind them as the iconic “P” emblem materialized on its surface, and Beth Gibbons’ cold and mesmerizing voice guided the song forward. The screen displayed an eerie black-and-white live feed of the band performing, with cameras situated all over the stage, capturing and manipulating what was on stage in haunting configurations onto the gigantic monitor. From the very first song, the customarily loud and obnoxious Sound Academy crowd stood silently, frozen onto the floor, unable to take their eyes off the musicians performing with such preciseness on the stage; almost religiously moving to and fro to the ghostly instrumentation and the chilling and distant vocals of Gibbons who, shy yet utterly commanding, stood at the forefront.
It was when Adrian Utley played the familiar chords of Mysterons from the band’s 1994 classic Dummy that the fans truly came to life, singing along discreetly so as not to disrupt the ethereal mood of the long-awaited performance. The song, nearly two decades old, hadn’t aged a day. The same could be said for the soothing renditions of Sour Times, Glory Box, Roads, and a wonderfully stripped down version of Wandering Star, wherein which Gibbons and Geoff Barrow, unaccompanied by their other bandmates, gave the song a whole new life. The band had indeed rearranged some of the songs from their earlier catalogue to suit the modern-day sonic atmosphere, dusting off the sounds that hadn’t aged too well during their decade-long absence and replacing them with more electronic-based fixtures. However, the very old-school DJ scratching methods of songs such as Over were left untouched, that, while in no way or form novel, did not take away from the loud, chilling, and unrelenting performance.
Machine Gun, arguably one of the night’s highlights, reverberated through the crowd minutes after the song had ended, with its beating drum-machines and fierce instrumentation; and one can never forget the effectiveness of Beth Gibbons’ unique and original vocal stylistics, which shred that very thin line between despair and ferocity.
After a nostalgic yet updated version of Glory Box, the band quickly switched from old to new, tearing through a stunning performance of their newest song, Chase the Tear, before fully immersing themselves into perhaps the most unsettling song of the night, the always frightening Threads, which saw Gibbons repeatedly scream into the microphone: “I’m tired and worn;” her words echoing, reverberating, preying on the air for long moments after they had fittingly ended their set.
The night, however, continued with a two-song encore of Roads and We Carry On; the latter, staying true to its namesake, took a life of its own, and carried both the audience and the musicians with it for a lengthy period of time. Gibbons took this time to walk down towards the barricade and greet the fans, her palms touching those of her audience; a slow, creeping touch – or maybe that was simply an effect built on by the increasingly chilling music still being performed on stage.
Long after the band had said their thank-yous and goodbyes and the houselights had awakened the crowd from their near two-hour-long trance from Portishead’s dark musical domains, the music still resonated – over the perplexingly cheerful Arnold Layne that was now playing from the venues speakers, over the fans beseeching the stage-crew for a setlist, over those at the merchandise stands, in coat-check lines, and those on their way out. A lot has changed in the 14 years since Portishead last came to Toronto, but it is impossible to think that the audience who walked out of The Warehouse in 1997 did not experience the very same after-effects of a Portishead show: haunted, reposed and in absolute awe.
Chase the Tear
We Carry On