I am ashamed to say that I had never actually heard the original release of Portico Quartet's highly acclaimed album Knee Deep In The North Sea. I'm not normally receptive to re-releases, as it always seems to me like a ploy to garner attention for tracks which bands/management companies feel deserve more publicity, but with this album having been nominated for a Mercury Award it was hardly overlooked. Having become a fan of the band when Isla came out, I was very interested to see how this album would sound.

From the moment the opening strains of 'News From Verona' sensuously slip into my ears, it's clear that Portico Quartet more than deserve their reputation as masters of the ambient. With so much emphasis on the electronic, nowadays, it's very refreshing to hear such beautifully layered, complex sounds created with instruments alone. The band consist of drums, tuned percussion (mainly the 'hang', which has a very similar sound to steel drums, although without the piercing irritability of the latter), double bass and saxophone.

As I'm sure you all know, the double bass, when played well, is so much more than simply an interesting alternative to bass guitar. Throughout this album it is used to its fullest extent, providing everything from rhythmic momentum to texture to a soulful solemn undertone that the fleeting, flighty notes of the tenor sax.

Often mentioned alongside minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass, to solely compare Portico Quartet to musicians of this type does them a huge disservice. In this album there are elements of Mr Scruff, Mike Oldfield, Fila Brazilia, although there is never any hint of imitation, rather of a shared love for particular sounds and styles; no-one could doubt that their sound is entirely their own.

Despite the perceived limitations of only having four instruments and no electronics to bolster the sound (and they are only perceived, every track is bursting with musicality and technical skill) Knee Deep In The North Sea is an incredibly diverse album, ranging from the unbearably funky 'Something's Going Down On Zavadovski Island' to the film-noir style of 'Steps In The Wrong Direction' to 'Monsoon', which alternates seamlessly between sublime smoothness and crazy improvisation. Some tracks, such as Kon Tiki Expedition, definitely lean more towards their minimalist influences, with repetitive, layered motifs, but other, such as 'Pompidou' (a beautifully smooth piece in 3/4, and my personal favourite) wouldn't feel out of place in a French dancehall in the 30s.

New to this release of the album are three live tracks, one of which ('All The Prices Matter') wasn't actually featured on the original release. It's always interesting to listen to live recordings, especially of an instrumental band, and I have to say that these are spectacular. Without losing any of the tightness of the album versions (a truly phenomenal feat) they nevertheless manage to bring a new dimension to the tracks, a sense of intimacy, of freer expression, that takes them to a whole other level.

If I had to criticise this album at all, and it's not an easy feat, I would say that some of the improvised passages go slightly too far; I prefer my ambience to be tonal, rather than dissonant. But that's an entirely personal preference, and shouldn't in any way detract from the fact that this album is a work of art that you should definitely own.

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