In 1994 UK trip-hop trio Portishead made creeping dread a viable commercial prospect on its popular and influential album "Dummy," and ubiquitous single "Sour Times." Beth Gibbons's woozy warbling, the hint of a tinkling piano in a distant cellar, mechanized yet unsteady beats: This was the sound of your brain on drugs, without actually needing drugs.
The group released a second album in 1997, a live collection the following year, and then quietly drifted into the ether. But that didn't prevent aspects of its narcotized aesthetic from seeping into the psyches of artists as musically diverse as Jay-Z and Radiohead.
A decade hiatus has done little to alter the Portishead perspective. On the logically titled "Third," out today, Gibbons and fellow mood junkies Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley are still mainlining film noir-ready melancholia. Yet Portishead's methods are hardly frozen in time. And that evolution is what makes these elaborately layered tracks such a knotty, mesmerizing listen.
Turntable scratching and head-bobbing grooves have been tossed overboard. In their stead are needling, high-pitched guitar riffs, braying keyboards, and thudding, time-shifting rhythms that drop out unexpectedly like trapdoors.
Overboard is the key word. Whether Gibbons is drifting in "Deep Water," a wan ukulele ode to not fighting the undertow, or singing as if already submerged in murk and under attack from radar pings on "Small," the atmosphere is elegantly liquid. Even in urgency - as alarms raise panic on "We Carry On" and drums rat-a-tat on "Machine Gun" - a dreamy, slow motion sensibility is at play.
The medium may have been tinkered with, but the message hasn't changed. Fear, confusion, depression, woundedness, you name it: If it's a bummer, it's still fodder for Gibbons and her frosty, broken-down-torch-singer voice.
"I don't know what I've done to deserve you and I don't know what I'd do without you," she worries on the multitrack moaner "Nylon Smile." Tenderness gives way to bitterness on "The Rip," which, with its flute and acoustic guitar accompaniment, sounds like pastoral English folk music until a drumbeat encroaches like a stampede.
From Portishead's point of view, the times may still be sour, but for fans of the group that's only good news.