When automation distances us from our work, when it gets between us and the world, it erases the artistry from our lives – Nicholas Carr, “The Glass Cage” (2015)

Originally formed in London in 2005 as an acoustic jazz quartet, Portico Quartet have since ventured into electronica and ambient music and released four original albums to date. What has consistently defined the unique sound of the band and set them apart is their use of the hang, a steel percussion instrument derived from the chromatically pitched steelpan and originally developed in 2000 in Switzerland.

After Living Fields in 2015, an electronic pop album as a trio for Ninja Tunes featuring guest vocalists, Portico Quartet return with a new recording featuring Duncan Bellamy on drums and electronics, Jack Wyllie on saxophones and keyboards, Milo Fitzpatrick on electric and double-bass and Keir Vine on hang and keyboards. Released on 25 August 2017, Art in the Age of Automation also marks the quartet’s début for Manchester-based label Gondwana Records.

Portico Quartet - Art in the Age of Automation (2017)
Portico Quartet – Art in the Age of Automation (2017)

From the outset, Art in the Age of Automation introduces a much more layered sound with polyrhythms and drum beats, “treated” electronics and strings. With Duncan Bellamy and Jack Wyllie sharing the writing credits for all the songs on the album, it is the signature sound of the hang drum 25’’ into “Endless” that signals the return of the much-loved Portico Quartet sound.

We wanted to use acoustic instruments but find ways in which they could interact with more modern production techniques and technologies to create something that was identifiably us but sounded fresh and exciting, futuristic even.

This constant blending of electronic and acoustic sounds – making it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two – is at the heart of the album concept as hinted by its title. Artificial Intelligence in the form of automation and computer aided programming are influencing many aspects of our daily lives – manufacturing of course, but also transport, health, construction, finance, education and even warfare.

Automated tasks supported by word processing software, graphics editors, search algorithms or digital audio workstations are also increasingly encroaching on traditional artistic disciplines. But without human interaction and input, machines and software remain a lifeless combination of hardware and code.

It’s exciting working with a string section and to hear the ideas you sketch on a computer being played on acoustic instruments, then being able to direct them in a way in which is just not possible on a computer, it brings a real emotional depth and nuance to the record.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that British jazz trio GoGo Penguin’s recent Man Made Object also formulated a similar interrogation. On Art in the Age of Automation, this “human touch” is even represented on the cover artwork (Duncan Bellamy does all the design and visuals for the band) in the form of fingerprints on an iPad screen.

A track like “Rushing” also underlines the minimalist inclination of the band and showcases how they blend that approach with sustained electronica while many other songs feature a heavy drum & bass rhythm section, aerial saxophone loops and skittering beats throughout. Beautiful motifs on the hang drum ornate the title track along sweeping “analogue” strings eventually disintegrating into a short electronic interlude. A very dense production, Art in the Age of Automation gradually unveils a hypnotic brand of electro jazz that begs to be unleashed live on stage.