Listen to this track by scene-solidifying Bristolian trip-hop trio Portishead. It’s “Glory Box”, the closing track to their Mercury Prize-winning 1994 album Dummy. That release set the music press alight with praise even before the band cinched the prize, of course. Part of what it achieved was to shed light on the scene in Bristol which had been brewing for some time by 1994, and before the term “trip-hop” was widely used.
That “Bristol sound” as it was known focused on an amalgam of musical ingredients that certainly included hip hop, but also sixties soundtrack music, dub, soul, jazz, and the blues, among others. The magic to be found in Portishead’s music, with “Glory Box” being a fine example, was that it was very difficult to tell which texture was laid down by the band live in the studio, and which textures they’d sampled from vintage vinyl. There are no seams here on that front, just pure atmosphere.
In this, Portishead were the spearhead for a trend that would become de rigueur for many acts for the rest of the decade and beyond, which was to tie disparate musical landscapes together with a flair for the cinematic. And it proved too that sampled music could do what many traditional genres of music could do, which was to evoke a unified sense of narrative that connects with the human experience in some way.
One of the key advantages to sampled music is that it sparks a sense of familiarity in the listener, and incorporates a new musical dimension to the proceedings as it does so. That new dimension is context, which becomes as important as melody, harmony, rhythm, and tone. “Glory Box” uses a musically descending theme by sampling Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap 2”, married to the lines that the band add themselves, most notably Beth Gibbons’ torchy Eartha Kitt-esque vocal lines that make it sound as though her voice is sampled as well. This is not to mention guitarist Adrian Utley’s growling and squalling guitar lines, and multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow’s aural landscaping that brings it all together. That’s where Portishead excelled on this song, and on the whole of Dummy. They understood texture enough to find the commonalities between their source material and the musical interests from each member, and their original recorded work. They were able to successfully place it all into a shared context to the point that while you’re listening, it’s very difficult to separate the parts, if you’re even compelled to do that.
This is another way that this song is so cinematic. It lends itself to being re-contextualized again for other narratives. As such it’s been used extensively in film and television. To an even wider degree, this approach to crafted samples to studio performances helped to establish a form of music that goes beyond the dynamic of listeners being invited to simply spot the samples as a nod to a musical context of the past. “Glory Box” is about blurring the lines between old and new completely to get past that, and into a more emotionally involved space. “Ike’s Rap 2”, and indeed all of the “raps” in the original sense of that term Isaac Hayes laid down during his late sixties and early seventies heyday were basically acting performances as set to an instrumental backdrop. “Glory Box” takes that intrinsic sense of the dramatic, and adds a new narrative to it, keeping the gravitas, but adding a new voice; that of a tired temptress who has finished playing with love, and who finds herself emotionally adrift, begging a lover to anchor her and to allow her to be herself outside of any roles she may once have taken on.
That’s another thing, too. There is a real emotional centre to this tune, just as there is with so many traditionally realized pop songs. There’s a whole little movie that could be based around the narrative on offer here. Like so many pop songs, this tune is ultimately about finding commonalities in the human experience as a means to connect with an audience. Despite the sophisticated nature of how the music has been delivered on a technological side, and how much attention to detail it must have taken to bring the sampled material in with the parts laid down by the band in the studio, this is love song that wins just because of the sheer humanity it embodies. “Glory Box” is a soundtrack to a human drama in this regard, concerned with inner turmoil and with an outstretched hand to another to ease the pain. Who can’t relate to that?
Portishead is an active, if slow-moving, band today. You can learn more about them and about what individual members are up to by visiting portishead.co.uk.