Review Summary: "Such a lovely melody is running through my head. Let me play it for you."
Portishead, one of the three distinctive jewels in the trip-hop crown, may finally quench the ever-increasing thirst of all of the genre’s fans tomorrow, with their first album release in over a decade, in ‘Third’. I am one of these fans, no doubt about that, but there is no swell in the back of my throat, in fact, my tongue is as wet as a water-fight in a carwash. Why? That is down to my recent discovery of movie-score and ‘Sunday Munich’ mastermind Menton J. Matthews’ trip-hop/modern classical project ‘Saltillo’ and their 2006 album “Ganglion”.
Borrowing and utilizing aspects which make each jewel shine so bright in the coveted crown; Saltillo has managed to make an album which is at once dark and solemnly moody, uplifting and heart-achingly intense, cool and dangerously catchy. Bobbing and weaving in and out of genres, Saltillo never quite stays still, and even when it does, it hides behind the pillars of ambiguity, and is all the better for it. The chamber orchestra compositions give the album a fierce individuality when showcased against its obvious influences, yet accessibility is never compromised as this is one of the most listenable trip-hop albums I’ve ever heard.
A sombre violin tune on ‘A Necessary End’ begins the album, to be closely followed by the first of many vocal samples sitting atop of expressively broken beats. Not opting for the upbeat first track, we are plunged into an ocean of melancholy, a tale of death and meaning, from which there seems no return. This track immediately showcases Matthews’ impeccable timing and his wife Sarah’s hauntingly poignant voice. But it is surpassed by the next track, ‘Giving In’, possibly my favourite track on the album. Sarah Matthews’ voice here is just stunningly moving in its mellow, fragile resonance and it really gives the song a humanly warming quality that would be lacking without it. ‘Remember Me?’ is the first track without vocals, and it flows with a splintered rhythm which is insanely hard to not tap along to.
‘Hair on the Head of John the Baptist’ is just an excellent track. If you are to download a track which puts Saltillo under the spotlight, this is the one. If DJ Shadow were around to score Shakespeare plays, they would have sounded something like this. A bluesy soulful voice bellows out the ultra-catchy line “hair on the head of John the Baptist” to a dense surrounding of intelligent breakbeats and simple pianos. One of the albums highlights is when the song appears to be over, ending to the quote of “I loved you not” only to suddenly pick back up again in dramatic fashion. Energetic and focused, ‘Blood and Milk’ highlights Matthews’ special talent of picking out and placing perfect samples in a way that only Shadow himself exceeds. Shadow’s ‘Right Thing’ may come to mind when listening to the trip-hop heavy ‘Backyard Pond’. Extremely scattered in its approach, an anaesthetizing melody is laid out over complicated blips and screeches and ethereal samples, all coming together to create a surreal jigsaw of easy-to-swallow, hard-to-digest complexities.
Rounding up the album, ‘Grafting’ sounds as if the earth itself managed to find a violin and a drum machine and construct an, ironically, otherworldly sound. Extremely organic but strangely disconnected, the plaintive violins are interrupted by the fluctuating raw intensities of Mercer’s distinctive voice, while the backbeats keep the song tied to the ground. Sarah Matthews returns for the penultimate track ‘I’m On the Wrong Side’ and is much welcomed by the listener. Her voice isn’t perfect, but it hangs so delicately in the album’s dark mist that you get the feeling that if it were any different it may just collapse. A very short track, it brings Portishead to the forefront of the memory bank. Finishing with a completely piano-made track, '002 F#m', Matthews brings the album to a close with elegance and style.
With “Ganglion”, Saltillo has truly thrown down the gauntlet over what it means to create a truly original trip-hop album in today’s music scene. It’s not perfect of course; ‘Praise’ is an oddly stale and skippable track and ‘A Simpler Test’, though a great song, features turntablism which is too frantic and electronics and samples too crude and impersonal when put against the record’s other more humane songs. Whether it will stand the test of time that the crown jewels have remains to be seen, but for now, it quite dramatically stakes a claim for there to be a new throne constructed in the trip-hop hierarchy, one which could only seat the intricacies of Saltillo’s beautiful, fractured, wholly immersive neo-classical creation.