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Portico Quartet: Slightly Sinister, Soft And Steely

Six years ago, the schoolmates in The Portico Quartet started busking outside London's National Museum to hone their sound, and eventually ended up with a record deal. The sophistication and complexity of their music belies the band members' ages -- they're barely into their 20s -- but not everyone gets a Steve Reich record for their 15th birthday, the way Portico percussionist Nick Mulvey did. The group's sound mixes the flavor of indigenous percussive music with a heady, chamber-jazz rigor, creating sounds both ethereal and musically solid.

"The Visitor" opens with a delayed, muted whisper of reedy sax, which leads into a walking, slightly sinister bass and drum rhythm. The saxophone returns with a plaintive melody, not unlike a melodion floating over the thick aural smoke of a dub reggae classic. A recent Swiss invention called a hang -- a lap drum that looks a bit like two woks welded together -- chimes in with a soft, steely sound.

Over the slow, reverberating bass, the notes from the hang hover like silver drops of water in the air. The piece builds up to a soaring, sax-led chorus, but gently works its way back to the original melody. A spare, spacey bridge leads back to the chorus, which feels more frayed and edgy, with the saxophone pushing hard toward pure noise, but getting cut off at the pass by the gentle sounds of the hang, drum and bass, which restate the theme before whispering goodbye.

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Cecile Cloutier