Review: Portugal. The Man In The Mountain In The Cloud

By Joseph Giannone 2011-07-20 22:56:01
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Portugal. The Man can seriously play any type of music they want. It’s really surprising to me that its taken them this long to gain national attention, but with the help of Atlantic Records, it has finally happened. Most fans worry about the “selling out” factor for any independent band joining the big leagues, but I’m here to reassure you: this hasn’t happened to Portugal. The Man. Quite the contrary actually, the Oregon by way of Alaska group has held their own in a sea of actual “sell outs” and un-original music. They have clearly gained better skills in recording cohesive records and learned to impeccably alter their sound, again, all thanks to the change in labels. In The Mountain In The Cloud is the newest album by the Approaching AIRballons, Portugal’s recording name, and it’s one of the best endeavors they’ve ever endured. Though this effort provides new soundscapes, sonic experimentation, and lots of synths, it does have its flaws. Still, it comes close to perfection.

Delving deep into the Glam Rock back catalog made famous by David Bowie, this album proves that it’s really hard to prescribe them to any genre. In The Mountain In The Cloud is unlike any record they’ve made. Their sensibility towards pop is still here but is refined enough to prove this is the next step in Portugal. The Man’s career. Where some may describe Censored Colors as Progressive Chamber Pop, while The Satanic Satanist was a true to form Psychedelic Pop record, their latest effort undeniably lends their style to Ziggy Stardust and T-Rex of the 1970’s. Not only does the record sound like Bowie, Marc Bolan and Portugal had a love child, but it still has that distinctive sound which is carried through on each record. Heavy synthesized atmospherics, eccentrically distorted vocals, sonic experimentation and spacey art rock takes form on this latest endeavor, but it’s all held together with their infamous harmonized pop vocals. It is evident that every album they made thus far has built each individual plank on an ever greater ladder; a ladder to their future. But what is next for this band?

Like every other Portugal. The Man album, it’s ambitious, but surprisingly the minor flaw that bothers me the most is that John Gourley and his men don’t take many real chances with this record. The issue I have with In The Mountain is that while they definitely have gotten better at song writing and no doubt treaded on new territory, their latest endeavor hasn’t gotten past the simplicity of verse/chorus/verse songwriting. I understand they want to recreate the striking song writing of The Beatles era rock music, but they have already proved themselves in that department. The men of Portugal are talented musicians. This is proven by their elaborate live shows with jamming sessions that ensue multiple times during a set. While this might be more of a personal issue, I do believe if there was higher risk taken, they could have done so much more with their sound. While I understand the need for some singles, hell Pink Floyd had “Money” on Dark Side of the Moon for that reason, but any fan would still love to see them indulge in their more progressive side more thoroughly. There are a few songs that tease at this, but stop far before anything turns into a sprawling “instrumental” section.

“All Your Light(Times Like These),” “Once Was One,” “Sleep Forever” and “Floating (Time Isn’t Working My Side)” are the shining moments in this opus that define the possible future for them. The band’s made seven albums in six years and with each year of recording, the style changes and their genres morph into a clearer sonic vision. And while those four tracks listed above were the closest to their live instrumental setting, the production value was what made the rest of their seven songs on this record almost perfect as well. Andy Wallace, the Grammy award winning mastermind behind Nirvana’s Nevermind and Jeff Buckley’s Grace, perfectly mixed this recording. Portugal’s amazing sound was brought to life due to his talent, but Santogold’s John Hill helped bring their songs together. Acting as producer, Hill stretched the very imagination of a band that has already created such an impressive catalog. Casey Bates who is a longtime friend and producer of theirs, has also come back to wrangle together every sound they’ve previously explored. Without a doubt this experienced group of people brought them to that next level of artistic expression. Though because of John Gourley’s unique view of the world, and his band’s great adaptation towards the different styles and genres they previously explored, the members moved themselves to their next plateau.

Portugal. The Man has found their sound with In The Mountain In The Cloud, and it’s exactly what any fan, me included, wants. I understand that this record carries on their ability to create amazing songs, but with a little fine tuning of priorities, their future artistic endeavors will be perfect. Any future is bright when a group radically changes their already unique style every recording. But if the quartet really wants to create a memorable record among their massive catalog, they need to utilize their rare talent to create such a raw energy of flawless psychedelic prog rock that hasn’t been made since Pink Floyd or King Crimson. Let me end on this: if they are willing to take the chance, Portugal. The Man could be the next group to create an album like Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. This time next year we’ll know for sure.

Summary: Portugal. The Man has finally found that sound which has captured audience’s attention since Waiter: “You Vultures!”. Every album they’ve made since has been a clear progression towards this record. They are fantastic musicians, but with a little more risk taken, they could possibly create the best album in years, like Radiohead did with Kid A for the 21st century. I give In The Mountain In The Cloud a 4 out of 5.
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