PORTISHEAD Portishead (Go! Beat)

Three years after "Dummy" turned the Bristol trip-hop trio into coffee-table fodder, Portishead return with another carefully controlled statement of intent that positively reeks moodiness before you even play it: perhaps it has something to do with the black and white cover photography, or the distinctly sixties typography, but if even you’d never encountered the shadowy world of Portishead before you’d cotton on to the fact that you were not about to encounter a sensurround widescreen popcorn movie of an experience.

Like the new Björk album, "Portishead" is a wintry, chilly listen, one that’ll have you turning the central heating up and rummaging around for hot water bottles every time you dare to play it. The atmosphere is very much like "Dummy", except without the redemptive, cleansing power of "Glory Box" at the end of the misery, and no half-time treats like "It Could Be Sweet": "Portishead" is the gloom, the whole gloom and nothing but the gloom.

After about a dozen listens I’m bordering on hailing it as a great album, despite actually falling asleep during a few of those plays (no criticism implied, Portishead being the sort of band whose music you automatically reach for when the going gets hazy). It deserves some kind of praise for its sheer unrelenting atmosphere; Joy Division and "Berlin"-era Lou Reed could also get away with such bleakness, but nobody else until now. Beth Gibbons’ singing is at its most sinuous here, usually buried Mark E Smith style beneath a barrage of effects and occasionally, notably on "Cowboys" and "Seven Months", put through some kinda gubbins that turns her into Shirley Bassey. The musical backdrop is, well, samey, to put it mildly, but after a few listens you start to notice different shades in the greyness, such as the way "Half Day Closing" woozes, seemingly buried under itself, the sparse use of samples and restrained scratching. It’s not the kind of album that will tarnish quickly, or, again like the Björk album, an album anyone would rightly claim to ‘love’, it’s far too emotionally complex for glib plaudits like that. Still, some people, maybe myself included, will treasure "Portishead" for the way it makes every other record they own look that bit brighter and more colourful.

PORTISHEAD Roseland NYC Live (Go! Beat)

In what seems to be turning into the season for unexpectedly delightful live albums (see the Spiritualized review below for further details) Portishead release the bats of their 1997 Roseland Ballroom gig, played to showcase material from their eponymous second album a few months before its release, and also filmed (an edited version was screened on Channel 4 a few months back, and you can buy the whole kit caboodle if that’s what you’re into).

Whilst not as overwhelming an experience as the Spiritualized album, "Roseland NYC Live" still shows the band in a favourable light. Backed up by a 28-piece orchestra they deliver all the evidence you could possibly require to confirm those nagging suspicions that their difficult second album was actually every bit as fine as its illustrious forebear. But the highlights are in the details: check out Geoff Barrow’s dextrous virtuoso scratching at the beginning of "Only You", for example, or the fairground music that closes "Half Day Closing", surely a Portishead classic. And then there’s "Glory Box", of course, which is as majestic and chilling as ever.

If you have both their previous albums, "Roseland NYC Live" adds little to what you know and love already, but makes a pretty solid case for purchase nevertheless. And if you haven’t let some Portishead into your life yet, it could just be the perfect place to start. (Gift alert: the vinyl copy comes with a smart two-sided poster!)

PORTISHEAD Third (Island)

It’s not as though I desperately crave Hollywood-style escapism from my entertainment dollar, but “Third” must be one of the most anguished frozen howls of a record I’ve ever clapped ears on. It makes Big Star’s difficult, magnificent “Third/Sister Lovers” sound like “Red Rose Speedway” in comparison. Portishead deserve kudos for maintaining a level of critical and commercial success whilst serving up music even icier than their previous albums, but does this ever sound like punishment.

The flip soundbite summation of “Third” is that it’s the “In Rainbows” you can dance to. Well, I’m no student of the terpsichorean muse, but to me these slow, blasted soundscapes are dance music only in the same way the Aphex Twin at his most obstreperous is dance music. Maybe “the Joy Division you can’t dance to” might be nearer the mark, as that band, circa “Unknown Pleasures” overhangs this album like a shadow. Well, that’s when they’re not fashioning Nico-meets-Scott Walker snow sculpture ballads like “Hunter”, or tracing a line from ominous, Mogwai-esque guitar figures through a panda-eyed and poisoned version of Broadcast’s 60s pop pastiches to twangling spaghetti western soundtracks on “Small”. There’s a brief respite with the Tiny Tim moment of “Deep Water”, all ukuleles and crooning, but then you’re plunged into “Machine Gun”, the first single, an astonishingly brutal comeback bid, its staggering, staccato beats perhaps being the Metallica you can dance to. “Plastic” seems to be partially instrumented by glitching cellphone static, and “We Carry On” is frighteningly oppressive “Metropolis” machine music. “Magic Doors” opens with a test tone before launching a face-slapping attack with what seems like real percussion, a hurdy gurdy (which sounds like synthesised bagpipes) and a sax that skronks like a wounded animal. Amidst all this rigorous experimentation, there is one moment of awesome, unmitigated genius which, perhaps not coincidentally, finds the album at its most Radiohead-esque: “The Rip” is a mad meld of electro-bluegrass, Bach toccatas and drifting vocal loops, and it justifies the purchase of “Third” all by itself. Beth Gibbons’ singing voice has found new, more extreme forms to match the challenges posed by the music. Having shed every last vestige of the diva-esque brassiness she once brought to “Glory Box”, here she whimpers, she moans, and, at the close of “Threads”, resorts to a kind of demented bleating. It’s not at all pretty, but it’s certainly powerful.

“Third” is the strongest of medicines, an album that’s much easier to admire than like. It’ll make every other record you own seem that little bit warmer and more welcoming, which is definitely some kind of achievement.

PORTISHEAD Dummy (Go Beat) 

It's near-impossible to hear Portishead's debut album nowadays unencumbered by the 15 years of baggage it's accumulated since its release: how it spawned a landslide of far less interesting and innovative coffee table trip-hop that would rapidly bring the genre into disrepute; the prolonged inactivity that would characterise much of the band's subsequent but happily continuing career. Fortunately, though, "Dummy" still retains the chilly alien thrill that stood it apart in Britpop's first summer.

On "Sour Times" Beth Gibbons turns the torch song template inside out, sounding like Billie Holliday crashing a cold war spy movie soundtrack. "Strangers" is still utterly strange, with its opening Weather Report sample, distant fuzz guitar stings and sudden shifts from what sounds like a phoned-in ad hoc demo to a full blown studio production. (On the subject of the album's production, it's not necessarily noticeable unless listening on headphones and/or somebody points it out that the entire album is practically mono, perhaps explaining its scything sonic attack.) In this context, "It Could Be Sweet" is almost a thaw, albeit one couched in utterly hopeless negativity. "Roads" restores the impossibly bitter ache that suffuses much of the album, and never mind sounding sad upon the radio, Johnny Ray sounds positively tortured at being scratched in slow motion throughout "Biscuit". "Glory Box", though, is the album's, and perhaps Portishead's, masterpiece. Built on the same brooding Isaac Hayes sample as Tricky's "Hell Is Round The Corner" it's defiant and defensive, sassy and tender, with Adrian Utley's guitar sounding at times like a wounded animal.

"Dummy" still sounds futuristic even though it's a decade-and-a-half old. That's got to count for something, surely.  The current EU vinyl pressing, incidentally, is a cracking good sounding record.