In the beginning of the movie Annihilation, Alex Garland’s recent interpretation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, the music almost feels like a nondescript placeholder. There’s a manipulative feint in the usage of Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” which initially sets the tone: As the group of women led by Natalie Portman enter the mysterious Shimmer, there are gentle acoustic guitar figures, like basic organic representations of the wild, untamed forest they wander through. A hint of bucolic music, fitting for the wilderness.
Of course, it operates on a different level, heightening the sense of foreboding before their expedition inevitably starts to spin out of control, before they begin to go deeper into the phenomenon and deeper into their own psyches. (This is the part where I say SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen Annihilation — and if you haven’t, you really should.) When Portman reaches her destination, the lighthouse that marks the original genesis point of the Shimmer, the movie turns upside down, and the score mutates to match it.
In an underground chamber below the lighthouse, Portman encounters an alien being. Or, she encounters something. She comes face to face with an entity she can really only describe later as “not like us.” It’s made of colors and light, building blocks of existence that we know and understand, but comes together into something foreign, a floating pool or a burning cloud that steals a part of her DNA and recreates itself into something more closely resembling us, something between another creature and a human.
For anyone who’s seen Annihilation, this is the sequence that sticks out — not just because it’s the final confrontation the movie hurtles towards, but because it’s so haunting and beautiful at the same time, from the psychedelic wormhole of the underground chamber to the darkly balletic and metaphorical encounter between Portman and the now-humanoid alien upstairs in the lighthouse.
There is no acoustic guitar in that sequence. Far from it. The music, in fact, is as crucial to it all as the visuals and the narrative. When the … whatever it is first comes together in front of Portman, the music too morphs into this bizarre, unrecognizable form. You can understand it as synths, but the melodies move in a way that doesn’t feel natural in any music tradition from around the world; its effect is bodily, like you can feel it rearranging your cells the same as the Shimmer has done to the movie’s protagonists. It continues apace for the rest of the enigmatic climax, an unnerving and celestial sound as if we transmitted a hymn to an alien civilization and they sent us their own interpretation back.
It’s a truly stunning piece of work, Garland’s visuals intertwined with that score, which was the product of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. (It’s the fourth movie the duo have scored together overall; their first was Garland’s preceding feature, 2015’s Ex Machina.) In recent years, the movie theater is one of the main places you could find new music from Barrow. His band’s last album, Third, came out 10 years ago tomorrow; they’ve been mostly silent for a while now.
When Third came out in 2008, it was just as disorienting, just as simultaneously beautiful and horrific, as the music Barrow worked on for the finale of Annihilation. There are, in fact, moments on Third that feel like direct antecedents to the warped, smeared synth textures of Barrow’s score — the distorted backwards wave that “Plastic” drops into at its conclusion, or the sickening lack of resolution in the synth blares that close “Threads,” and thus the whole album. (Those sounds also feel like a more unsettling cousin to the Inception bwams that would dominate movie trailers within a few years of Third’s release.) The album sounded … well, alien.
Part of this was because Portishead returned, implausibly and almost out of nowhere, a full 11 years after their preceding album, 1997’s self-titled sophomore outing. And they now sounded like an almost completely different band. Their 1994 debut Dummy was one of the pivotal albums in the UK’s ’90s trip-hop scene, one of the stylistic counter-narratives in a decade otherwise dominated by Britpop. As time goes on, trip-hop is an odd one — it was mostly critically adored, and yet is one of the few genres that hasn’t undergone any cohesive or significant revival. Sure, artists like Portishead and Massive Attack provided crucial influence on Radiohead’s evolution in the late ’90s, but since then one of the only contemporary artists that comes to mind as bearing any traces of that sound would be HAELOS.
Those first two Portishead albums are still beloved, but whether Barrow got bored of it, saw it becoming dated, or was just inherently restless, it was inevitable that Portishead would depart from their trip-hop origins if/when they released something again. Artistic frustration yielded a hiatus, during which Barrow occasionally met up with Adrian Utley to try and start writing new Portishead music. Those efforts left them both dissatisfied for a while, until they began finding their way to the new version of Portishead we’d see on Third.
All the moody sexiness of old Portishead was gone, blasted away by an aggressive mix of skeletal rhythms and narcotic synths. Those old albums had their own kind of darkness to them, too, but Third was something else entirely. It was a harrowing, almost frightening, listen. Instead of hip-hop beats and scratches, the band relied on furious krautrock rhythms full of tension. Instead of Beth Gibbons providing an anchor with her smoky vocals, she now sounded frayed and broken, adrift.
Her presence could sometimes work as a salve, but more often she sounded like the human lost and under attack by the discomfiting music surrounding her, a proxy for the listener’s experience through Third’s suffocating atmosphere. The relentless churn of opener “Silence” set up the album perfectly. From there, it was all songs that dove headlong into the bleakness, with little sense of release, whether the sea-sick frenzy of “We Carry On” or the suggested violence of “Machine Gun”‘s mechanistic assault.
And in the context of Third, those are the songs that rank as more accessible; they’re the ones that move, and have a kind of unsettling allure. Elsewhere, the songs are minimal and controlled and also more intentionally diffuse — claustrophobic works that sound like staring directly, and deeply, into the void. At first, “Hunter” almost sounds like an alternate-universe Bond theme, a more strung-out descendent of the self-titled’s “All Mine.” It’s quickly ruptured by yawning distortion, and gurgling synth patterns. Maybe the sing-song ukulele interlude “Deep Water” was supposed to be a reprieve between the totemic bookends of “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun”; it winds up sounding all the creepier because you can anticipate what’s around the corner. And after all, Third ends with the aforementioned “Threads,” one of the album’s most tormented compositions even before it gives way to those final drones.
There are moments when Gibbons does provide the fragility of flesh and blood amidst the digital haze. Or, rather, there is a moment: “The Rip,” likely the most affecting and gorgeous song Portishead ever wrote, and probably their best. Maybe it’s just because their friends in Radiohead also offered their own quietly powerful reading, but “The Rip” is the song that feels like it endures beyond and outside of Third. It’s a simple song, riding along on the same chord progression throughout even as it transforms from a bare guitar-based rumination to an electronic liftoff. This would be the actual reprieve of the album, if it weren’t so sad on its own. But it does feel like a sort of skeleton key to Third, the outlier that also clarifies everything else. “The Rip” is pure melancholy amidst all the damage.
Listening back 10 years later, Third doesn’t sound like 2008. It doesn’t sound like any trend or scene. It was completely singular then, and remains so now — arriving unexpectedly and fully-formed, without clear precedent and without anyone trying to follow it since. Like Bowie’s Blackstar years later, it’s the sound of an artist emerging from the wilderness with some new vision only they can understand. The sound of someone having ventured elsewhere, seen some things, and coming back altered, offering up a document that destroys old selves and pieces them back together in a different order. It sounds like creation through annihilation.
If Portishead were to never make another album, Third would be as fitting a conclusion as any in that sense. It isn’t exactly enjoyable; it stops functioning like anything adjacent to pop music in its broadest sense. But it is a striking work of genius, something that demands you engage with it while not even necessarily promising it’ll give anything back.
A decade later, it has given us something though. It lingers, at the edges, like your most disturbing thoughts that you try to keep at bay. And when you let that overtake you, something happens — it can leave you altered, too. Portishead did that by using forms we know and understand, the building blocks. Third mimicked familiarity — there’s a synth, there’s a human voice — but tore it all apart to upend our perception of them. They built something new, something both alien and human.