Portable: Version

On his ~scape debut, Portable (Alan Abrahams) tampers little with the riveting African-house fusion heard on 2003's Cycling (Background Records) but that's neither a criticism nor a complaint, given how incredible Version's nine tracks sound. Born and raised in South Africa and a London resident since 1997, Alan Abrahams again merges traditional African rhythms and instruments with house and techno in captivating manner. It's not so much Portable's masterful weaving of instruments and layers that's innovative (other artists do the same in equally deft manner) but more his exotic sound palette. Abrahams digitally merges minuscule electronic particles with samples of traditional African sounds, resulting in tracks that sound both current and timeless. That latter quality derives in large part from his sources, specifically field recordings made at various locations throughout the vast African continent and compiled over many decades. In less talented hands, the musical results might be no better than a vulgar 'world music' pastiche; Abrahams, by contrast, alchemizes the material into a deeply original and fresh re-invention of techno and house.

Portable's songs are mesmerizing marvels of construction. While a lonely guitar riff opens “Ebb and Flow” evocatively, the spotlight gradually shifts to hollow croaking sounds and increasingly dense patterns of shakers and drums; most memorably, a wooden flute call initially lurking in the background moves to the forefront, warbling loudly like a distressed bird. Though electronic splatter jumpstarts “Down Stream,” the track quickly segues into streaming house pulsations overlaid by incessant thrums of percussion and phantom voices. Hypnotic swirls of voice samples, smears, and panning textures verge on vertiginous in “Temporal Distortion” while the croaking voice fragments that pepper bumping rhythms in “Tempura” are as reminiscent of Kraftwerk as Africa. In the album's most impressive outing, the ruminative mood that initially dominates “Typhoon” is swept way by a bewitching storm of voices, clangs, and horns. Portable's music constitutes a near-perfect mind-body fusion, one as satisfying for the body as the intellect; one can just as easily appreciate the masterful compositional layering and textural richness of “Notions of Slow and Fast are Set at Naught” as surrender to its hypnotically potent polyrhythms, a quality that extends to Version in its entirety.

June 2005