They went missing for ten years, and have returned as a completely different band. As it was with Tricky and his third album, they've returned in an angrier, dirt and grime-covered incarnation. The fact that I had to reference a Tricky album that nobody remembers (even if it was a massively underappreciated record) really highlights 1) how long Portishead have laid dormant, 2) how much more interesting it would have been if they'd returned with this sound several years ago. In 2000, this would have been an original and unexpected shift. In 2008, "Portishead goes goth" doesn't sound nearly as exciting.
Even the camera work in this live-in-studio performance gives it the feel of an old Kraftwerk (pre-1974) or Joy Division TV appearance. The neo-industrial percussion and twangy, distorted guitar lines make this closer to a late 1970's Cabaret Voltaire gig than anything you'd associate with electronica or hip-hop (in this or in any other year). The key problem is that Beth Gibbons' voice is completely unsuited to this style of band. Portishead have transformed but her voice remains the same, wailing out anguished blues over tunes that call for a more gravelly, frenetic, determined, and possibly even male voice. Even so, I've heard enough to be fairly certain that "Third" is the best Portishead album to date (yes, I know it has leaked but I haven't gotten a copy yet).