Newer metal bands in the mid-2000s went one of few ways: the competition among users of extreme techniques caused a degree of one-upmanship that obscured the message of the music of “technical” bands, while the desire to get the audience to move caused the compositions of -core bands to be infiltrated by danceable open-note rhythms, and those left outside these groups grew more and more abstract in execution as if to rebel against conventional songwriting. The issue here is that all three avenues, despite the latter being the most declarative, require an aesthetic sleight-of-hand to mask the lack of authoritative message in composition while the music is steered with the effects on the listener in mind rather than coming from the innate desire of a composer to communicate. Portal, along with Ulcerate and Deathspell Omega, ushered in a style of metal that is entirely rooted in audience manipulation through a reliance on discordance that borders on desperation. A challenge in viewing bands like this objectively is that it is difficult to fully understand whether the intent is holistically realized or if the sound and execution is the result of having no spirit of communication beyond purely aesthetic virtues. Perhaps the evolution in sound was the understanding that metal did need to progress, and although there were surely undiscovered ways to do so, an analysis of all prior compositions reveal that metal was comprised of a multitude of expressions utilizing the same symbols: songs needed intros, various types of phrases that build tension, bridges, climaxes, and resolutions, and the catalog of conventional music that we have is constructed of various shufflings of these elements. So, although a new act could in theory have a unique approach to music, they were essentially draping a new skin on a tired skeleton. Metal, and music in general, had to go somewhere and it had to be led by someone that had a clear vision of something to communicate. And most importantly, it had to be done so without a reliance on the tropes that human nature has formulated with respect to the idea of song; ultimately, it needed to cripple it from within.
Is Portal the band to breach these waters, or are the efforts of the band a reflection of a lack of having anything to say intrinsically while still being able to coast on a formulaic command of discordant textures where fully realized phrases once guided the listener through a narrative journey?
It is difficult to say- we are now five full-length releases into the band’s catalog and the overall approach has not changed, which could either display an authoritative control on creative pursuits or the scraping of a fully-cashed barrel when the need to release something recorded arises. If I were to make a conventional comparison for those unfamiliar with the band, imagine the trance-like elements of Transilvanian Hunger but instead of the command of majestic melody anchored by an unrelenting pulse, Portal’s sound is that of a bag of potato chips being crumpled in each of your ears over blast-beating drums and occasional tribal passages. The aforementioned symbols present in musical tropes such as climax and resolution that anchor structuring are mostly thrown by the wayside in favor of undulating waves of ebb and flow. Most of the guitar work is a tremolo-picked nightmare that gives strident middle-fingers to the idea of space or dynamics. Resembling a spontaneous overgrowth of virulent flora where your only respite comes in the form of tempo-shifts which still carry a never ending tremolo-picked barrage, the music unfortunately becomes a dull wallpaper as your ears adjust to the extremity and ultimately leave you unmoved by material that should be holistically disturbing. Prior to this release, thematic presence was essentially limited to one memorable phrase in the song “13 Globes” on Outre (their second full-length), and here on Ion there is an effort, albeit a very minimal one, to anchor the occasional track with a dynamic passage, such as the insectile climax (!) of “Phreqs” and the shambling final passages of “Olde Guarde.” What further makes this release a bit more palatable is the use of standard tuning which contrasts greatly with their previous reliance on down-tuned eight-string guitars, and coupled with their best production yet, the material is almost vibrant, at least as much as the band would want it to be. Despite everything being audible for the first time, the issue with the approach of the band is that the nature of their attack presents an inversion of metal listening in that you look for the vocals to anchor the songs as the music fades into the background. Portal needs to understand that you can be psychologically horrifying without amplifying your presence in a way that develops a plague on dynamism and melodic construction. Given that those elements of musical communication are dependent on a human variable they are most likely neglected by the band on purpose, but to the metal listener who has encountered concrete yet sublime expressions in extreme acts this approach will leave a lot to be desired.