The Portal Tapes
posted on 5/2012 By:
When these tracks were initially recorded in 1995, they weren’t intended as a Cynic album – they were, in fact, intended as a fairly significant departure from that band’s early days of Floridian prog-death. These tapes were intended as demos for a band called Portal, a post-Cynic project that featured Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal plus then-guitarist Jason Gobel alongside singer/keyboardist Aruna Abrams. But the band didn’t work out, the Portal closed, and Reinert and Masvidal moved on to the dreamy alt-rock of Aeon Spoke. Now, seventeen years later, the Portal demos see official release as a Cynic album, and given Cynic’s recent tendency towards the atmospheric and un-metallic, The Portal Tapes suddenly bears a more marked resemblance to the band under whose name it now sees a belated release.
So, yes, the music contained on The Portal Tapes isn’t metal, less so even than Carbon-Based Anatomy. Those fans holding out hope for some unearthed 90s tech-death genius in the vein of perfect Focus-ed perfection won’t find it here. Like Cynic circa 2010, this is atmospheric jazz-fusion-tinted prog-ish rock – all dreamy female vocals, drifting tempos, ambient keyboards, delay-drenched chords and spindly guitar runs. Still, even as it doesn’t exactly rock, it’s good in its own right, though certainly not without some stumbles.
What faults may come, however, are not in the musicianship, which is expectedly solid, even if understated. Masvidal’s jazzy guitar-work is nimble and melodic, and Reinert’s drums are expertly played, with the oft-mellow nature of the music belying somewhat the deftness of the latter’s performance. Though both are rightfully known as first-class players with serious chops, both here demonstrate a good player’s best skill – knowing how to play appropriately within the confines of the song. Bassist Chris Kringel provides a fluid, sliding low end, running and slipping beneath while the chiming chords and fleet-fingered fusion fills act as coloration above.
Sharing the lead with Masvidal, Abrams’ voice is appropriately ethereal, but it is a bit nondescript in its haunting lightness. Floating atop sweeping clean-toned guitar arpeggios, slippery fretless bass and syncopated beats, Abrams adds the air to the band’s airy approach, while Masvidal’s clean vocals provide slight contrast. But neither vocalist commands much attention away from the instruments, and it’s to the twisting ambient jazziness beneath that my ears always return. Both vocals are serviceable, but neither is exemplary, and therein lies one of Portal’s stumbling blocks. A better-realized Masvidal-ian marriage of dreamy atmospherics and prog textures would appear a decade-plus later, in Cynic’s own Carbon-Based Anatomy, which utilizes vocals more sparingly and often less as a focal point than merely as another texture in the whole.
Aside from its dispassionate vocals, The Portal Tapes primary flaw is simply that it starts to blur together into a mid-tempo, dream-paced wash after a few tunes. As good as the instrumental performances are, there’s little song variety from track to track, and as Cynic / Portal loses itself in space, there’s not enough that saves these Tapes – and shortly thereafter, the listener – from drifting into dreamland. Again, a better-realized version of this would emerge in Carbon-Based Anatomy, which both kept the listener engaged more easily and, by virtue of its EP-length run-time, allowed a quicker escape.
Nevertheless, though it runs too long and lacks (ahem) focus, there’s some merit within The Portal Tapes’ atmospheric tones. It’s an interesting snapshot of the musical core of Cynic in transition from its prog-death beginnings through Aeon Spoke and back into Cynic again, albeit a very different one by then. Had it been released in 1995 under the Cynic logo, it would’ve undoubtedly been drawn and quartered by metalheads the world throughout, but in retrospect, Portal ended up closer to Cynic than anyone would’ve thought. As it stands now, while it will likely still be reviled and/or avoided by the underground-est of undergrounders, taken in the right mindset, The Portal Tapes can be an enjoyable listen even if not always a perfectly emotionally engaging one. Fans who've followed Masvidal and Reinert this far will certainly enjoy the chance to connect the dots.
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