Release DetailsLABEL Profound Lore Records
RELEASED ON 2/19/2013
You will not be unmoved.
If you’ve ever encountered Portal before, you know how you feel about Portal. This is not a band to inspire neutral reactions; either the band’s subterranean, synapse-gnawing churn gives you a tug in the ol’ trousers, or it leaves you cold as an icicle of flash-frozen dog piss in Siberia. In each case, though, this is not music to leave one unmoved: in fact, I went out for a long walk during my first listen to Vexovoid, and I could almost swear I felt my legs attempting to move in heretofore untraveled, non-Euclidean vectors.
The key to Portal’s success thus far has been in the way the Australian band sounds a bit like death metal’s answer to Autechre: at first blush, this is music that superficially hews fairly closely to the hallmarks of an established set of musical gestures. As the layers get peeled back, though, each band’s music conveys the increasingly disconcerting notion that its provenance is nonhuman. Whereas Autechre’s late career random-beat-driven IDM suggests origination from an electronic intelligence so advanced as to have surpassed the normal strictures of space, time, and logic, Portal’s insidiously warped and intentionally occluded death metal seems to be the malicious exhalation of a night-stalking race of grotesque doppelgangers: the figure of a man, but with limbs protruding in several planes too many; a gale-force wind in a vacuum; a loved one’s face suddenly grown hideous as an over-polished mirror reveals momentary knowledge of dire secrets long thought locked-down and buried miles deep.
Vexovoid does very little to change Portal’s approach to composition. Where it does present a bold new step for the band is in the relative clarity of the album’s sound. Portal’s wholly wrong-sounding interpretation of death metal has nearly always been built just as much around the scuzziest kind of nearly-impenetrable sonic murk as around the band’s trope-defying songwriting. And that’s fine, really: sometimes the discerning heavy metal ear demands that songs this queasy be swathed in a “let’s eat the neighbor’s cat” sort of ugliness. But on Vexovoid, Portal drops nearly all of the characteristic scrambled density. It’s a canny move for the band to make, both at this point in their career, and at this point in the ongoing saturation of bands plumping a similarly woozy, shit-smocked misreading of death metal’s early ‘90s playbook. And most important of all, Vexovoid provides ample proof that the closer Portal gets to a conventional sound, the more crystal-clear its unconventional music becomes. Seriously, the better you can follow along with these songs, the harder it becomes to deny how perfectly fucked up they are.
Still, please don’t think I’m arguing that Portal has suddenly turned in some sort of immaculate Animals as Leaders cyber-prog. The band’s guitars often sound like idling motorcycle engines being used to strike suspension bridge pylons, like some xylophone built from repurposed perversions of crumbling industry. The bass is thick, thumping, and prominent in ways unusual for death metal. But then again, “unusual for death metal” is basically Portal’s modus operandi. The Curator’s vocals are, as usual, fantastic: a suffocating, cancerous growth that blossoms and tangles just under the surface of the mix. Listen deeply to hear the sound of being pulled slowly under. By what? To where? To “The Back Wards.” To “Awryeon.” Nowhere. Everywhere.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the visual use of language by musicians - specifically, the invention of new words, names, and vocabularies to suit a variety of musical modes. Think, for example, of the bizarre band names and song titles used by the French Legions Noires, or of any number of industrial-leaning metal bands (Aborym, Blacklodge, Red Harvest, The Amenta, etc.) that have used numbers, odd punctuation, or diacritical marks to create a new visual language through which to communicate their concepts. Portal doesn’t do that, or at least not quite. For the most part, they use typical English words, but bend them to intentionally disconcerting purposes. Scanning through Vexovoid’s lyrics (or lyrics from any previous Portal albums), one gets the impression that they take James Joyce’s irreverent polyglot wordplay and transpose it into the idiom of glowering, occult death metal.
Take this opening gambit from “The Back Wards”: “Elabyrinthinian Dementian / Chthonic Subconscious Lobotomaze / Mysterion Machinations Mesh / Suasion Aforethought / Prescriptic Figments Accost / Curing the Sane.” Most of those are actual English words, and you can mostly glean subjects and verbs, but the syntax is purposely skewed, and no thought is ever really completed. The language works like another component of the atmosphere, a shimmering surface that bends and refracts light from another spectrum, and sure, along the way it produces jarring and spectacular moments (like a personal favorite exhortation from “Awryeon”: “Substrata! In Sympathy...Resonata!”), but with Portal those moments are always subordinated to the mood.
That’s the story with the songs, too. But more so than with previous Portal albums, Vexovoid delivers some real scorching moments. The bottom drops out briefly about 3:18 into the opening track “Kilter,” catching the momentum short, slowing it down, and then clearing the space for a clean, clanging, dissonant buried arpeggio. “Plasm” closes out with a dark, deep ambient section, but that section announces itself subtly and gradually, slowly creeping in under the morass of the guitars until all of a sudden, you just sense its presence. The midsection of “The Back Wards” roils with woozy chromatic runs, and while its lengthy introduction is among the most conventional things Portal has done, “Curtain” is easily one of the best songs here. “Awyreon” almost seems like Portal’s version of an anthem, opening with nearly-heroic guitar pyrotechnics, and the same sort of focused attack appears early in “Orbmorphia,” with slashing, staccato arpeggios. “Oblotten” closes Vexovoid with pensive, swarming guitars and infrequent kicks. Even that minimalist architecture dissolves into a single, cleanly picked guitar, which finishes the album on a gentle note which, given how unexpected it is, winds up being all the more unsettling.
If it isn’t abundantly clear from reading this or any other review trying to grapple with Portal’s left-field attack and patent sense of unease, this is the kind of band that exhausts one’s typical stock of metaphors. So, fuck it, how about this: Portal is an incredibly special band, and Vexovoid is a tremendously good album. Listen to it with someone you love, or with someone you hate, or on your own, or on a train, or in outer space, or in a canoe on a melting glacier. You will not be unmoved.