For the uninitiated, first exposure to the bizarre avant death metal of Australia’s Portal is probably like getting sucked into a literal portal to some interdimensional elsewhere that exists sandwiched between a sense of abject terror and crippling existential dread. As a live band, their presence is a singular experience that is somehow dramatic and theatrical without the cringe-inducing antics that those descriptors imply in the metal world, while also being strangely unsettling. On their 2013 opus Vexovoid, they created a massive churning maelstrom of brooding darkness that overtakes the listener with wave upon wave of unease. With the release of their new record ION, they retain their penchant for gloom and actual doom, but crank the chaos up to 100.
ION, released in January 2018 via Profound Lore is a step in a slightly different direction from previous Portal releases. Most obvious is that the production is extremely raw and intense, and notably absent is the oppressive atmospheric black cloud that seems to suffuse each track on previous records. While that sound did not seem to be generated by any particular element of the band, it has always been a pervasive presence in the music itself, like the accumulated moan of ages of woe playing in a loop behind the music itself. On ION this absence has resulted in a clarity that focuses on the guitar work of Horror Illogium, which frequently takes center stage in the mix. The ability to discern each minute detail of the frenetic playing does much to create a feeling that essentially every song is just about to spiral out of control from the first note, and though the tracks never actually devolve into pure entropy, it always feels imminent. Where Vexovoid embraced longer compositions that periodically flirted with sections of sludge influenced riffs and tempos, ION puts that tendency to rest almost completely. Here, Portal has chosen to meld their core aesthetic with tempos and riffing that remain firmly planted in black metal and chaotic death metal territory instead. Unchanged though, is the vocal style of the Curator, whose hollow gasping and deep echoing guttural emanations continue to conjure images of him standing high atop a precipice in Hades calling some gargantuan ancient horror up from beneath the soil.
The tracks comprising ION are some of the band’s most intense and idiosyncratically structured works to date. The songs sprint and lurch from section to section, rarely allowing for a moment to get your head above their dark waters. After the droning, industrial-tinged hellsounds of the album’s introductory track Nth, things immediately kick into high gear on the first proper song ESP ION AGE, at which point the listener experiences the sound of dozens of weaker metal bands’ records being rammed into a blender and liquefied for the next 35 minutes or so.
As a somewhat frequent reviewer of heavy music, I am tempted here to go track by track and make what is destined to end up as a completely futile attempt to translate the swirling insanity of Portal’s music into a semi-coherent analysis. The thing is though, this kind of music defies any rational attempt to deconstruct or understand it at a basic level. ION is as likely to be the sonic translation of massive, spine covered tentacles scraping against the walls of a subterranean cave as its former inhabitants are devoured in a genocidal blood orgy as it is anything else. That seems like a good reason to avoid a lengthy discourse of things I don’t totally understand.
From the perspective of a fan of Portal, I would say that ION leaves their oeuvre unmarred by any truly radical directional shift, but does pull back the veil to some extent on what is actually going on in terms of the instrumentation. Despite the dialing back of the oppressive atmospherics that previously served to occlude some of the mechanics underpinning the songs, the clarity offered by that is limited to overall sound alone. The details of the music on ION may be easier to hear than on their other releases, but it is still nearly impossible to understand. The guitars and bass are a whirlwind of distortion and complicated leads that pass in a blur, only to split into additional smaller versions of themselves, like one of those awesome fractal posters you used to have in your dorm room in the 90’s. The drums blast, and then they blast more, and then when there appears to be a lull in the music, the drums blast again, thudding against your sternum at high volume. The delivery of the music on ION is relentless, and by the 5:00 mark on closing track Olde Guard, where the album descends into one final bout of droning sounds and disturbing modulated wails, you are ready for the end. Literally the end of existence.
Release Date: January 26, 2018
Label: Profound Lore Records
Favorite Tracks: Crone, Phathom, Olde Guard
For Fans Of: those giant spiders from Australia, HP Lovecraft, Salvia Divinorum