without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
Cynic without the ingenuity; that's Portal in a nutshell. After "Focus," Paul Masvidal, Jason Gobel and Sean Reinert—in 1994, the brains and brawn of the dearly departed Cynic—created Portal with female vocalist Aruna Abrams and bassist Chris Kringel. Portal's only release was a demo tape (here called "The Portal Tapes" and released under the Cynic moniker) which emphasized the jazz and ambient traits of what "Focus" ingrained into death metal, only without anything remotely technical or metal at all. Portal's work often seems in cahoots with progressive rock, using an abundance of keyboards to transmit its ambient broadcast while soft, poppy riffs and Aruna's vocals lightly weave through the dreary, meditative background. It's somewhat accessible and unique, but overall boring and insignificant, which is probably why there's been so little interest in Portal over the years.
This isn't poor because of its lack of aggression; I can live without having my face torn off every three minutes, thanks. However, the directionless songs and the lifeless, arid performances act as Portal's self-imposing spade and burial ground, so to speak. The songs are all predictably crafted, with Abrams delivering her esoteric vocals over entry-level guitar work and a spacey bass tone hovering around the whole affair while keyboards drip sprinkles of ambient colors. It may sound like a cakewalk for Masvidal and Reinert, but don't get your hopes up. After "Karma's Plight," it becomes a swirling pile of sameness. The same vocal crooning, the same rehashed ideas, the same ambient themes, the same virtuosic guitar solos (perhaps the only saving grace of the release), the same tepid blandness. Different ideas are acutely produced, yet nothing drags the package away from its habitual drivel.
Going with the mysterious, spiritual anthems slowly bobbing in a calm, astrological wave compared to complex structures should've been no problem for the innovators of Cynic, as there are trace amounts of Portal-ish hues on "Focus," but alas, there's very little room for ingenuity overall. Horribly monotonous and tired anthems like "Crawl Above" or "Not The Same" simply wither and crumble like a batch of dead roses, and darker numbers (for Cynic, mind you) like "Cosmos" fail to forge a sense of clarity among the sub-par material that Portal heaves, and it all looks so useless in retrospect. The vocalist situation, though, is somewhat of a titillating process between Aruna's seductive tenor and Masvidal's cryptic, vocoder-free chimes. Both singers are adequate for this type of sound, and hearing Masvidal sing in his natural voice certainly provides a degree of relevance, especially for the loyal Cynic fan.
Not much else can be said about "The Portal Tapes." I'm assuming demand in Portal inflated after Cynic reformed and exposed their technical/progressive brand of death metal to a new audience, so that's probably why Seasons of Mist decided to reanimate this forgotten piece of Floridian lore. Don't feel like you've missed some transcendental piece of history if you haven't heard Portal. Even if you depend on Cynic's essence for survival, "The Portal Tapes" is merely an artifact that will sit on your shelf and collect dust. You'll occasionally look at it, give it another whirl, and realize it belongs next to other colorful decorations. As they say, history repeats itself, and intrigue in Portal hit its spike and then fell back into oblivion all too quickly, just as it did before.
This review was written for: www.Thrashpit.com
I'm not exactly sure why Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal thought it appropriate to release this material under the Cynic brand. Perhaps to dry up any potential confusion with the dissonant Australian death metal band Portal, or perhaps because in retrospect they've decided this should be incorporated to the lineage of their primary project. To be fair, though, The Portal Tapes, a re-issue of the extensive demo (album length) they produced in 1995 with singer and keyboardist Aruna Abrams does showcase the evolutionary shift between their debut Focus and its 15-year younger successor Traced in Air. But a warning to the potential purchaser: if you're expecting the synthetic complexity and arrangements of the debut, rooted in the jazzy death and thrash metal niche they, Atheist and Hellwitch were molding into the Florida scene, then it's possible you will be highly disappointed.
Portal was essentially a lighter, more ethereal abstraction of the Focus sound, with almost all its metal components eliminated aside from a few heavier chords and leads. Aruna Abrams brought a new dimension with her often haunting, but generally well rounded inflection that wouldn't be out of character for someone like Sarah McLaughlin, though Abrams doesn't have quite the same range. A bit of a dreamy lounge lizard aesthetic as she coordinates with Paul Masdival's dirtier, drearier tone, but then it's this balance of relaxation and subtle technicality happening in the composition that really makes Portal's sound enjoyable. Chris Kringel's flowing, memorable bass lines here are certainly redolent of Sean Malone from the better known Cynic, but the guitars were recorded in a generally clean tone that was so prominent in 80s prog rock, sliced through by meticulous leads that forsook self-indulgence in favor of the songwriting.
I remember there being a fairly sour reaction to this material since it drove the duo away from the heavier fusion featured on Focus, and as we all know the narrow swath of tolerance found in many pundits of underground extremity is unlike to be overcome when a favored artist's sound evolves so dramatically, but they were wise originally to advertise this as a separate band: a practice that they've now eschewed since this material makes a lot more sense in the context of Traced in Air or the more recent Carbon-Based Anatomy EP. Of the 10 songs here, I'd say that at least a half dozen were catchy, whether being heavily driven by Abrams or more of a joint effort with the male-female interchange. An atmospheric accord of guitars, bass and light but dynamic percussion that is certainly comparable to the more accessible sequences they've fit into their post-reunion writing, and songs like "Karma's Plight", "Mirror Child" and "Belong" have a lush airiness to them which might certainly appeal to a cross section of jazz/pop addicts or prog Gothic rock of the less intense variety.
But, as they say, 'it is what it is'. If you harbor an innate opposition to Cynic's material post Focus, then there's not much reason to pursue The Portal Tapes. It's not metal. If, on the other hand, you're a follower of the same existential prog rock, jazz and ambient influences that the band explored in their side projects or on the recent Cynic, then this might prove a 45 minute treat for your senses. It's a little adrift, a little hippy. Numerous of songs feature structures that are a fraction too similar, consistent but not all equally memorable. In sum I'd grade it as a pleasurable listen. Didn't love it, but I did like it, and it's not at all deserving of the unfathomable ire it once provoked from those desperately seeking Focus 2.0. And finally having it all in one 'official' place (a few of the tracks were included on the 2004 Roadrunner reissue of Focus) is not a bad thing.