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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