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Note to the members of Portal: experimental is not synonymous with juvenile. There is nothing abstract, interesting, or innovative on this album; this is actually more similar to music cavemen would make if they were placed in a recording studio. The noise given off by this album displays nothing memorable, other than how much it blows.
Using the term noise seems the most appropriate as this album contains some of the most confusingly poor production of any death metal album I've ever heard. Everything is blanketed in pure static, and the guitars have an obnoxiously scratchy tone that make it impossible to actually get a hold of. The riffs also never change in any way, so there's no sense of direction or actual guitar work on display, it really just sounds like a vacuum cleaner that's about to fall apart. The drums don't fare any better; the crash is entirely too loud and the bass drum resembles a stick hitting wet cardboard.
Unsurprisingly, this production comes with some of the most mundane, worthless music ever conceived. There's no sense of anything here that makes any style of metal good in the first place; no melody, intensity, atmosphere, strong structures, or even some kind of personality to speak of. Each song goes through a very simple flow(if I can even call if that) which never builds up or deviates from itself in any way: unending tremolo picking(I'm pretty sure this entire album is played on the low E string), one tempo of blast beats, and vocals so haphazardly stuck in the mix that they do nothing but add more white noise to an album that's already complete nonsense.
One-dimensional doesn't even begin to describe this album...before every song starts, you know exactly what's going to happen. If you were to actively listen to this album or put it as background music, the effect would be the same as there's literally nothing to take from this from a musical standpoint. How this is classified as experimental boggles my mind, as this is really nothing more than incredibly basic black metal but without any kind mood whatsoever. If I didn't know any better, I would say this band started playing their respective instruments six months before they released this album. If that.
If you want substantial death metal, I would say this is one of the very last places to look. If you want a good template for how to not write your next piece of music, you've come to the right place.
Portal is probably one of the wonkiest bands I've ever come across. I've heard some strange metal music, but this particular band brings something to the table that a lot of other bands simply do not. They bring horror and destruction with them that summons winds of writhing chaos. Or rather, they are that writhing chaos, undulating with thunderous tom rolls and muffled bass drums. That's really the best way that I can describe them. When I think of this music I inevitably envision something unpleasantly inhuman. That is what inexplicably draws me to this album, despite my mind's repeated encouragement to listen to something more palatable.
It starts out as a very intimidating force that plows through with fuzzy, distorted guitars playing what appear to be chords. At some points there is technicality on their part, but it sometimes gets lost in the mix. I actually like that, as it gives me an opportunity to immerse myself in the music further. The style is unorthodox, but again, they show competence, lurching forward at some points and leaping through the air at others. As always, they convey a very sinister air, as though they herald an evil being's arrival. Remaining appropriate to the Lovecraftian themes in this album, I tend to picture Cthulhu and although I'm horrified and confused, I am at the same time, comforted. All the chaos appears to lead to something.
It carries on through the midpoint of the album, seeming to narrate the rising of this creature as it emerges from wherever it should emerge from (if it's Cthulhu it should be water, right?), and the momentum is not lost. The vocals are very whispery, but still retain the overall style of a growl while being pushed back into the mix. I don't mind too much, as the guitars, while sometimes lost, are often in the forefront. The bass is surprisingly present, even though it appears as though it's not there. It seems like a very elaborate ruse to deceive the listener, but it appears to follow the drums rhythmically, and the guitars melodically. It's interesting, and I've come to enjoy it, as the drums do need a little kick.
The drums appear to take a backstage position in the mix even though they can be heard, albeit not clearly. As the guitars appear to be the emphasis, the drums help keep the momentum going and drive the creature forward into the city, leveling buildings and stomping on malls. Even they exude evil, perfectly complimenting the guitars on their fucked up, destructive journey. The double bass is smoothly executed and the blast beats are well-timed, sometimes speeding up to seemingly inhuman levels. The tom rolls are creative and very clean, sometimes joining the double bass to create a new beat. When they slow down it turns into a different kind of monster, as though the creature is surveying the city and trying to decide what to fuck up next. It's all leading up to the next chaotic break, the next building to be leveled.
This album is a creature; an entity that is not of this world and intends to destroy everything that gets in its way. I, personally, am completely fine with that existing. Even though this is difficult to listen to and wholly unpleasant, weird, and grating, I absolutely adore it and I can find no flaws in it. It is a grotesque cosmic masterpiece.
There has always been an essence of chaos to death metal. It's an integral part of the genre; a sense of controlled insanity that, while it might sound unpredictable and violent like a tornado, still manages to place an order and array to things. Sometimes it has a defined structure permeated by unsystematic logic, or in the contrary, a loose structure with loose bases which sounds completely foreign to the listener at first, but that gradually opens up and begins to finally make sense - like understanding the way a particularly challenging mind game is solved. However, as experimental or strange as a band may get, they never seem to feel completely random and direction-less; otherwise, that element of turmoil would stop working as a way to achieve a specific sound, but transform into the end itself. That is, insanity for the sake of appearing odd.
This is exactly the way Portal operate, and one can see they looked at the disciplined use of haphazardness of other death metal bands (Incantation comes to mind), admired it, but thought it would be too much of a hassle to get themselves to tame it. The end result is Swarth, an album that is not only a chore to listen to, but also boring, uneventful, disjointed, and confused like a freshman in his first day of university. In fact, just like said freshman is unable to balance his priorities of studying, trying to get laid, and drinking himself to death, this album is unable to define whether it desires to be death metal, noise music, or downright static. The problem isn't that it can't be called music - most things can be - but the fact that, in the light of all that it tries to accomplish, it's simply not a very interesting listen.
Portal didn't create a guitar-oriented album. I'm not even sure if you could call this an anything-oriented whatever, since it fails at the idea of orientation in itself. The use of the element of dissonance, a powerful sound when used adequately, is thrown to its illogical extreme and back again. It doesn't sound good; don't picture the way Toni Iommi used dissonance in the main riff to "Black Sabbath" to create an atmosphere of evil via the use of the tritone, because that's not the way it is used or sounds like here. Picture, instead, a death metal band playing out of tune guitars, whose entire contribution to the music is mostly power chords and tremolo riffs that happen to sound strange and odd only because some of their notes don't fit in with the others, and not because the riffs themselves. Once you take out the element of dissonance, you're left with nothing but a random collection of guitar riffs that don't go anywhere, played with a particularly obnoxious guitar tone.
And oh, is the guitar tone atrocious! The entire production is, actually, but the guitar tone is particularly egregious. It has a really bassy low end played through a neck pick-up that makes it sound fuzzier than it already is, and sloppier than it could ever be possibly played. Once again, if you remove the element of dissonance (which in this case I'm almost completely sure could be accomplished by having them tune their guitars correctly), the only things left are typical tremolo riffs, some spaced-out chords, and the occasional legato lick. By the time the third song is over, your ears will feel funny in a really unpleasant way; and that is pretty much entirely caused by the bad use of the guitar tone.
The other instruments don't fare very well either; the production and the mix are too muddy for their own good, which makes the aural space sound like a jumbled mess where everything is packed inside the same area, but doesn't mix together. Like blacks and whites inside a bus during the 50s. The drums sound, for the most part, like a toy or plastic kit. They lack power, especially the snare and toms, which causes the slow parts to drag along (the middle of "The Swayy" is a good example, simply because it's playing right now and it feels like it has been looping for half an hour even though it's been there less than 30 seconds), and the fast, blasty sections to sound much slower than they actually are. This happens because the entire kit loses force due to the bad mixing of the guitars, and in turn, their entire resonant capabilities are lost. The bass drum sounds like a distant thump in the background that serves no purpose but remind you that the songs aren't over yet, and the cymbals have this annoying high end to them that cooperates with the horrid guitar tone to really bring the fact home that your ears are definitely not going to endure the experience for too long.
As I said earlier, Portal's entire approach to doing things is to see just how random they can make a combination of sounds sound like. They got that right - this is quite random. Unfortunately, that's where the part where they do things right end. If you listen to the album from beginning to end, which is quite a feat in itself given how many breaks I've had to take from it to listen to it a couple of times, it sounds like nothing but a collection of ideas that don't go anywhere, and if they do, fade into nothingness shortly after. The band doesn't have the good riffs that make good death metal, but they're still too musical and ordered to properly be noise music. They fail at both things which they aim at, and leave you with nothing but the vague memory of the fact that what you just listened to was somehow both incredibly uninteresting, and incredibly painful at the same time. Kind of like waking up after a long night of sleep and realizing you're missing your fingernails and most of your teeth.
I could try to keep describing Portal, or this album, but I can't bring myself to it. Not because they're vastly complex beyond the scopes of imagination, but because they're too simple and plain. In the end, it's all dissonance and strange chords that don't go anywhere and don't do nothing for anyone. They're not death metal-y, or noisy, or good-y. They're a thing - a horrible, incredibly annoying thing which requires a deep desire to stand out and feel like over-analysing what isn't really there to try to find worth in it. Call it program music, if you will. Talk about how the dissonance it presents symbolises the chaotic madness within the artist as a way to express its true insanity as a void of melancholy, or whatever helps in trying to comprehend whatever is presented here. If that's your idea of fun, be my guest, we can't all like the same things - but calling Swarth anything but an unenjoyable listening experience is too much of a stretch for anyone to lie themselves with.
It takes some genuine imagination to be able to go around calling this an "album". Albums, by their traditional definition, usually contain music, something that was deliberately created for the purpose of art. However, I think it'd be unfair to call Swarth a musical album. Its "songwriting" methods don't suggest that it was created in a way similar to any music at all. The eight track divisions on the disc ("songs" sounds too deliberate) do not sound as if they were individually conceived, and organically nurtured, raised, and tacked onto other preexisting parts. They feel like mechanical remnants of synthesis - sentient creations, even - taking place inside a massive, horrid engine.
And that's what Swarth is - the audial residue of a motor churning through its industrial routine for an eternity. One might note that the sounds exhibited on the track divisions bear a faint similarity to select death metal artists, namely Incantation and those who take major influences from them, but even that's a far cry from the reality of the situation. What the men - or things - pulling the strings behind "Portal" are passing off as an electric guitar is a horridly suppressed yet massive bassy tone, wretchedly alien at its base, seemingly the result of pure energy bleeding off into the air rather than any creative intent. What can be interpreted as percussion is equally thin, with even the rattlings that the mind subconsciously assumes to be tom-tom drums possessing an inherently unpleasant frequency, and the "cymbals" refusing to be any more merciless to the ears. Nevertheless, the "music" here is extremely dense, and it feels as if all the individual strains of sound are as filtered from a much larger selection. The elements also feel noticeably... elevated from the surface of the disc's soundscape, which can be attributed to a constant flow of more hushed, less significant, but still very carving and serrated background noise. A bed of razor wire upon which the main cacophony rests, if you fancy that description.
The track divisions on Swarth are not played so much as they are recited. Every track division feels as if it is manually forced into existence by a gear being turned, a flame being ignited, or a music box (one that has not actually been created, I would hope) being wound up, each time it's played on a CD player or a turntable. These auditory preparations typically begin with the guitars, giving them a short moment to warm up before allowing the rest of the components to join in, at which point Swarth carries itself off in one of a few directions that it seems to fancy.
Using the terms of an engine, the compositions begin to make more sense. The "blast beats" are the engine's bursts of speed. At these points, the engine is at full operating efficiency, with the "riffs" accurately reflecting the push and pull of pistons on a steam locomotive as they shriek high and then cave in on themselves and reduce their energy to a crawl, seemingly even unnaturally slowing down a bit before momentously springing back. This is best evidenced in the fourth track division, "The Swayy", where the most predominantly repeated rhythm section balls itself up, spasms violently for a moment, and springs outward to release the energy; the process is repeated every second or so, resulting in a sound that is simultaneously jerky and appealing to the human sense of rhythm. The slowed section amidst the subsequent track division, "Writhen", is the engine's overheating, the breakdown of the machine, and its reversion to a safe mode which nevertheless shows signs of imminent system failure (at this time, the main source of motor feedback seems to systematically individually test each tone to make sure that they're still functional). Occasionally the engine will hit a piece of debris stuck inside, and throw out a massive, stochastic arrangement of notes that sounds similar to a freight train as it stumbles over the foreign object. And when the engine wholly jams? Why, that would be the slow, massive thudding at the end of "Werships" - that's something in the engine's way, and the gears and pistons frantically trying to continue their work in the face of their haltered functionality.
I've said nothing so far on the voices buried within the engine, and that's probably because they are the least integral part of the experience. They mostly manifest as a rather quiet, echoing, yet level-headed and confident growl which is in actuality probably very raspy, but in Swarth's presented form, it's practically choked under the grindings of the machine. It's by no means bad by itself, and the human emittances scattered throughout the noise are certainly haunting. However, I believe that, to adequately accompany the methodical cacophonies, an accompanying voice more akin to the sound a man makes when the life is literally crushed out of his body, or burned alive in an internal combustion system...some situation in which he comes across as less hopeful for his continued existence, would make a better match for the music. The frantic, incoherent and slurred vocals of Lord Worm from Cryptopsy, perhaps, are an example of something that might be a bit more suiting.
The sounds on Swarth can all be explained in musical terms if one tries hard enough, but they all come up extremely short, in my opinion. The purest textual representation of the sounds here would be a comparison to an inhuman machine, something which has cast aside all traces of human involvement in its creation and instead grinds forward, soullessly and without regard for melody, convention, or emotion. The track divisions are all equally mesmerizing in their rhythms and methods, and as a whole, Swarth is a peek into an empty void more terrifying than the artists' intended Lovecraftian themes ever could have been. The only concept inspiring more fear in my heart than this engine is the hypothetical device or being that must feed on its energy. Surely, then, that harvester is a portent of a fate worse than death, as the power needed to sustain it emits the most sickening of sonic chaos as a mere byproduct.
Not too long ago I was completely unaware of the existence of such a band as Portal. Then one day a friend came up to me and suggested that I listen to them, saying that I’d probably like them, but that they’re the WEIRDEST band I’d ever hear. I had not hitherto come across such a musically (for the lack of a better word) formidable band--I seriously wasn’t aware of what I was about to dive into. No. Idea. Goddamn was he right, and crap, do they deliver--even if in the most unorthodox way possible.
I’d like to start this review by telling a little story. A while back I was trolling around on the Thrash Unlimited forums when I came across a discussion on Portal. Someone had just gotten into and was recommending them, and soon after other people joined in on the deliberation. One guy said that he “didn’t get it at all.” And then someone else joined in as well, asserting that it’s the “not getting it factor” that makes them awesome. Just incomprehensible badassery.
That’s probably all you need to know about them, but I will try to elaborate that point some more. Portal are a band [probably] like no other, and the first minute that you venture into the dark catacombs that is their music you will know what I’m talking about. You may, at first, concur with the statement that it’s merely incoherent noise. But if you listen more carefully, you’ll find that they, indeed, have very intricate patterns and melodies going on all over the place. Their melodies range from slightly death metal influenced ones such as on “The Swayy” (which is most likely the song with the most death metal influence on the entire album), or very dark, somber, more abrasive ones, such as on “Werships” or “llloomorpheme.”
You won’t be able to make out exactly what’s going on with the guitars, as oftentimes they just sound like a rough, raucous buzzing to the ear, but the melodies are something you will be able to discern--and when you do, you’ll be more than surprised at what you find. It’s very hard to describe their sound, as you just can’t pinpoint (at least I can’t) any other bands that sound like Portal. If I had the chance to create a whole new genre and name Portal the inaugurators of it, I would, as the guy in the aforementioned discussion on TU so eloquently put it, name it Incomprehensible Badassery. Seriously. Most of the time you can’t even headbang to them; and that certainly doesn’t make them bad. Quite the opposite.
The drum work on the album is phenomenal, and even if at times you may not be able to hear the double bass very clearly, it’s there, and it’s friggin’ fast. For example, on about 1:45 of the song “llloomorpheme,” he does some mind-blowing stuff. That is not easy, AT ALL, to play, and you have to give the guy props. The vocals, as well, are a stellar (as is everything else) facet on the record. They’re extremely creepy, and even more so when you see a live performance of the band. They’re not the average death metal growls--maybe somewhat close, not quite. They provide a certain ambiance, a tangible quality that I can’t quite explain, that the album would be without had it had different vocals.
Highlights on this record include “llloomorpheme,” “The Swayy,” hell, the ENTIRE album. I believe I’ve compiled my thoughts on this record as best as I could, as it’s a hard album to review, if only by the sheer weirdness of it. "Swarth" is certainly among my favorite death metal (if you can even call them that) albums of all time. It may be different for you, or it may not. But once you get the concept of their music, you’ll be surprised at how plain awesome they are. And also, if you do pick this gem up, do yourself a favor and listen to it at night. It may sound corny, but it just makes the whole listening experience that much more intense.
Originally written for http://ravenousreviewswebzine.blogspot.com/
Coming from a band with an image almost as strange and disturbed as their music, it should come as no surprise to listeners that Australian experimental death metal monsters Portal are not an easily pill to swallow. With 2009's 'Swarth', here is a forty minute barrage of noise, blastbeats, growls and inhumanly distorted riffs. Although the music of this band is sure to only appeal to a specific, particularly maniacal brand of the metal crowd, Portal take their style of deranged Lovecraftian metal and do some great things with it.
'Swarth' takes no time to get started, almost immediately throwing the listener down into a pit of nothingness. From the title track to the last moment of music here, there is a nearly unrelenting wave of harsh, abrasive sounds, with little- if any- respite to speak of. That being said, the effect of this sound is undeniable. What they may lack in variety and dynamic, Portal makes up for in atmosphere. Soundwise, Portal has a fairly unique sound for death metal, sounding like an atmospheric black metal group toned down a few octaves, and filtered through three or four added distortion boxes. Atmosphere is key here; through all of the growls, noisy waves of abrasion and heaviness, there lies a deep sense of despair and horror that stays comfortably in check with the Lovecraftian themes Portal builds around.
In terms of the performance itself, the riffs here are very technical from the sounds of it, but any intricacy is lost in the noisy foliage of the production, which is surprisingly high fidelity for such an unclear recording. Coming through most profoundly are the blistering drums of Ignis Fatuus, who never cease to amaze through their martial displays and ferocious blast beats.
Certainly no band for the weak-hearted, Portal does not compromise even slightly with their sound on 'Swarth'. Very noisy and dense, and none too light on variety, but the sheer impact is undeniable.
I can never open my iTunes without the first album Swarth shown straight away. As you may know, if metal hasn’t killed all your brain cells, that ‘P’ is not the first letter in the alphabet. This is due to a typo in the band name; aPortal. Something that I’m not changing and I’ll tell you why. In the 11 years I’ve listened to metal (yes, I’m still pretty young), I’ve seen progression in every genre. From the advances in Metallica from a thrash influenced style to a now radio-friendly mainstream ‘heavy’ rock; to the darker style in Chimaira. In these short and sweet years as a metal fan, I’ve never seen a band so fucking heavy, evil, dark, evil, scary, evil, dysfunctional, evil or disjointed as Portal. I need to be reminded what music has become; something this brilliant.
When I heard the song Swarth for the first time, I got 8 seconds in before changing to a more suitable Hate Eternal or Devildriver, or anything a little less fucked-up. 2 days later, I convinced myself to listen the album in full. I was mildly disturbed, and then some. A quick visit to YouTube showed me that they actually play instruments, not black noise as I thought. With music as distorted as this, your heads bound to fall off. Eventually.
To the music itself, it’s not good, if you haven’t got the idea already. The music itself is distasteful at best, with very little musical talent shown by any of the members. But they all can do it. They all show the talent in the rare genre that is blackened-death noise. It’s such a bad album, it’s good. I love Portal now. Swarth shows great ability in their own genre. It’s that fucking good.
I commend anyone who has the balls to listen to this album. The blasts on the drums, the mirage of noise on the axe and the deep, creepy growls of the so-called vocals presents a scary experience. It’s as much fun as being in a ghost ride, but the rides in your head. Technically, this album is terrible in every way. But, the album is so fucking good, listening to it once isn’t enough. If you break through the title track, you’ll love it. If not, don’t worry, I almost couldn’t either.
Portal is one seriously disturbed band, but if you consider the genre, this could only be a positive trait. From the band's bizarre but fantastic headpieces to their frolicking, dour brand of noisy, turbulent death metal, they offer an experience which is both a challenge to comprehend and a pleasure to discover. Swarth is the band's third full-length album and, like its predecessors, original. Imagine death metal being broken down into a frame of primal chaos and then re-assembled into a structure of percussive super sludge. Then add various ominous sounds (chimes, bells) into the backdrop for effect, and add molasses. This is Portal.
Though Seepia and Outre' were mindbending, complex albums in their own right, I was not smitten with them as I am with this record. "Larvae" is just a phenomenal track, some of the most unique death metal I've ever heard. "The Swayy" is a savage conglomeration of choppy, bewildering riffs which grind you to the very edge of sanity. "Omenknow" is strangely melodic, with a traditional charging rhythm interspersed in the band's chaotic diatribe. I would be remiss to not mention that the lyrics on this album are minimal and excellent.
'AutArchy MAestro Presiding
MisConducts Vint-Age Rhythm
Lapsing Tidal Sinergy Pulpittates
Chartre The Otherwise
Ideosphere Doyen Composed
Drogue Maw Beguiled'
Consider me envious of this band's disorder for wild innovation and spurious elements that fuse together into a very concise, necrotic vision of our very fucked, shared reality, and then realities beyond that. Swarth has delivered for me where the previous albums only came close, and I'd recommend it if you're seeking something far left of the norm, and have an inherent tolerance for finding patterns in your noise and brutality.
Highlights: Larvae, Writhen, Marithyme
I should start this review by stating that this band is under no circumstance good. In fact, this is probably the worst musical ensemble I have ever heard in my entire life. However, I will not hold this against Portal, for their sound is not hurt by their complete lack of musical ability. It in fact rests entirely on it. I'm new with the group, so I can't back this up with fact, but the formula for this band seems to be very purposefully simple.
1. Play fast.
2. Don't stop.
3. Distort the FUCK out of it.
P.S. - remember: no memorable riffs! In fact, no riffs at all! Just tremolo pick at 300bpm until your wrists snap off from the tension!
All kidding aside, it certainly seems like this band is going out of their way to be the most dissonant band ever. As well, because of this "formula", it is impossible to take this band seriously sometimes. I'll start with the negatives.
For all intents and purposes, it is noise. The production is abysmal. You can hear nothing. 95% of the guitar playing is absolutely indiscernable, almost on purpose. The "riffs" run together seemlessly, as a result of the mixture of constant playing via tremolo picking plus uber-distorted production, thus masking whatever the song's "rhythm" is. This leaves nothing to tap your feet, snap your fingers, or bang your head to. The drummer does almost nothing but blastbeat, in the most atrocious form possible. Its sloppy, inconsistent, and its lack of accent makes it dreadfully dull and uninteresting. By the way, the drums are mic'd horribly as well. The snare drum is overtly flat and buzzes too much and the hi-hat is muddled beyond belief. There is no bass drum. Speaking of bass, there is no bass guitar either. I think there is a bass guitarIST, but no actual bass appears on the album upon first listen. Unless he doubles as their live sound technician (Jesus Christ what a nightmare of a job that would be), he is fundamentally useless in this band. The vocalist is rather low in the mix, which is surprising to me since he seems to be the figurehead of this completely bereft of talent outfit (He wears a shelving unit on his head for fuck's sake). And while we're talking about being completely bereft of talent, he is as well. His growls are monotonous and he severely lacks any ability to sustain his growls. He is consistently out of rhythm with the rest of the band (this is figured out after you find the rhythm, which takes approximately forever), and only speaks a word or two at a time. The lyrics appear to be short fragmentary bits of various horror novels and whatnot, brought forth in the most uninteresting way possible.
For good measure, it should be noted that every song sounds the same, except for the last one, "Marithyme", which is only different because the song itself is but a disjointed set of random fills and guitar feedback (or is that a chord? I can't tell). And yes, by disjointed I mean especially disjointed, because that is what Portal is already. Disjointed.
Despite those massive flaws, this album still receives the rate of 70 because all of those things are exactly why Portal is, er, unique. Don't listen to this band while you clean your house, or walk the dog, or in the car when you pick up your son from school. No, these are certainly the worst times to listen to Portal. And exactly why everyone who hates them, hates them. Portal is a band that I call a "limited listen" band. By "limited" I mean, "only late at night in the dark while on some sort of drug. Or if they play live. But with drugs. Always with drugs." Otherwise the very banner under which this band flies falls to the ground. They are well liked because they supposedly create a dark atmosphere. And they do, in the right circumstances (DRUGS). In the wrong one the only dark atmosphere they create is a headache.
The bottom line is really this: Portal is a terrible band that will truly make you feel terrible. That's really what it comes down to. If you're looking for a death metal band, I would personally recommend just skipping over Mr. The Curator & Folk, and find a band that can play their instruments. If you're looking for a dark atmosphere, go listen to SWANS.
“Swarth” and the sun have a lot in common. The way the sun isn’t seen during polar night or doesn’t go away during the midnight sun may polarize you a bit and leave you scratching your head wondering ‘Now how exactly does that work?’ You may be one of those types that still worship the sun, just don’t expect any favors from it because it will continue to sit on its invisible pedestal within the infinite black of space weather you thank it for your grain or not. In fact you may be one of those people who just flat out don’t like the sun and the way casts its morning light through trees, leaving little urine colored light stains on your lawn. But you need to realize something no matter what your opinion on the sun may be. The sun is bigger than you, and not just physically speaking. If you can digest that, you’re on your way to understanding “Swarth”, even if you still don’t like it.
As we’re all fully aware of, Portal plays a bizarre form of death metal with an antique/Lovecraftian theme. In my humble opinion “Outré” had too much of this formula, a few too many olives in the Cthulhu cocktail if you will. In fact I consider it to be their experimental album (if that’s even feasible). But what Portal has done with “Swarth” is a successful hybrid of the antics of “Outré” and debut album “Seepia”, creating one of my favorite albums of the year and maybe the best death metal that ’09 has to offer.
My first time with “Swarth” I listened to it twice, thought “Boy they’ve done good”, and put it away until the next day. The next day I wasn’t sure what I was listening to, which is actually pretty normal for Portal and quite rewarding. Each song seemed to project itself into new light and it was like I was listening to the whole thing over again. However, over time, the songs actually became very memorable with their own distinct sound. I thank the production for this mostly, thought its typical Portal fare. It sounds old, but not out dated. The guitars swarm and drone like a hive of tired bees, leaving drums, bass, and The Curator to add personality. Speaking of which, the drums in this offering are very well done unlike the last album. The snare beats like a mechanical heart when the drummer isn’t resorting to off-kilter techniques featuring only cymbal rolls and double bass.
This isn’t to say that the guitars are just there for ambiance; they’re practically the backbone of Portal’s sound. The incredibly abrasive opening riff of “Larvae” or weird noodling of “The Swayy” (the very southern-esque chords are an interesting touch) are a few examples, but in truth the guitars and music itself go through a wide range of motions. Sometimes they’ll have quick bursts of hyper speed only to fall into a grimy, sludgy roll. I personally can’t figure out if “Swarth” is a predominately slow or fast album. A bit of both no doubt, but sometimes it feels like the music is fast and slow at the same time, spawning something very sinister that works on the nerves of the more imaginative amongst us. The best example I know is probably the beginning of “Omenknow”. The way the floor toms roll, the way the bass carries on like a prehistoric mammal, the sheer dread resonating from the guitars heightened by slow blast beat. Perfect. It only lasts a few seconds, but sometimes I go back to that song just to hear the opening. I’ve never heard guitars create atmosphere like that ever. There’s also the first few minutes of one of epic closers “Werships” which sounds like a bizarre war march or unholy incantation. The build up is pure class.
I say this in almost every positive review I write, but The Curator’s vocals are better than ever. His howls and chanting bring a real edge to the chaos; without him it would be like The Statement of Randolph Carter without the actual statement, or Kadath just sitting there without any interpretation.
In closing, if you don’t like what Portal is doing then this probably won’t change your mind. “Swarth” is definitely the most “normal” of their albums, but it’s still pretty out there. Give it time and you’ll find an intricate world of unique death metal. Portal is one of the few modern death metal bands truly worth paying attention to; technicality with no wankery, madness with order, and uniqueness without pretension. I give it my highest recommendation and a writhing seal of approval. One of the year’s best, no questions asked.
“Bow Oh Graving Faces!!!”
At long last, we're treated to a Portal album that's free from the elements that I felt held back their potential on previous albums. Seepia's guitar tone was too trebly for what the band was going for, I felt, and it really made the band's trademark horrow-show lightning-fast-yet-distorted-to-the-point-where-the-individual-notes-are-impossible-to-decipher riffs sound more agonizing than terrifying. Outre fixed this problem, utilizing lower-pitched riffs that suited the band's aesthetic much better. However, it introduced the problem of completely anemic drum production that resulted in the whole album sounding something like the drummer was just whacking away on a single tom. Not only are these problems finally addressed on a single recording, Swarth also manages to showcase the band's best songwriting and best riffs to date while sacrificing none of the oppressive atmosphere that makes this band so strange yet so intriguing.
If you haven't had the otherworldly pleasure of hearing Portal yet, the main attraction is the band's riffing style. The guitarists almost never slow down past a hyperactive tremolo but use so much distortion that the notes blend together into a distorted mass of noise. The effect is that the music moves along at a pace that seems much slower than the speed at which it's being played. More importantly, the actual chords and chord progressions being used aren't conventional in the slightest sense. The entirety of the guitar riffing is rooted in an overwhelming need to be as dissonant as possible. The result is that the band almost never touches a comforting musical signpost, preferring to keep the listener in a constant state of discomfort. Imagine all of the weirdest parts of Gorguts and Immolation played at three times the speed, and then purposefully avoid anything that made any riff played by either of those bands catchy. To put it another way, this band is so far off the deep end of the atmospheric side of the death metal scale that they've completely forsaken hooks or anything remotely hummable. The guitar playing is so intriguing that you can't really help but constantly pay attention to it. See the crazy note gymnastics in the blazing tremolo of "The Swayy" for example. When other bands do this sort of thing, it seems like a showcase for the instrumental prowess of the guitar players; when Portal do it the goal is to add to that suffocating, terror-inducing atmosphere that makes them so special. You won't really find solos in the traditional sense anywhere on the album, although there are parts where the vocals drop out and the guitars move into higher registers for their tremolo workouts. The middle section of "Omenknow" is a great example of what you might call a Portal solo. There's a bass guitar inside of all that madness somewhere, but it only really makes itself known as a separate entity during the rare occasions when the band slows down a bit (such as the doomy sections of "Writhen"). Many have said that the band seems as if it's playing backwards. Maybe I'm just too familiar with back-masked guitar riffs to say that this is really accurate, but it seems more to me not that the band is playing backwards, but that they're operating in some sort of universe where time doesn't flow in the simple, linear fashion in which we experience it.
The drumming on Swarth is phenomenal. Most of the album is played with a strange sort of blastbeat or variation thereof that somehow seems to move at a slower pace than the guitars. The best parts, however, are when the guitars let up a little, which gives space for the drums to go into ridiculous extended-fill tom madness. I can't help but imagine some sort of malevolent, Lovecraftian Cthulu-octopus playing rolls on the double bass and six floor toms at once. This sort of avalanche of percussion effect is used throughout the album, even during some of the blasting sections where apparently the drummer uses toms instead of cymbals to support the blast beat.
As always, the Curator's vocals are brilliant. He sticks mostly to a low, drawn-out roar that somehow seems like a black metal rasp an octave or two down. It's soaked in reverb and sounds like he was standing several feet from the microphone, but there's no lack of vocal power on Swarth. He's not easy to understand, but given the band's indecipherable "abstract horror" lyrical themes and strange spellings, it would be hard to pinpoint what, exactly, he's talking about even if he were speaking completely clearly.
Lovecraft and Lovecraft-styled horror are common themes in metal, but I've never heard a band that creates a musical experience that parallels the atmospheres that dominate Lovecraft's writings as perfectly as Portal do. This is, hands down, the strongest material the band has released to date and finally has the crystal clear production it needs to have a direct line to your brain. Swarth is also Portal's most accessible material so makes an excellent starting point for those who haven't experienced their unique brand of technical blackened death metal.