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The last time I reviewed a Portal album I used a really pretentious metaphor about how the album was an engine or something of the sort, but this time I'm just going to cut to the chase because frankly this album isn't good enough to warrant my writing something like that. This is easily altogether the weakest Portal album to date - it's improved in a few aspects but when evaluated as a whole it's definitely lacking the "oomph" that made the band's first three full-lengths so promising. It's still good, but pretty much only because it's still intrinsically Portal; the songs as a whole are pretty inexcusable by the band's standards.
Vexovoid isn't pushing much new ground for Portal; in fact it's essentially a 50/50 mix of Outre' and Swarth. The production is dense and heavy like it was on the former (though not exactly brickwalled like Outre' was, either; the general consensus on this seems to be that the added clarity to the drums on this album is a positive aspect, but honestly, I personally miss the skullfucking density of the band's second album), and a few of the rhythmless, percussionless droning sections are borrowed from Outre', but the actual riffs are a bit more overtly technical as opposed to almost entirely atmospheric, which makes me want to liken it to Swarth.
The main positive development in the riffs is that a lot of the dissonant chords give off a much heavier sense of dread and horror - on this album Portal use a lot of abrupt, screeching sections among their riffs that have more potential to build tension than anything else the band have ever used before. Unfortunately, they never seem to properly follow up on them with quality hooks - this album is memorable but the actual riffs just aren't very good, if that makes any sense. A lot of them just sort of sit around, playing noodle riffs that sound like outtakes from Swarth, but those are really just about the best that Vexovoid has to offer. Quite a few of them are just flat-out annoying - some are phoned-in, uninspired dissonance that doesn't really exist for any other reason, and then you know that one riff at the 0:30 mark of "Kilter" with the jittery high note that keeps popping up amidst a sea of low, twangy, suspiciously djenty tremolo notes? It drives me off the fucking wall, and there are several more of those grating super-downtuned tremolo riffs sitting around the album where you'd least expect them. Likewise, improvement with the vocals is a double-edged sword in that the actual tone of vocals sounds amazing this time around (they're much hissier and more vitriolic than they've ever been) but the vocal lines aren't very good in terms of rhythm - they don't work off the rhythm of the riffs and just sort of float over them, like a Lovecraftian version of a Jehovah's Witness standing at your doorway aimlessly rambling over the music.
The real problem with all of this is that it just feels so fucking lazy by Portal standards. I'm not sure if it's actually possible to "phone in" something that sounds like it came from the 198th trans-omnipotent dimension, but it seems these guys did just that with Vexovoid. At this point, the riffs aren't as stellar as they have been on past endeavors and they really just kind of feel like Stereotypical Portal Riffs™ that I could get for a dime-a-dozen from a handful of other bands. When this was first released, I was complaining because I wanted something entirely new from the band, and I realize now that that's rather silly, but is it really too much to ask that the riffs are merely just as good as the albums before this one? I know, the band have been busy with other projects like Grave Upheaval and Impetuous Ritual, but they still had a grand total of four years to come up with, say, 25 quality riffs for an album that had to follow up on one of the best albums of the 21st century, and they wrote, like, maybe two of those and then stuffed the rest of the album with filler. Furthermore, the riffs just don't go anywhere. I understand Portal are hardly the most linear or ordinary band, but I think even the band's detractors will admit that the stuff on previous albums was pretty damn song-oriented. Vexovoid has me asking myself "okay, where the fuck is this supposed to be going?" way more times than any album should, and it's even worse that I never get a proper answer to that question. Portal will pull out one of the droning Outre' riffs, but it doesn't ever build up to a crushing climax or a destructive technical assault on your face. They stack mediocre riffs up in a way that makes you think the album is heading for some sort of world-shattering god-tier meta-riff, but in that hypothetical riff's place is another mediocre riff. The songwriting is solid, but it's like they took all the perfect riffs out of perfect song structures and replaced them with the sort of shit I'd come up with while jamming on my own guitar and saying to myself "gee I'm gonna try to sound like Portal now lololol".
The atmosphere is still undeniably Portal, that much has remained intact. It's potent shit in such a regard. But Vexovoid doesn't stand up well beyond the most superficial of observations, and so I don't feel comfortable with describing it with anything more enthusiastic than "good". It's good. If you want more Portal, then here it is. But I'm not going to be so kind to a second album's worth of material this unrefined and lazy, and I hope that you won't, either.
Since their 2007 release, Outre, which blew experimental death metal at the time out of the water, is a band that has bordered on infamy within that given sub-genre. While trying to compare their most recent release, Vexovoid, with something like Outre is at best generous and at worse absurd, I am dismayed to see how many listeners have already dismissed Vexovoid as something less than stellar. Portal's style hasn't changed much in the last years, this much is true, but then (to compare them to one of their influences) Immolation's style hasn't changed all that much either, yet they keep their momentum going with each release. My point is that the initial 'shock and awe' that was Outre has since faded and what we have now is merely an outstanding experimental technical death metal band from Australia. Portal is untouchable no more.
That said, I fervently believe that Swarth was their weakest release and that Vexovoid far surpasses it in how the record flows. As far as musical experimentation, one is no longer surprised listening to a Portal release, and sadly for some, Vexovoid is yet another repetition in the grand choir. Yet for its apparent mediocrity, there is an energy to Vexovoid that was, to me, simply lost in Swarth. Sure, few can sparsely forget pieces like "Larvae" or "Writhen", but they seemed out of place. On Vexovoid, in contrast, each track flows harmoniously from one to the other. One cannot help but feel as if the entire record is possessed of a singular spirit in tortured yearning, similar to Outre in a way. The atmosphere is much more 'paced' than before and it allows the listener to catch up. I wouldn't say this is a weakness, but on the contrary, is a sound of a band's music maturing, taken and evolved further and may yet yield something again as mindblowing as Outre or perhaps something else entirely.
All in all, this isn't Portal's creme le crop, but it isn't far afield. In itself, the album is a great listen. It leaves in me great hunger for what may come from Portal in the future.
Australia’s Portal is one band that one can fuck with even some of the most seasoned metal fan’s head, and ever since their inception in 1994, the band has been releasing some of the most relentless, experimental death metal I have ever listened to. More than 3 years in the making, the band finally releases its fourth full length album, Vexovoid this year under the excellent Profound Lore Records.
And in true Portal fashion, the band doesn’t give any chances in the execution of their craft, with album opener Kilter immediately immersing the listener in a barrage of crushing riffs and drums, backed by the equally dark and disturbing atmosphere both by the heavily downtuned guitars and bass. One familiar with the art of Portal would immediately be put into familiar ground, with the band’s experimental style of death metal being truly one of a kind such as the sudden, seemingly random transitions between different segments and the chaotic style of playing on all the instruments. For the uninitiated, the sound of Portal on Vexovoid could perhaps best be described as a schizophrenic, bastard cross-breed between Incantation and the Portal-related band, Impetuous Ritual (and at times, a tinge of Meshuggah with that crushing low end and guitar tone). Hardly surprising, considering two-fifth of the lineup hails from the equally brilliant, though less experimental Impetuous Ritual, and this resemblance is especially so with the riffing on songs like Awryeon.
Atmosphere is key in Portal‘s music as well, and this is rather obvious right from the start of the album. The Curator’s vocals, on top of lyrics that are spat out spitefully, often act as an additional instrument in the music as well, with the low, gurgled growls helping to add a torturous dimension to the already punishing music. Furthermore, the music itself often has the effect of a cliffhanger, with the heavily trem-picked riffs and the slow to mid pace that the band goes at creating high anticipation for all hell to break loose, yet never really hitting that point, like a rubber band that is slowly getting stretched more and more tightly without any chance of relieving any of the tension. Sure, there are certainly faster moments on the album but instead of causing any relief, these pile on more and more pressure on the listener. And this is where the ingenuity of the band lies, causing the listener to constantly shift uneasily in his seat for the entirety of the album, not knowing what awaits him at the very next moment of the journey.
Love Impetuous Ritual, but find it much to easy-consumption for you? Portal‘s Vexovoid certainly sounds like a much more experimental, and much more disturbing experience than the aforementioned, and like all earlier Portal material, Vexovoid is definitely anything but easy-listening. If the band’s intention were to be as anti-social as possible, rest assured they have managed to fulfill the objective. Move aside, Ghost, these hooded men will easily rip you into shreds.
It seems that there is no middle ground when it comes to the slimy, tentacled musical horrorshow known as Australia's Portal. From the moment they arrived on the horizon (or through a gaping hole in the fabric of time and space if you want to beat some other well-used metaphors to death), they provoked the metal hordes into either a puzzled awe or outright hatred, usually centered around technicalities such as "tremolo picking" (how dare they!?). Therein lies the quandary of any artist that defies and redefines the limits of a particular genre- rarely are they appreciated at the time of their inception, especially when there's no comfortable reference point. Portal do not design their perverse musical architecture be experienced once and judged; they may be an acquired taste, but the supremely inventive songwriting and playing only become more evident with repeated listens. Hacks these people are not.
Which brings us to their latest offering, "Vexovoid".
Without hesitation and bucking the current trend of an elaborate first track intro, the album erupts with 'Kilter'. What is most immediately apparent is the production; not clean by any means, but slightly less filthy than previous recordings. What is also apparent is that 'Vexovoid' is not 'Swarth: the sequel', if that's what you were expecting. There is more of an immediacy to the song structures with less slow, creepy build-ups and more slow, creepy fade outs. The Curator's strangled, slit-throat gurglings add to the overall dread and controlled chaos and his role as both invocator and proclaimer is intact and as hateful as ever (following along with the lyrics is highly recommended, along with access to a good thesaurus).
By the third song, 'Curtain' (arguably the centerpiece of the maelstrom) your cerebral cortex is already pudding. It begins with three ominous drumbeats and fades out to a lurching, almost martial finale: one can almost picture The Curator raising his arms up while bellowing a declaration of endless madness and destruction.
As the songs progress, so does the sense of watching a movie that is rapidly spiraling to its unhappy conclusion. The songs' endings become increasingly drawn out, unraveling into alien feedback and ambient (but nowhere near soothing) drones until the final song, an instrumental that ends with a deceptively simple bass melody.
My only complaint is the relative length of the album, clocking in well below the 40 minute mark. Not that this really matters as the compactness of the songs only make them more potent and jarring. 'Vexovoid' displays the developing coalescence of Portal's sound. If the prior albums were the sound of anticipation of the arrival of whatever they were conjuring to seep from the stars, this clearly states 'they're heeere'.
No subgenre can fully claim Portal. The listener can spot influences, but mostly the band just creates experimental, offputting, vaguely metallic weirdness. When I first heard their music on 2007’s Outré, I was astounded by how creepy and strange it was. The guitars sounded like ominous swarms of insects, the vocals were effortlessly demonic, and the drums sounded like they were being played by the lanky, murderous clock-monster on its cover. The songwriting was almost an afterthought, since the sounds were so novel. After hearing innumerable repetitions of the same styles of metal, the record was a breath of fresh air.
The two albums Portal has released since Outré, Swarth and Vexovoid, follow a similar blueprint and sound just as spooky and evil, but don’t do much to distinguish themselves from that fascinating record. Apart from the minor differences in production, the songs could be swapped among the three albums and I wouldn’t notice. Vexovoid isn’t necessarily a better or worse album than any of Portal’s other releases; I’m just beginning to think that one Portal album is all I need in my collection. Unlike bands like Blut aus Nord or Fuck the Facts, whose experimental tendencies lead them on wild trips into unexpected territories, Portal more or less continues to layer swarmy guitars, clunky drumming, and diabolical whisper/growls into songs that begin and end without creating a lasting impression. I understand that it’s not Portal’s intent to create catchy, hummable music, but listening to all of Vexovoid, even at its relatively brief 35-minute run time, is tough.
If Vexovoid had been my first exposure to the band, it may very well have ended up being my favorite of their albums instead of Outré, so I don’t mean to label it as inessential to the metal world. But to me, it seems like Portal has again rewritten the same record. They are a unique and exciting band (and, for Christ’s sake, see them live if you get the chance) and I hope their next record finds them exploring some new sounds and focusing more on memorable compositions than pure atmosphere.
At what point does music move to far past its logical extremes ? This is a question that may be answerable solely by the one and only Australian twisted geniuses better known as Portal. Vexovoid is the 4th release by the band that has made music a psychological weapon of mass mental deterioration.
In the past the band has been able to conjure up images of twisted imagery through it's self imploding suffocating atmosphere and unconventional song structures, uncatchy music which often made you and I question what the hell was happening. None of of really got the answer, not a satisfactory one anyway. It's a question that no one can answer, except maybe the band itself.
So has anything changed for the band ? In a nutshell, umm.. No. So, is it still the same ? Well, almost. The band still has that suffocating atmosphere, inherent brutality, but they sound a bit calmer from the previous releases maybe. A bit calmer may not be suitable for this band, a bit less chaotic will be more apt. The band still sound like Immolation, Deathspell Omega and Gorguts put in a blender and the resultant music is being played backwards. The band still relies a lot on atmosphere, and by atmosphere I don't mean the kind of 'piano ambient spacey' atmosphere that new age crap extreme bands use so as to portray a feeling of depth and emotion, but a skullfucking, suffocating, raging I dont give a fuck relentless atmosphere, that the band has used continously to it's advantage in the past and continues to do so. They still don't care about philistinian things like melody and harmony.
Vexovoid takes no time to get started, almost immediately throwing the listener down into a pit of nothingness. From the first 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. The band has this brilliant habit of being able to make this Lovecraftian type unimaginable horror and convert into music and lay it down in front of you almost daring you to take a bite off of it.
Portal is nothing like anything you have heard before. This is metal for the weird. This is metal which is not for the weak hearted. This is metal, as it was supposed to be, an art, an expression of oneself without caring about the listener. This is not metal which cares about the convention which is considered the norm. This is not metal that cares about production. Really, if after creating an image like this if you think that this is a band that caters to the needs to people who will bitch about production or not being enjoyable or fun or catchy, and if really that is what you expect you are way out of line.
This is chaos that you will like. You may not know why, but you will still like it.
Grim, Bleak, Frightening, Awesome.