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Portrait plays absolutely balls out, shameless 80s heavy metal, and they let you in on this poorly kept secret the second the record begins, opening with a tasteful melodic passage, leading into further proto-speed metal flavoring reminiscent of Mercyful Fate, or more uptempo moments of late 70s-early 80s Judas Priest, equipped with a vocalist fitting the part, doing his best to belt out the King Diamond-esque falsettos with his admittedly meager abilities, the sheer conviction of the performance being its true saving grace. Portrait is not here to innovate or surprise; they are just here to pay homage to the music that they clearly love, namely the classic heavy/power/speed metal bands of the 80s, back when genres weren’t such a divisive issue and the music came straight from the heart and out into the streets.
Indeed, Portrait is out in front, leading the charge of a resurgence of classic metal coming out of Sweden in particular, from which they hail. Bands such as Ironsword, Helvetets Port, Enforcer, In Solitude, and Atlantean Kodex are showing the world that the book is not closed on this chapter of heavy metal, a chapter generally acknowledged to be limited in scope and range of possibilities. Nonetheless, channeling the obvious influences that they do, Portrait still manage to sound their own band. Indeed, they tend to be darker than most bands of this nature, quite dark, drawing lyrical inspiration from Satanism and the occult, reminiscent in this way to bands like Future Tense, Kat, Running Wild, and, of course, Mercyful Fate. The lyrical themes add weight to the eerie and foreboding atmosphere which is often given off in the music, such as in the disturbing “Village of the Fallen Angel,” reminding vocally at certain points of early Root from the Czech Republic, before breaking out into yet another King Diamond-esque falsetto accompanied by a well executed driving melody which shapes the course of the rest of the song, complete with the tasteful dual harmonic guitars that litter the album.
It is undeniable; the main draw of this album is the riffs. If you like this style of metal in general, then you are in for a very pleasant surprise, because Portrait perfectly executes the form in the right (i.e. traditional) manner, to the point that one could reasonably mistake this release for a lost gem from the 80s. It also happens to be that good. This really is quality heavy metal of the highest order, and, to put it simply, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of an album that so epitomizes everything that was great about 80s heavy metal as this one right here.
Yet as much as can be said about the sheer power of the riffs on display by the fine guitar playing executed by Christian Lindell and Richard Lagergren, it’s not all about the riffs. An album could be packed with great riffs that individually are all very powerful and effective on a primal level, but if they can’t be put together in a manner conducive to a holistic framework, then not only is it bound to have a short shelf life, getting boring quickly, but it’s just not a very good album. Portrait does not suffer from this problem. The band knows how and when to just let it rip, but it’s always confined within the boundaries of the song and serves foremost to execute whatever prerogative it is meant for within that framework. In other words, not only are they expert riffmasters, they are also very competent songwriters.
Granted, for one not accustomed to this style, or one who simply does not like this style, Portrait will come off as ridiculous, silly, amateurish, and silly. That is, however, quite obviously missing the point. And this album was certainly not created with such a listener in mind. The band knew who would be buying their album, and they deliver to that target audience brilliantly with one of the best pure heavy metal performances certainly of this past decade. It is quite refreshing to find such proficiency for a seemingly outdated craft on display in 2008, and, most importantly, done so with conviction and earnestness and heart to spare. That is the true tangible found in all truly great music. You can hear it when a band is not playing in earnest. You can hear when their hearts are not in it, and the music suffers. This is why, so often, the best music within certain styles comes not from expert musicians, but from the most die hard fans. Such is the case here in Portrait’s self-titled debut.