For Fans Of
I’m definitely not the first person to compare Portal and H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is clearly an influence on Portal’s work for a variety of reasons: 1) noticeable nautical themes; 2) the vocalist, ‘The Conductor’, looks like a creature out of some H.P. nightmare and; 3) because Metal Archives says so. However, I think there is one core idea from Lovecraft’s work that Portal draws from particularly. No, it’s not all the racism, rather, it’s the incomprehensibility. What is probably my favourite literary quote of all time opens Call of Cthulhu: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” The point of this quote, as it relates to Portal’s music, is that their work isn’t supposed to be understood. Yes, the guitar is confusing and erratic and yes, the lyrics read like a ransom note made out of all the scariest parts of a thesaurus, but those elements work together to create a certain feeling of incomprehensible dread, and that’s what’s most important here. I do realise that it’s going to be hard to review an album from a band that I don’t think is supposed to be traditionally enjoyed, but that comes with the territory of being a super-serious critic who gets sent shit for free (full disclosure).
Now, this is bound to turn a lot of people off, but I’m one of those rare creatures that prefer Portal’s last album ‘Vexovoid‘ (2013) over their earlier albums, ‘Seepia‘ and ‘Outre’‘. ‘Vexovoid‘, while retaining a lot of Portal’s trademark chaos that I talked about above, managed to include more dynamic songs with what almost sounded like genuine grooves peering their ugly heads out of the spiralling guitars every once in a while. So it’s a shame to say that Portal’s first album in five years, ‘ION‘, doesn’t continue that trend as much as I would personally like it to. The dissonant, technical and otherworldly instrumentals are all still present here, but there is much less of that levity, however infrequent, that made me like ‘Vexovoid‘ as much as I did.
That’s not to say that this album is bad, however. My favourite song on ‘ION‘ is the single that preceded the release of this album, the bafflingly spelt ‘Phreqs’ (out here in the real world, it’s “Freaks”). This may be reading too much into it, but the song feels like a sonic descent into hell. It starts out with the classic Portal sound that everybody knows and… loves, I guess? The second “act” of the song features no drumming whatsoever, just some surprisingly listenable dissonant tremolo picking that emulates the feeling of being chased down a spiral staircase while bugs are picking away at you. Which is weirdly similar to a bad trip I had once, in all honesty (don’t do drugs, kids). ‘Phreqs’ then just ends with an immense feeling of giving up. The sounds of the mid-paced drumming and slow, churning guitar take centre stage for the rest of the song, evoking the feeling of being lowered into hell on a platform of some kind. It’s an extremely visual song, to say the very least.
There aren’t many other songs that gripped me quite as much as ‘Phreqs’ did, but there were several singular moments that I absolutely loved. The bone-chilling scream that occurs in the background of ‘ESP ION Age’, about 30 seconds in is just absolutely frightening. I’m not a fan of Gnaw Their Tongues by any stretch of the imagination, but that scream really reminded me of the hellish vibe that that band often goes for. The crunchy metallic guitar in the background of ‘Revault of Volts’ towards the ending of the track is another moment that threw me for a loop. It’s a surprising moment of clarity in what is otherwise a torturous hellscape of a song. My favourite, however, is the final minute of ‘Crone’. Besides being one of the few moments where I can make out a single lyric (I think it’s “Bring your sickness”, but I could be way off), it’s one of the few repetitive chunks of the album where I can latch on to a somewhat traditional musical notion before I go completely mental. In saying that, that idea really works with the Lovecraftian theme I was talking about earlier.
Given everything I’ve said so far, you might be surprised to know I liked the song ‘Spores’ quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fucking cacophonous nightmare, even more so than the rest of this thing. But something about just how noisy it is makes me want to just sit back, not even attempting to analyse it, and just let it wash over me like sulphuric acid. In that sense, I can compare it to the minimal amount of noise music I’ve listened to, like say, Wolf Eyes. But it is certainly a good thing that it’s so short because if the song was any longer than two and a half minutes, I’m sure I’d spend a paragraph here ranting about how goddamn obnoxious it is. So I suppose that I can grant ‘Spores‘ with that always wonderful description, that Jesus Christ of backhanded compliments: “mercifully short”.
One more thing before I go, it was a wise choice for the band to bookmark the album with two dark-ambient/noise tracks; ‘Nth’ and the ending of ‘Olde Guarde’. Besides the fact that they were genuinely interesting, in a vague sort of way, it was nice of them to allow listeners some levity and time to think and breathe both before beginning and ending of the record. But, I’m not going to lie, when I saw that ‘ION‘ closed with a 9-minute track, I was well prepared to have to collect my face from a bucket on the floor in front of me.
Many old fans of Portal will probably see this new album as a real return to form. Upon reading some old reviews, apparently, a lot of fans found that ‘Vexovoid’ was a severe departure for the group, that it lacked the insane and hellish atmosphere of their older albums. While I agree that it was a stylistic departure from their early work, I was still thoroughly impressed by it. While I found ‘ION’ less rhythmic and dynamic than ‘Vexovoid’, there are several moments where I was really able to grab onto a sound that I liked and hold on for dear life, lest I fall off the edge of the fucking universe.
ESP ION AGE
Revault Of Vaults
‘ION’ is out January 26th via EVP Recordings.