Portal are an interesting bunch. Not a lot is known as they are one of a few bands around today who wish to remain anonymous and hide their identities on stage like, Slipknot, Ghost and Dragged into Sunlight, among others. Portal have managed to build up a powerful enigma to complement their musical concept.
The vocalist, known only as “The Curator” is as terrifying as ever and guitarist, another mainstay of the group, Horror Illogium, provides ordered chaos in the form of guitar parts.
The band hail from Brisbane, Australia, they formed in 1994 and “Ions”, released on 26th January this year, is their fifth album to date.
Portal play a unique style of extreme metal that combines the earthlier elements of death metal such as Incantation, more technical, mind boggling styles like Canada’s Gorguts, flashes of black metal thrown in with some other worldly atmospherics.
“Ion” begins with an instrumental tension builder entitled, “Nth”. Reversed saw wave synths cut through a swelling and throbbing collection of layers, combining to give an effect of wind thrashing through a cave.
In shocking fashion, the second track bursts in, titled “Esp Ion Age” the guitars are like furious wasps fizzing around your face as they precisely pick out intricate, punctuated dissonance. The Curator enters the song in a whisper, a style familiar now and as haunting as ever. Where the typical style of vocal over music such as this is much aggressive and loud, the whispering approach would seem counter intuitive were it not, perfectly unsettling and haunting.
Elements of the guitar work in “Husk”, the album’s third track reminds me of Morbid Angel introducing a frantic, unhinged, yet clinically executed style of guitar line. The music is constantly climbing and falling. At times it seems separate instruments head in opposing directions, giving a contradicting affect to the overall feel of the song. By this I mean, incredibly fast guitar work for example, coupled with similarly paced drums yet the overall feeling of the track coming across slower and almost suffocated. It generates tremendous atmosphere.
This atmosphere and technical proficiency, musicianship and experimentation from the band is a constant throughout the album. “Phreqs” is a truly terrifying and uncomfortable song. Fairground levels of sinister are portrayed by the combined guitar attack and another example of the counter groove. The song ends with another rollercoaster riff from the guitars in a locked, dissonant harmony.
The tempos wind around and round, poly-rhythms and repeated cycles over different contexts make for a truly unique listening experience. At times, certainly on the first listen, some of the music is simply hard to understand. It certainly took me a few listens to be able to fully immerse myself and it’s now proving to be a good example of an album that will provide a long harvest of interesting musical crops.
“Crone” is the lynch pin of the album, almost exactly half through. It’s fairly short in length at three and a half minutes but the last minute or so for the outro is hypnotising, the vocal refrain of “Pray, for sickness” provides another dose of whispered words from The Curator and one of the most memorable moments on the album.
Closing the album is “Olde Guarde”, this is longest track on the album, clocking in at just under ten minutes. It starts off as another song completely in line with what proceeded it. Very interesting drum work throughout the track, an ever-developing sequence of patterns driving the song in a psychotic fashion. As the song approaches half way, it has already started to wind down from the frantic energy of the first half. We are left with a lone, distant guitar, drowning in reverb, before a diabolical choir enters to close the service in a twisted, frightening, old sounding way.
Production wise, the album has more clarity than previous releases. I read that the guitars were back to six strings for this album, closer to normal standard pitch, instead of the lower toned eight string guitars on past albums. The guitars present themselves in a more cutting, thinner fashion. This works well to break through the more thudding and thunderous bass end of the sonic spectrum on this album from the bass and drums.
Overall this album is as good an example of a ‘wall of sound’ as anything else anyone could muster. The suffocating nature of the music draws me back time and time again. It’s not possible to listen to this album all the time, day after day. A certain frame of mind is required. I’m unsure what exactly but I go there a couple of times a week.
The album is an entirely different experience to other music I have reviewed for Sounds. Portal are hard to compare with anyone with any degree of accuracy. It is an esoteric, atmospheric album that takes the listener to a darkness or depth rarely experienced in such a genuine fashion as what “Ion” creates. It’s not possible to even immediately understand what is going on at times but it’s magnetism is not lost on me.