PORTAL – Avow (2021)REVIEW

Lying there I catch a glimpse, high up, straight before my eyes, of a greyish square in the wall, a suggestion of white, a presage–it must be of daylight. I felt it must be daylight, felt it through every pore in my body. Oh, did I not draw a breath of delighted relief! I flung myself flat on the floor and cried for very joy over this blessed glimpse of light, sobbed for very gratitude, blew a kiss to the window, and conducted myself like a maniac. And at this moment I was perfectly conscious of what I was doing. All my dejection had vanished; all despair and pain had ceased, and I had at this moment, at least as far as my thought reached, not a wish unfilled. I sat up on the floor, folded my hands, and waited patiently for the dawn.” Knut Hamsun, Hunger

Amentia sub rosa — or, some manner of delirious subterranean confessional guidance hands us over wearily to this dungeon of grime-worship and penance, self-mortification and execution. Guillotines in place of altars, thousand-toothed Eldritch horrors hidden in plain sight, screaming heads frozen in terror within formaldehyde and four men in burlap hoods with nooses worn like necklaces. An extraction of the perpetual darkness we cultivate via thoughtless existence, the neck-clawing horror-tuned spasm of Brisbane, Australia-borne avant-garde atmospheric death metal quartet Portal is arisen in relative silence as ‘Avow‘ lands without even the slightest honk of fanfare preceding. It sways uneasy, reaping the light beyond expectations, and bludgeoning away the hungered intelligentsia within but, at no point is the impedance of ‘Ion’ expanded upon. Instead we see an alternate future wherein their most primitive and hateful sonic instincts arrive during a darkest hour and push fragile mankind into deeper, deepest existential chaos.

As we grasp ahold of Portal‘s sixth full-length album it is now more relevant than ever that we take stock of their long and important history as major inspiration for late 2000’s and early 2010’s death metal extremism via expressionistic guitar techniques, which line up squarely with various lineages of classic death metal yet have influenced modern black/death metal hybridization in equal measure as Deathspell Omega. That isn’t to say there has always been a parity of quality or profundity between the two acts but that the devotional art of each informs countless waves of worthwhile acts to date. The impetus for this project in 1994 was perhaps unclear in nature, either an experimental project by a duo of folks with classicist black/death taste or, one of many fonts of collaborative ideas that’d eventually become a primary point of borderless activity, hidden identities, and elaborate stage presence. By most accounts Portal had taken a backseat to Invocation in the late 90’s, whom we see as a brilliant technical death metal act on a split with StarGazer in 2000 (‘Harbringer/H.A.S.T.U.R‘), some of those ideas and techniques offered in those 1999 recordings had been explored within the first Portal demo (‘Portal‘, 1998) which we can still see as not only the seed of what the band is today but also erases any notion of “progressivity” within their work. The only major difference today is that the Morbid Angel influences are slightly less obvious due to clever sound design and far, far more inventive tempo maps. The signature combination of The Curator‘s asphalt vocals and singular guitar work of Horror Illogium appear to aesthetically revert to this nascent state (or nearby) as we examine the unobstructed, unsophisticated and occasionally slowed approach of ‘Avow’.

So, fans of ‘The End Mills‘ (2002) and ‘Seepia‘ (2003) where the recording dynamic was still informed by hollowed classic death metal standards will instantly appreciate that this new album doesn’t push us back into the morass of ‘Swarth‘ (2009) and ‘Vexovoid‘ (2013), where I’d personally lost interest in their focus on iteration while still appreciating Portal‘s unique sound. My first impression of ‘Avow’ wasn’t that it was directly regressive but instead angled specifically off of the high visibility of ‘Ion‘ (2018) which was #7 amongst my best of 2018. The avant-garde minded artiste may or may not be reacting to the larger critical and commercial reception of ‘Ion’ because it’d stretched away from the “point” of death metal as darkness, a morbidity that reaches the brink of death and returns, instead leaning toward a higher budgeted and elaborate reveal that reads as their most obvious “riff” album (essentially a tech-death record) to date. Treble sparked, violent and classic death/thrash manic as it was, I don’t think ‘Ion: Part II’ would have been all that interesting. This sixth album doesn’t concern itself with performative technical expression or heavily layered complexities, but ‘Avow’ does persist with dynamic clarity beyond that of the somewhat obfuscated ‘Vexovoid’, dwelling longer within in descending progressions and the unlit corners of that style but, not shielded by reverb or studio murk.

Why are you so scared, dummy? No matter what thoughtless corner of the internet I wheeled into while passively researching ‘Avow’ I’d inevitably land upon this suggestion that Portal are scary, “terrifying” and such. I refuse to believe that in 2021 the average human being hasn’t already lived worse things than swerving, dissonant guitar riffs and throaty growls matched at ominous meter. Coffins spilling out of hospitals, cracked skulls on the streets, and missiles blanketing the un-holy land, at some point the illusory pageantry of participation becomes offensive and I’d rather not play along with such spooked-out scrum — Perhaps this is why my first impression was “That’s it?” as I fired up album opener “Catafalque”, a piece by piece construction of the scaffolding the album rests upon which bears no elaborate fanfare or, all that much overt finesse. Guitars are heavily featured via mind-altering maze of wrist-crushing jitters while the sound itself is present, real, and without the impossibility of space (unreal “presence”) which extreme metal production typically applies. The stark realism presented here may actually be more “terrifying” for its painstakingly human performance; Absolute stunning exercises of signature Portal phrases, cruelly stated and morphed within ranting and complex movements are largely front-loaded into the experience. The sole single from the release, “Eye“, ensures we’ve gotten the hint that this album is generally meant to be played in one sitting with seamless flow between each piece. The song also introduces some of the mid-to-slow paced delirium which eventually characterizes the album as a whole. No doubt many will be shocked by how inaccessible and unconcerned with the listener that ‘Avow’ is compared to the performative affront that ‘Ion’ was, and this will surely need to sink in before we can appreciate finer details.

The greatest asset Portal brings to every release is their own rhythmic, visual, and temporal language which is yet far outside the normal realm of most other groups, save certain Mitochondrion releases, and the quality hasn’t strayed or lazed with ‘Avow’. The riffs themselves haven’t evolved in terms of spastic muscle memory and the visual aspect of ‘Avow’ still meets a highest standard when dug into. In this sense the record might read as just another Portal record when approached by the knowing guitar obsessed death metal fandom. Where the two guitarists primarily modulate here is the temporal, movement over time and number of movements now vary more broadly while the complexity of traditional dual guitar interplay reduces. Consider the general descending or, slowing pace of “Manor of Speaking” where the brutality of the intro is entirely forgotten by the time the drums take their first break, letting the guitars rant on unperturbed by these changes. This takes place within each third of the ten minute piece, which is clearly far more sophisticated than it appears within complacent or disengaged listening. As the guitars ring and warp across vast spaces of drumless roar the pace either changes or the rhythmic pattern itself does upon return, adding specific detail to each part. Pairing this subtle sense of movement, which is actually entirely over the top outside of the experience, with a stripped and blunt guitar tone means having to crank ‘Avow’ up to ungodly loud levels to fully appreciate. Portal‘s larger modus, to sicken and dissociate, is achieved most heartily in its second half. The entirety of Side B is a demonstration in decline, each piece dissolves rhythmically, erases elements, and cuts away at itself until little is left at the end. It isn’t as “mean” or brutal as Side A‘s trio of songs but this appears to be writ as dissolving for the sake of a linear descent towards the endtyme.

‘Avow’ is exactly as painful as it looks, yet you must walk into this realm of punishment willingly and take it upon yourself. I do not remember pain as well as I remember to avoid it and this is the great challenge Portal have issued by offering absolutely nothing to guide the listener towards the path of least resistance, or any assurance that there will be any breakthrough or payoff. The crawls are upon beds of sandpaper, the riffs are twists of leather-strapped instruments of torture, and death is no ceremony beyond the relief of the end. Though it isn’t “terrifying” as an experience the full listen is taxing both for how dissonant and active it ends up being, it is a challenge and not at all a pleasant one. ‘Avow’ is reserved solely for folks looking to walk upstream, in this way it is more canonical than the baleful and shocking harassment of its predecessor, drilling fresh holes into the depressurizing skulls of self-defeating mankind. I enjoyed it, anyhow. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Profound Lore Records
RELEASE DATE:May 28th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Avant-Garde Black/Death Metal

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