Australian metal experimentalists, Portal, are famous for their vertiginous sound and notorious for their anonymity. This band do nothing according to convention, but it was still a surprise to learn they’d be releasing their first album in three years (Avow) with a companion piece (Hagbulbia) on the same day. Like everybody else, we did not expect two LPs to come out at once, so this review concentrates on Avow, the one we had in our calendar from months ago.
For those of you that don’t know, Portal are one of the godfathers of the dissonant extreme metal that’s in the ascendancy right now. Voivod were the first, Gorguts were the second, and Portal can lay claim as the third in the genealogy of this type of music. In the past, critics described the Portal noise assault as somewhere between Morbid Angel and Gorguts with a cinematic ambience, but this no longer captures the mood and menace of the Australians. Avow is the nauseating panic attack of a miner trapped in an underground lithium pit with no light or means of escape. Opener, ‘Catafalque’, lives up to its title and captures the slow movement of a coffin moving closer to the incinerator with a living person inside. We may never know how they produce such discordant distortion and dry frequency pollution, but Imperial Triumphant are the nearest thing to a reference point minus the jazz chords. Listen with too much fervency and you might see blurred shapes when you blink. The circular palm-muted shred riffs could be used as sound effects for a gear change in a H.G. Wells time machine expedition. Spanish experimental death metallers, Altarage, come to mind, but Portal are too abstract and too spaced out to make comparisons with other artists.
‘Eye’ tells you how much Portal draw influences from ambient music for their bludgeoning attack methods. The guitar and drum combination sound like WWII spitfires guarding the skies of Britain in 1940, always in danger of nosediving at any moment into the civilian population below. Follow up, ‘Offune’ is more of the same with an audio offensive reminiscent of Artificial Brain. The soundtrack to the next Hellraiser movie is already here if the director wants a hellish backdrop to accompany the scene where somebody summons the Cenobites. You could even extend this illustrative example to the harsh echo-heavy vocals that threaten to declare “I want your soul!”. Working conditions at a factory run by Portal would be inhumane and akin to chattel slavery. It’s a good thing they’re an avant-garde metal band and not industrialists. You wonder if the last moments of the SS Challenger space shuttle felt like the nine minutes of ‘Manor of Speaking’ condensed into a few seconds of horror before the crew perished.
Standout track, ‘Bode’, is the one that goes beyond morbid and into a sense of despair. It conjures up a rich tapestry of visual possibilities, the most prescient of which is the sensation of floating in space towards an inevitable death. On more than one occasion throughout this album, you’ll imagine you’re wielding a flame-thrower and breathing into a gasmask with deafening intensity. Portal can claim to be the inventors of atmospheric death metal if they wish.
The only weakness of a Portal album – and this one is no exception – is the ritual repetition and relentless atonal navigation through the ugliest of soundwaves. Forty-three minutes can change your mild anxiety into physical nausea after too much exposure to the sonic extremity. Variation is an alien word to Portal because of their obsessive pursuit of the inharmonious and dystopian sensations that define their art. Sitting through Hagbulbia next week fills this reviewer with dread rather than delight.
With their influence and imagination spreading through the extreme metal underground, Portal can be sure of their impact with this record. It’s not an album you’ll play with relish, but it’s one you’ll need every now and again as a reminder how close we can get to the cauldron of hell.
Release Date: 28/05/2021
Record Label: Profound Lore
Standout tracks: Catafalque, Bode, Drain
Suggested Further Listening: Vous Autre – Sel De Pierre (2020), Altarage – The Approaching Roar (2019), Scard – Rusted Lock (2020)