Many of the greatest works of recorded popular music (whatever one subjectively determines that those are) became such, in part, because they chose to diverge from the strict guidelines of their chosen musical styles. Pet Sounds transformed beach pop into a symphony. 3 Feet High and Rising mutated hip-hop into a multi-colored, psychedelic game show. From Enslavement to Obliteration retrofitted punk rock into a metal-influenced musical pipe bomb. On Portals to a Better, Dead World, Texas extreme music duo Cara Neir display a similar sense of the mutability of genre and conventions.
Cara Neir operates within, but is not defined by, some confluence of black metal and crust punk. This mix itself is not what renders the band compelling, or even gives a decent idea of what it sounds like. While that description leads to thoughts of Bone Awl or Iskra, the music on Portals is much stranger and tougher to pigeonhole than the output of either band.
Indeed, to limit Cara Neir’s focus to those two genres is to do the band a disservice. Snatches of screamo, death metal and a number of increasing nebulous styles containing the prefix post- are all absorbed into the magnetic vortex of their aggregate influences. What they end up with on Portals to a Better, Dead World goes beyond modern black metal’s increasing trend toward cross-genre pollination. Where it lands is somewhere so fluid that at times it’s almost unclassifiable on all but a moment-to-moment basis.
The careening, deft “Closing Doors” demonstrates Cara Neir’s take on genre-bent black metal. Breathless and pleasantly exhausting, technically adept without sounding “technical”, what is most impressive about the song in context is its contrast with the other six songs on the album. None of the other material matches the melodic, screamo-indebted black-metal-with-its-brakes-cut of “Closing Doors”, while songs elsewhere are far “heavier” in the traditional sense, more distorted, more tortured, more atmospheric. Still, each piece in the album fits perversely well into the whole, and to take any one track as representative of its breadth is to completely miss its point.
The album’s colossal closer “3,380 Pounds” is another remarkable left turn on an album full of swift changes in direction. The frantic, flailing energy of the preceding tracks builds, seemingly inexorably, toward this 10-minutes-plus terminus. It opens on a moody instrumental section, and then explodes into violent, lumbering extreme music, which feels akin to staring in wonder at a titanic, stories-tall statue and watching, horrified as it comes to life and begins stomping toward you. The effect is mesmerizing, and despite its movement the listener feels rooted in place, helpless to stop its deliberate path forward. There’s a drama and finality to the song that renders it an especially compelling last track. The judicious addition of haunting clean vocals as well as more of those crushing shifts in musical style makes this finality downright cataclysmic, aided by a dialog sample from Lars von Trier’s gorgeous 2011 apocalypse drama Melancholia at the song’s end.
This is, as implied above, a bleak album, and necessarily so. Bleakness in extreme music is certainly nothing new. What makes Cara Neir’s work here so special is the character, diversity and pathos lent to the lightlessness it exudes. A song like “Dust Collector,” while resolutely grayscale, creates such a rich, vibrant world with that palette that it is as if it had been rendered in full color. Portals to a Better, Dead World is a dark, beautiful and extreme work, an album that truly feels worthy of the title. Everything here works, and works toward making this an indelible album experience. Beyond genre, this is just well-made music.