Australian experimental death metal specter Portal has been one of the most devastating forces in the extreme metal scene. Originally founded in 1994 it took the band a surprising nine years to release debut album
Seepia, which introduced the structural complexity and utter brutality of Portal. Since then, the band has produced a stellar series of releases, reaching a peak with the monumental Vexovoid, a record that summed up the brutal experimentalism of Portal, providing a condensed sonic assault of this occult death metal vision.
Vexovoid felt like the closing of a chapter for Portal, a record that could not be easily followed. And that is what makes ION a bittersweet entry to the band’s discography. Portal does not wander in the same dimensions as in Vexovoid and they approach ION through a different scope. Without leaving behind the complexity of the songwriting structures, or the brutality of the incoming death metal terror, Portal still exists within the same plane, something that is also apparent in the dissonant lead work that has defined their sound. The schizoid guitar playing, cyclothymic and completely paranoid at times proves to be the cutting edge of the band’s identity once again, while the unpredictable drumming arrives with a stunning versatility.
What has changed however is the production and sound morphing. While the band’s previous works, and especially
Vexovoid, featured a dark, lo-fi production and a very thick sound, ION takes a different route. The production is less chaotic than what we have been used to by Portal. The guitars are very well defined, acquiring a much sharper tone, which really fits the dissonant style of the lead work. This also helps reveal even further one of the main influences in Portal’s identity, no other than the mighty Voivod. And in turn, this thinner sound takes away parts of the death metal style and brings forth an extreme, technical and dissonant thrash tone that was not apparent in previous works.
One cannot have everything apparently, and while the band has gained in the presentation of the guitars with the new production, they have actually lost a significant amount of low end definition. The drums appear less prevalent through this scope, while the bass is also veiled in the process. However, Portal still provide the necessary enhancements to make their vision that more terrifying and dystopian, either with the ambience morphing parts of “Nth” or the dim atmosphere of “Crones”. Samples are also employed to further enhance the ritualistic elements lurking behind the scenes, in the monolithic percussive hits in “Phathmo” or the background elements in the ending of “Crones”.
As the production has seen an alteration, so has the songwriting structures. Even though Portal still go into frenzied recitals of lead mania, unleashing typhonic guitars, and they are still eager to visit abstract sonic territories, where structure begins to fade, it appears that the songs take a more direct approach. The previous works retained a more amorphous quality, with the band defying the restrictions of following a certain progression. Here this element is subsiding, and there is a better defined, still not crystal clear, continuity when it comes to structural elements and repeating themes.
ION is an album that will divide Portal’s followers, but that doesn’t negate how impressive the record is. Listening to the unbelievable “Spores” where the band has applied distortion over the master track, rendering the unstoppable performance to become absolutely hellish, it is clear that Portal has not lost its rebellious spirit. If that does not convince you, then surely the closing track will, as it moves from structure into the abstract, to finally reach an ambient territory of mind-bending quality. The beast might be shedding its skin, but it is still a beast.