Portal are one of the most important Death Metal bands in the world.
In a genre as conservative as Heavy Metal it is no surprise that lists of influential bands generally don’t go beyond a pre-approved set of “classics”, but Portal have earned their place among the Deaths and Morbid Angels. Over four albums and nearly fifteen years, they took Death Metal apart and reassembled the pieces into nightmarish, abstract shapes that for the first time managed to sound how the artwork looked. Like most innovators, it took time for their impact to sink in, but over the last few years they have – quite against their will, it seems – triggered a mini-trend of impersonators and left Death Metal in quite a different place than it was in 2013 when Vexovoid (Profound Lore), was released.
Since Outre (Profound Lore), a faction of fans have maintained loudly that they’ve become too “accessible” with each subsequent release, that the gradual introduction of what counts for songwriting in music that sounds like an octopus in a washing machine has weakened them. Those voices will likely get louder with Ion (Profound Lore), which takes the next step in this journey by replacing the murky sound that’s been lazily copied by so many impersonators with a sharp production and guitars tuned to standard E.
It’s a surprisingly shocking move at first listen, as if someone suddenly turned on all the lights during a haunting to reveal that the ghost is not only real, but even scarier than you’d imagined. That’s the paradox at Portal’s heart that some critics seem to miss – the more accessible they get, the stranger they become. It’s as if the pretense has fallen away and been replaced with a more naturalistic, sincere oddness. Outre, all dissonant Noise passages and mangled song structures, sounds like a Death Metal band trying to be weird – Ion sounds like a bunch of transdimensional entities from a place where sound works differently trying to play Death Metal with the wrong number of fingers.
One of the things that have set Portal above other “weird” Metal bands is their fondness for brevity. Anyone can sound odd with twenty-minutes of feedback, but it takes a particular skill to make a three-to-four minute track sound as transcendent and other as Portal manage on Ion, and it reinforces the impression that they’re trying to write “normal” Death Metal but just can’t figure out how this dimension works. At under thirty-five minutes Ion storms in, flails its tentacles around madly, drenches the room with a torrent of black ichor and storms out again in the time it takes
Sabazius to finish an intro.
Whether or not Ion is the weirdest or most eevvilll album you’ll hear in 2018 is irrelevant – as the next step in a very personalised journey into musical extremity by a band who never really sounded quite like anyone else, it was entirely worth the wait.