It can be difficult with music as inherently niche as Extreme Metal to really know just how “big” a particular band are. From safely inside our little bubble Portal seem absolutely enormous at the moment, a regular feature on End Of Year lists whenever they put an album out. This impression was supported by their performance the day before at Bristol’s Temples Festival, where pretty much everyone present tried to ram themselves into the second stage area to see one of the weekend’s most talked-about bands. Taken out of that context and into the unforgiving reality of a rainy London Sunday, then it’s almost surprising to see them in a tiny pub filled with ferociously dedicated fans. Don’t take talk of “hipsters” seriously – this is music entirely confident in its own small but passionate niche.
Grave Miasma have made a name for themselves playing solid, no-nonsense old-school Death Metal with a dark, “gothic” atmosphere and a pre-frilly-shirts Peaceville feel, and tonight they demonstrate that it is the strength of their song-writing and the confidence of their playing that elevates them beyond the generic. Further proof that playing within a genre does not necessarily equate to a lack of ambition or skill.
Atmosphere, though, is a fragile thing. Without Temples’ smoke machine and elaborate lighting rig, Impetuous Ritual seem less like four eldritch spectres of doom, and more like four guys in their pants and as many nails as they could afford from B&Q. Live, their music is much more savage and bestial than on record, the abstract atmosphere distilled down to pure aggression and violence. It’s a powerful performance, but a little repetitive, and loses some power towards the end of their set – although perhaps that’s simply because expectation for Portal has reached frantic levels.
Impetuous Ritual’s underpants-atmospherics suffer slightly from their mundane environment, but Portal are on a different level entirely – beyond anything as crude as geography. Even seeing The Curator having to push through the crowd in full costume to get to the stage (or watching him be guided on and off the Temples stage the day before) doesn’t detract from the sheer presence they exude once their set starts. Metal is not a genre renowned for its subtlety, but there’s something understated about Portal’s stage craft that’s far more effective than the usual ranting and shouting. The Curator’s deliberate, ritualistic gestures carry a weight beyond the usual air-punching and head-banging, and stage banter is replaced entirely with hypnotic waves of noise which link all of the songs together, so that there isn’t a moment of silence once they take the stage.
All this, though, would be ultimately meaningless if their aesthetics weren’t so perfectly married to their music. Critics attacking them for not having catchy riffs or grooves, or accusing them of being “just noise”, are missing the point – which is that Portal’s uniqueness comes from blending the musical elements of Death Metal with an approach to “song-writing” more akin to Dark Ambient or Noise music. This is particularly noticeable live, where waves of feedback, noise and dissonance flow together in a way which seems almost spontaneously organic – but which is of course planned in great detail. This isn’t catchy Melodic Death Metal, dirty Old School Death Metal or even ten-billion-riffs-at-once Tech Death Metal – this is Death Metal as fully immersive Noise, and live – even to people familiar with their recorded material – the intensity is almost unbearable.
If there’s a single criticism of Portal’s set, it’s how inappropriate some of the fans’ reactions seemed. A horribly arrogant thing to say, of course, and the idea that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way of enjoying a band should be treated with nothing but contempt, but when confronted with something as alien and distinctive as Portal, the old whoo-ing, punching the air and shouting the band name as if they were Slayer just sounds out of place. The only sane reaction to being confronted with this spectacle is just to stand there and take it for long as you possibly can.