Portal’s new album Vexovoid comes more than three years after their last album Swarth, which was my introduction to the band. At that time, I had heard nothing like Swarth. My reactions, of course, were a product of my tastes at the time and what, in retrospect, was the limited range of metal to which I’d been exposed up to that point in my education as a metal lover. I found the album deeply disturbing and yet transfixing. I can’t say I immediately liked it, but I couldn’t stay away from it either.
Since then, my tastes have expanded, as has the range of extreme music I’ve heard. Among other things, I’ve listened to a lot more blackened death metal (a micro-genre I also think of as apocalyptic death metal or atmospheric death metal, some of which also gets labeled “war metal”). Which is to say, I’m no longer the innocent virgin who was violated by Swarth. Having been violated by many other rough beasts in the intervening years, I wondered how the new me would react to Vexovoid.
The new me likes Vexovoid very much. It doesn’t have the shock value that Swarth delivered to my unprepared ears more than three years ago, but even to these now mangled and punctured ear drums Portal haven’t lost their ability to create vivid, catastrophic atmospheres of horror and doom. Vexovoid is both disturbing and mesmerizing. It will detonate a highly radioactive bomb in your head, grind up the remains like hamburger, and send your soul into the void.
Much of the album is a roaring maelstrom of distortion and discordance. There is no peace, until the final moments of the last song, “Oblotten”, when isolated, melodic guitar notes slowly ring out, like the final gasps of someone who has been harrowed mercilessly by everything that has come before.
The opening track, “Kilter”, sets the stage for the destruction to come. It greets the listener with a blizzard of distorted, grinding, squalling riffs and the muffled blasting of drums. A repeating riff punctuates the miasma of noise with pulsating notes (repetition figures prominently in all the songs, as it does in other varieties of atmospheric music), while The Curator chants and howls an indecipherable refrain of malignant power.
“The Back Wards” follows a similar motif. It’s loaded with deep, rancid guitar grinding, pierced by repeating guitar chords that stand out against the chaotic backdrop. The drums boom like battlefield detonations and intermittently blast like bursts from an ack-ack gun aimed at aircraft overhead. Save for the surprising rapid tick of small cymbals, it’s an obliterating racket of decimating noise.
“Curtain” is probably the most memorable track on an album that’s largely dedicated to immersing the listener in the immediacy of an experience instead of creating discrete memories. It’s still suffused with grinding, howling guitars and blasting percussion, but it also includes a simple, bleak melody that rises and falls like the beat of a behemoth’s heart, the compelling boom of the toms, and the metronomic thump of the bass drum.
“Plasm” is probably the most purely atmospheric track on Vexovoid, with the instrumental closer “Oblotten” a close second. “Plasm” is the sonic equivalent of an insane, roaring firestorm, without rhythm or melody, that ultimately subsides into an extended finish of groaning, fuzzed-out sonics.
Portal push the envelope even further with “Awryeon”, which includes a greater variety of discernible riffs than other songs, to the point of avant-garde extravagance. It sounds like the gibbering and moaning of a madhouse, with an outro that intermittently drones like a massive foghorn.
The shortest song, “Orbmorphia”, begins like a demented grindcore rampage fueled by berserk, skittering riffage, and then implodes like a dead star collapsing in on itself before exploding again in a release of searing radiation.
Vexovoid is vivid proof that Portal have not exhausted their ideas or their interest in bending the structures of death metal into unrecognizable shapes. It’s a dense, riveting, fascinating album, though of course it’s not for everyone. It may not frighten or repel listeners who are experienced in the most corrosive realms of blackened death metal, but the faint of heart should run the other way.
Vexovoid will be released by Profound Lore on February 19. The striking cover art is by the Reverend Kriss Hades. Here are the two tracks from the album that have premiered so far [update: a third track — “Orbmorphia” — is now streaming at Invisible Oranges]: