PORTAL & IMPETUOUS RITUAL: SOUTH OF HELL
Australia, for those of us in the US, is pretty much literally on the other side of the world, and, like good Americans, we pick and choose what we want to know about it. The continent conjures up images of free range marsupials, shrimps and barbies with some throwing somewhere in there, Paul Hogan, and how, despite speaking English like us, “Fosters” is Australian for “beer” (and also terrible). If you’re a metal fan, AC/DC will come to mind, maybe blackened thrashers Destroyer 666, MAYBE moody basement black metal one-man project Striborg, and perhaps technical death upstarts Psycroptic (which would be inaccurate, as they’re from New Zealand). With an exception of AC/DC, though, they’re mostly bands that are proficient playing a Western/Northwestern hemisphere style, sometimes with slight tweaks to its DNA. A sound uniquely theirs, though, comes to mind when talking about “ambient death metal” titans Portal and their (relatively) straightforward side project Impetuous Ritual.
When it comes to death metal’s hallmarks – technical prowess, shocking gore-themed content, brutal riffs aplenty – they seem to be unraveling them and playing with the stuffing inside, reconstructing the genre into a truly unnerving and horrifying new beast altogether. Listening to Tomb of the Mutilated or Altars of Madness, then listening to Impetuous Ritual’s debut, Relentless Execution of Ceremonial Excrescence, and, especially, Portal’s new album, Swarth, leaves one thinking they couldn’t be any more foreign to what we know as death metal, just as their homeland couldn’t be any further south without being Antarctica. Suicide Silence and Oceano are a world away from this, and when modern death metal and deathcore are running the risk of becoming completely sterile and interchangeable, there couldn’t be a better circumstance.
However, even I think “ambient death metal” is a genre title that is nitpicking too much. That being said, I also think this is necessary: to put Portal or Impetuous Ritual in the same category as Deicide, Suffocation, or even Immolation would be jarring. The guitars buzz and moan like black metal’s, but they’re also dependent on atonality like old school death metal, and to describe either band as “blackened death” wouldn’t exactly be accurate, either (Behemoth and God Dethroned are a pretty distant comparison as well). Though death metal has always been more about pummeling than creating atmosphere, Portal and Impetuous Ritual create one ably while still sticking – albeit as remotely as possible – to the genre’s fundamentals. While some guys may open up a medical dictionary to write gory lyrics or resort to misogyny to get a rise out of people for the sake of being brutal, these guys – through creating a poisonous gas haze of unsettling guitars, wobbly drumming, and postmortem wheezing for vocals – provide a truly disturbing atmosphere that sticks with you. Their detractors will insist it’s just sloppy; for those who connect with Portal and Impetuous Ritual, something sounds off, like death metal played by the truly depraved. I get the sense that I could hang out with the guys from Misery Index, Dying Fetus, Autopsy, or even Devourment; if I ever met a guy from Portal, I assume I would run screaming in the other direction, calling my loved ones to see if they were still alive.
When I referred to Impetuous Ritual as “straightforward” above – even with the word relatively – it’s certainly not meant to be a slight toward the band. Their connection to Portal (the bands share some members) is really their only downside: Portal are a complete mindfuck in their own right, while Impetuous Ritual still have a tether back to death metal. That being said, that tether is frayed to the point of breaking. The nimble fingered riffing of technical death metal rears its head every now and again (“Coalescence of Entropy” and “Ceremonian Disembowelment” feature some primo blazing guitar work, while “Unhallowed Ascendance into Impurity“ has something toward the end that sound a little like a slam riff) on their debut, but they’re all beneath a muddy shroud of disorienting darkness. For death metal’s seemingly endless supply of socially retarded fat guys turning their hatred of the world into brutal horror-tinged metal, Impetuous Ritual manage to sound fucking EVIL by comparison. Though they still have some of the genre’s defining characteristics (when pulling them up in iTunes via the search function, I put in “impe” and Incantation’s “Impending Diabolical Conquest” came up as well, and it seemed pretty apt), they’re as recognizable as partially decayed box tips in a landfill. This is death metal taken to its logical breaking point.
Portal, however, just snap it the fuck in half. It’s death metal in the broadest sense of the term, and all the better for it. Swarth, the band’s latest, is horrifying music for horrible people; no one remotely well-adjusted could come up with music this off-putting. The guitars practically beg for adjectives: a wall of demonic moaning, an army of zombies charging down a hill of crab grass, an expressionist painting of an axe murder. They’re mostly lost to a wall of noise, but once a discernible riff does manage to rear its head – like the chunky palm muting in the middle of “Larvae,” the violently reimagined Viking metal intro to “Werships,” or the jumbled fretwork of “The Swayy” – they’re so horribly dissonant and just plain wrong-sounding that one may think it’s better off lost in the miasma of hellish guitar violence from whence it came. Drummer Ignis Fatuus perfectly frames what could be an out-and-out mess with a seasick rhythm, while vocalist The Curator (I assume short for Mark Curator?) rasps on top of it, sounding like the inverse of a typical death metal vocalist. Love or loathe them, Portal sound like absolutely no other band in metal right now; Impetuous Ritual come closest, and they have to have guys from Portal in the band to do so. With an almost postmodern dismantling of death metal, Portal rely on nightmarish surrealism instead of glorified violence to hammer their point home. Armed with production a notch cleaner (but still pretty raw) than Outré, their previous outing, the band sound like they’ve come into their own; it’s entirely possible that we’re worse off as a species because of it.
Normally when metal bands get words like “atmospheric” or “evocative” attached to their name, it’s because they’ve decided to explore poetic post-rock surroundings for the sake of maturity. To a certain extent, Portal sound like a band finally evoking the mood death metal had been going for all along, and no one can fault the thousands of other bands for eschewing it for as long as they have; this is music to lose yourself in, and being lost in a place like this isn’t ideal. In fact, that’s the downside to them and Impetuous Ritual: jaunts to edge of sanity via a wall of sludgy death metal noise are certainly fit for a certain mood, and if you’re not in that mood, it can get tiresome. But the polish and predictability of Hot Topic death metal is a maddening thing for those who loved the genuine article, and there are few bands as genuine and unique as Portal and Impetuous Ritual. If you think metal can’t challenge or shock you anymore, you’re gravely fucking mistaken.
(4 ½ out of 5 horns)
Impetuous Ritual, Relentless Execution of Ceremonial Excrescence:
(3 ½ out of 5 horns)