PORTAL EMBRACE THE NOTHING
Footage from last night’s show courtesy unARTigNYC
Before Portal took the stage at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn last night, some variation of the same phrase was on pretty much everyone’s lips: The singer had better be wearing a clock on his head. I heard at least one person threaten to riot if the performane was clock-less, and another drunken dude simply shout “THE CLOCK!” as we waited for the performance to begin. I mean, everyone has obviously seen the live videos, and as if Portal’s totally original, completely bizarre brand of metal didn’t distinguish them enough from the rest of the pack, well, the whole clock-mask thing certainly helped push them that extra mile.
Shame on us for making any comments that might have been interpreted as having a laugh at the band’s expense. Portal put us in our place.
For the singer – he goes by the moniker “The Curator” – was not wearing a clock on his head. Instead, he was basically dressed in an all-black Pope costume, while his bandmates – guitarists Horror ILLogiuM and Aphotic Mote, bassist Omenous Fugue, and drummer Ignis Fatuus – wore their traditional executioner’s masks and, in one case, a noose. (Oddly enough, Bloody Panda did not wear their executioner’s masks. I heard a rumor that Portal’s masks couldn’t get a work visa, so Blood Panda donated theirs instead. No idea if there’s any truth to that.*) But this in no way way diminished the impact of the band’s performance, which was totally unique, unsettling, and challenging.
For one thing, the band’s costumes go beyond simple gimmickry. Most of the time when bands wear masks, costumes, make-up, or whatever, they still allow their various members to have their own personalities and distinct characters, but I could not for the life of me tell you which guitar player in Portal is Horror ILLogiuM and which one is Aphotic Mote; even The Curator wears a mask which denies him any facial expression or manner by which to express himself beyond body language and hand movements. (There was no stage banter or “thank you for coming”s to be had here – just the occasional announcement of the next song’s title.)
Every band member was dressed in head-to-toe black; the backdrop at the venue was black; and the lights behind the band often rotated hypnotically, or back-lit them, making it almost impossible to actually see very much, or, for a little while, strobed. The music – it’s more like shaped noise, really, despite the fluid and elegant finger dancing of the guitarists and bassist – droned on and on. The effect was to put the viewer in something close to a trance, as Portal’s members seemed to disappear into the darkness of the stage. (The video above makes the room look far more well-lit than it actually was.) Some people in the crowd tried to head bang along with the songs, but that was really a fool’s errand; if you were able to pull your gaze from the stage to look around the room, you’d probably see 98% of the crowd simply staring forward, like zombies. The name “Portal” takes on new meaning when seeing this group live, for a Portal performance is not a simple concert – it is a transportative experience.
But where will that experience take you? I head a lot of people call the band “scary” after the show, and while the costumes may seem like pretty typical metal schlock, when you factor in the wall of noise and the lights and everything… like I said, this is some really intense stuff. I wasn’t surprised when a friend later told me he had to step out and take a break for part of Portal’s set; their show is oppressive in every way imaginable. Portal are music’s answer to a black hole, or, perhaps more accurately, the Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And I say “music” and not “death metal” because they’re well beyond death metal; if there’s any other band doing what they do right now in any genre of music, I don’t know of them.) If you told me that this really is what death is like, well, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. We usually associate the word “transcendental” with positive feelings, but Portal are going the other way – they ‘re not interested in catharsis, but, instead, want nothing less than to give you a look into The Void. And it’s an upsetting place.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. I almost wish I was going to Maryland Deathfest this weekend, just so I could ensure that I get to see Portal live at least one more time. I hope they get to tour the U.S. again in the not-too-distant future, because there really is nothing else like them in the world.
*There is obviously no truth to that. I didn’t even hear that rumor. If you didn’t get that I was joking, feel sorry for yourself, for you are not the sharpest tool in the shed.