Palm Mutes of Madness: Portal’s Typically Atypical Vexovoid

  • Sammy O'Hagar

If you think about it, Portal have already done more than they’ve ever had to do. They solidified what they’re best at with Outré, and they could have reproduced slight variations on that album over and over; with its muddy and murky nature, they could insist that the changes they were making were too subtle for those not as far past the outer limits as them and their closest fans. But then came Swarth, a blooming, noxious flower that balanced out moments of clarity with even harsher and weirder asides. So it’s no surprise that Vexovoid, the band’s latest uncomfortable masterpiece, stretches the hazy boundaries of death metal even further into the ether. Yes, there are discernible, heavy death metal riffs. But the second half of the record drifts in and out of noise and pitch-black ambience. For most bands, this would mean a certain self-indulgent death. Portal are a different kind of animal, though (probably to the degree where they’re not even an animal at all). For a band as obsessed with mood-building as they are, Vexovoid could be the most clear-minded thing they’ve done so far, which opens up a whole new world of ghastly.

Vexovoid’s first half is off-putting in its relative straight-forwardness. “Kilter,” the album’s opener, starts with a series of standard dark death metal riffs. Granted, they’re tweaked to fit Portal’s needs via seasick rhythms and muddy, lower-register guitars. When it does become a Portal song—about a minute in when the toms turn the riffs into debris then swirl them around with some blastbeats—it illuminates the bridge between familiar death metal and what Portal are. They drop in a cogent ascending blackened death metal motif right before the song cuts out, a reminder that this is both the same and differently-evolved band than before.

The next two songs follow a similar path: the occasional tangible riff followed by the band’s trademark black sea of Lovecraftian horrors. And they’re great fucking songs: hell, whenever the band hit that low note at uneven intervals during the outro of “Curtain,” I still get chills. “Curtain” fades into the barely-reined anarchy of “Plasm” and, hard as this may be to believe, that’s when things get weird. As mentioned above, the band slip in and out of lucidity from there, with “Plasm”’s bizarro world tech-death eventually ceding to a wall of glacially-paced noise. The rest of the album works like this, coming up with 2/3 or 3/4 of a Portal song then submitting to shapeless blackness for a minute or two (not to get too far off- topic here, but it’s not unlike this). Are they obscuring something too relatable or too terrifying? Or are they revealing themselves too directly, and thus it’s impossible for us to understand? When “Orbmorphia” cuts out and stumbles into the riff of Vexovoid’s finale “Oblotten,” the answer is further away than when “Plasm” blurred itself from our sightline to begin with.

The album is only 35 minutes long, but feels much more broad and varied for something of that length. And while I’ve always adored and been  intrigued by the band, this is the first record of theirs I can listen to front-to-back with no problem (even Swarth, for all its brilliant dust bowls of guitars, was best taken in chunks than all at once). It has an arc and the songs themselves have enough of a discernible personality where they can be easily recognized on their own as well as a functioning member of Vexovoid. Dare I say, this may be Portal’s most approachable, listenable release yet. It seems like they’re actually making an attempt to clearly communicate with their audience. And by attempting to speak the same language as the rest of metal, Portal is even more terrifying. The notion that they’re bridging some sort of gap between their angled, concussed world and ours means they know how we think and probably where we live. We’re most likely not long for this world.

Portal’s Vexovoid comes out Februay 19 on Profound Lore. You can listen to the track “Orbmorphia” here and pre-order the album herePalm Mutes of Madness: Portal’s Typically Atypical Vexovoid.

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