You can never say enough about mystery with regards to its relationship with metal bands. Whether you’re cloaking your name and instrument with descriptors like “Count Toothgnash on sonic death reverberations” or wrapping your personas and entire musical concept on esoteric texts or simply dressing up like a clock, there’s something to be said about not giving it all away. Portal have always been a band steeped in mystery, from their names to their performances and their adherence to a dizzying lyrical concept running through their albums, all of which served to accentuate the murky yet blindingly fast black/death they deal in, but on their first full length in five years, Ion, they allow a small lift of the curtain, although not in an area you’d expect. Over the course of nearly 20 years there’s been a surprising focus to the method of madness the band utilizes. Wrapping brutal, spastic black metal with the punchy riffs of death metal and sinking it a deep, unwashed production style not only kept listeners keenly attuned to deciphering the noise in the murk, but helped formulate a palpable aura of evil and danger to the music. Although already implemented on debut Seepia, this concept really congealed on 2007’s Outre, which happened to be my introduction to the band. Any hope of deciphering the convoluted story aspects of the Olde Guarde and the transition from VintAGE to LarVAE to what I’m guessing is now ESP ion AGE was a hopeless cause as this claustrophobic sense of buried evil evolved on 2009’s Swarth and culminated with 2013’s Vexovoid.
Vexovoid brought with its aural attack a flurry of opinions. “More of the same!” cried some, while others announced it as the point at which the band sold out, presumably based on the fact that sonically it was the clearest sounding album the band had put out. I’d argue the change in production was calculated, although by now the concept of this music even remotely being construed as “selling out” should be laughable. Taking in the series of four albums it really does feel like a culmination, an (admittedly great) end point showing the band at the height of what they can achieve with that particular sound. A drastic change had to be in the cards…
…And so it is with Ion. The most immediate thing you notice in the opening seconds of “ESP ION AGE” is the brightness of the sound. Guitarist Horror Illogium (now there’s a name) ditched the 8-string guitars and went back to standard tuning, giving the songs a colder, biting edge that yes, does allow you to actually hear the music being played. Brighter in this case does not mean cleaner, however. If anything the music, detailing the Olde Guarde’s reign over a decimated Earth, feels more alarming and urgent then anything they’ve done in the past. Lines swirl, climb and descend on “Husk” against the now recognizable drumming of Ignis Fatuus, who really stands out over all of Ion, proving it all wasn’t just a mess beneath the murk and filth.
The sounds that ebb and flow between the tracks do a significant amount of heavy lifting too. There’s an eerie segue that moves from the end of “Phreqs” to the beginning of “Crone” that feels as if it was always lying in wait behind the songs, only to slow emerge in the second between onslaughts. And speaking of both those tracks, they’re immense, particularly the driving fury of “Crone.” Having this clarity of sound (although even in this regard “clarity” doesn’t really mean what we take it to mean) makes it much harder for anyone to tune out of the album; something that was an unfortunately by-product of the washed out production of Outre. Moving on to the middle “Revault of Volts” is another devastating hit of noise, and caps what feels like the best sequence in Ion. The rest of the album works in the same spirit, ending with the almost 10 minute “Olde Guarde” which moves in a number of different directions, including a sequence that attempts an almost doom-like feel, although in true Portal fashion it’s abrasive and fraught with tension.
That tension is ever-present with Portal, and the lifting of the curtain on their sound does nothing to diminish that feeling. Ion may or may not be a new chapter in what the band attempts in the future, but right now it’s a refreshing change of pace and a glimpse into what’s going on beneath the mystery: more questions, and more challenges. In other words, more of the same.
Which is this case is entirely a good thing.