Album of the Day: Portal, “ION”

On their previous album, 2013’s Vexovoid, the cultish Australian band Portal offered a decidedly contemporary take on death metal. Although ION, the band’s latest and fifth full-length album, retains its predecessor’s unorthodoxy, it also derives seething energy from looking backward. On ION, Portal trade Vexovoid’s richness for a messier, DIY sound that recalls early death metal groups like Morbid Angel and Death, who, in their infancy, kept their compositions comparatively simple and their production lo-fi. Never imitative, though, Portal access the foundational simplicity of their forebears in order to, across ION’s tight 37 minutes, articulate a distinct language steeped in their own mythology.

ION’s nine tracks lack defined structures—they’re distorted, abrupt, and sometimes entirely without melody. Following a two-minute ambient intro, tracks two and three—“ESP ION AGE” and “Husk”—flit between death metal tropes and fuzzy atmospherics, with Portal using new compositional ideas almost algorithmically, as if reprogramming the genre from its source code. Throughout ION, vocalist The Curator emits monotonic growls atop recharging musical backdrops; guitars saw through the mix, ascending and descending at hardcore speeds without stopping on recognizable riffs. “Phreqs” exacerbates ION’s relationship with time: Progressing chaotically yet with an ineffable logic, the song slips out of reach in its second half.

The mythology that complements Portal’s idiosyncratic musical language is called the “Olde Guarde,” also the title of ION’s nearly 10-minute closer. About halfway through, the song’s metallic churn is replaced by a Caretaker-like mix of phonograph crackles, cinematic hums, and wordless, tuneful moaning. Breaking with their own template, Portal offer a perplexing but decidedly human capstone—a living voice making its way through an electric musical landscape. The Olde Guarde employs elemental language (“ions,” “volts,” “spores”) and looks to first-generation technology; on ION, this pseudoscientific language connects to an originary death metal spirit in service of something both abstract and alive.

-Joe Bucciero

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