ION is the fifth full-length album from Australian death metal enigma PORTAL.
“Then I bid you farewell, and I fucking wish the best for you,” said ex-Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo as he concluded his introduction of the Australian death-metal band Portal at the 2014 edition of his Housecore Horror Festival in Austin. It’s not exactly the kind of stage banter likely to get a crowd pumped up for experimental death metal, yet there isn’t much else he could have said to prepare the audience for them. Portal, a nightmarish embodiment of figures that seem barely humanoid, have always been the abstract extension of Australia’s norm-obliterating, sometimes accidentally avant death-metal scene, which includes Sadistik Exekution, Bestial Warlust, and Impetuous Ritual (led by two Portal members, drummer Ignis Fatuus and bassist Omenous Fugue). Their fifth record, ION, dispenses with murk and brings their sound into the sunlight, letting it burn in agony. It is their clearest, and as a result, most terrifying effort.
ION is non-linear death metal filtered through a necro black-metal screen, heavy on a high end that brings out every jagged turn of guitarists Horror Illogium and Aphotic Mote, whose playing resembles Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth if he took guitar lessons from DNA’s Arto Lindsay. Turbulence has long been their forte, though now the choppier edges are much more prominent. They swarm and peck with a chaotic logic only they truly understand, not far off from Luc Lemay’s slashing cross-riffing method on Gorguts’ 1998 album Obscura. Since Portal aren’t submerged in bass as much as before (not that it was a detriment to them in the first place), the Curator’s vocals glide through, his whispers even more ominous. Though he’s the star of Portal’s live show, with his outrageous costumes—most recently his “Bride of Cthulu” getup—he serves a more supporting role on their records, a balm for the rest of the band’s spasmodic outbursts.
ION also reveals what Portal take from modern classical, particularly repetition and atonality. Horror Illogium creates spirals of squalls. “Crone” takes a trance-inducing black-metal passage and strips any ambient pleasantries from it. “Phreqs” is a master class in tension; in the song’s second half, Horror Illogium’s lead floats behind Aphotic Mote’s escalating rhythm, a vocal-less howling driving it off a steep cliff. There aren’t many death-metal bands with that command of dynamics, and fewer who take them to such bizarre ends as Portal do.
Portal are extreme beyond extreme, and they are also genuinely weirder than many of their Australian peers. The exception here is “Spores,” a short, nearly static wall of riff noise that is as close as they get to sounding straightforward. They stay in a consistent mode here, where the rest of ION shudders like a cosmic pinball machine where your brain is the ball. In unconventional metal, it’s often brief moments of familiarity that fuck with you the most. “Spores” makes you think Portal might let up, that they’ll throw in a classic, late-1980s death-metal riff for comfort. But Portal aren’t about reassurance. They are exploring death metal’s possibilities as unconventional and even uncomfortable music. Death metal’s beginnings lay in taking thrash to the next level; in that sense, ION both honors and transcends its origins. (Pitchfork)