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Portal, ‘Vexovoid’ (Profound Lore)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 12, 2013
Label: Profound Lore

On the surface, Australian extreme-metal weirdos Portal look like a band cut from the same swath as Slipknot, Ghost B.C., and GWAR: a quintet of thirtysomething headbangers likely too ugly to compete with younger, better-looking heshers, so they dipped into the cabinet of Dr. Caligari to concoct an expressionistic, Bosch-esque visage to complement their hellacious hellfire. They dress in vintage 1920s couture evocative of popular metalhead literary hero H.P. Lovecraft, heightening the effect by donning executioners’ masks, except in the case of vocalist/vomitist the Curator, who prefers either a wide-brimmed wizard’s cap or, even stranger, the top of a grandfather clock. (Incidentally, this is a band more obsessed with timepieces than Flavor Flav, as guitarist Horror Illogium allegedly derived his moniker somehow from the invention of the pendulum, which drives grandfather clocks.) But such overzealous, fan-attracting, sartorial sensibilities aside, the group’s music stands on its own.

On their fourth album, Portal use only muted and dark colors to paint a horrifying tapestry of abstract, depressed misery. That’s a good thing. The group has, in the past, identified itself as death metal — their biggest influence is Morbid Angel, not that Horror Illogium has ever pulled off anything approximating Trey Azagthoth’s fiery fretwork — but only really emulate that genre via their relentless drive. Instead, they continue the course set on recent albums Swarth and Outré by pulling off some next-level metallic cross-pollination. Where black metal conjures symphonic whirlwinds of minor-key mayhem and death metal froths with jagged pessimism, Portal have found a middle ground where all forms of extreme negativity work in concert.

Along with Morbid Angel and Lovecraft, the group has cited 20th-century atonal composer Krzysztof Penderecki as an inspiration, and his brand of timbral surgery comes to the fore most clearly on Vexovoid. Much of the album, from the extended chords of “Orbmorphia” to the flickering rhythm guitars of “Oblotten,” have more in common with jazz than metal. The record’s centerpiece, “Plasm,” beats the hell out of some poor chord as the group highlights it with clusters of distressing notes before descending into a noisescape akin to the sound emanating from the inside of someone’s intestines. (One assumes.) Elsewhere, the guitarists — who play eight-string instruments for, y’know, extra evil — pluck discordant cacophonies that ring death knells on particularly downtrodden numbers like “Curtain” and “Awryeon,” while drummer Ignis Fatuus (who deserves credit for carrying on his sweaty Animal act in a suit and hood) rattles out scattered, unpredictable beats on the ironically titled “Kilter.”

Dropping the needle haphazardly at any point here will likely produce a guttural rumble, but as a whole, it’s the more abstract artistic accoutrements adorning that rumble that make this record a winner. Vexovoid is possibly the most inscrutable, evil-sounding thing to emerge from Australia since Mel Gibson.