Portal: Swarth (2009)


Immediately after giving my negative opinions on bands that rely on gimmicky stage performances for shock value I offer up today’s entry with Portal’s 2009 entry, Swarth.

At the risk of appearing as a total hypocrite I’ll preface this entire thing by opining that Portal doesn’t entirely rely on cheap visual tricks to garner attention. If anything, the elaborate costumes are used to heighten the level of fear presented by their music with an added layer of anonymity. Other bands, such as Ghost have done this to varying levels of success. Though, I’ve always found all aspects of Ghost to be pretty lame.

Perhaps the differences are in the abstract qualities that Portal displays. They don’t parade around on stage dressed in Priest’s garb while singing standard radio-friendly butt-rock tracks. The music that Portal writes is obtuse, complicated and terrifying. Their album covers are abstract and dark. The bizarre, Lovecraftian outfits they wear onstage befit the music.

Portal are an off-putting band to casually listen to. I’m a fleeting fan in that I can only stand to listen to them for short periods in spurts. Luckily, the group seems to be aware of this as all of their LPs are relatively short.

Swarth is my favorite of these full albums. I’ve yet to purchase any of their many EPs or splits as there appear to be many so my experiences with the band as a whole are rather limited. What I can confidently offer is that this music is not for everyone. Hell, it’s barely for me but every once in a while I’m in the mood to be bludgeoned over the head with repetitive, loud guitars and incomprehensible vocals. It is a great Halloween listen, even if it means ignoring their records for the remaining 11 months of the year.

The biggest problem I have with a lot of their material is the production. I’m a fan of noisy, avante-garde music but even I have my limits. For one, the audio is mixed far too loudly to be enjoyable. Bands like Boris often do the same thing but it works for them as they tend to rely much more on the distorted feedback than the melodies on some of their albums. They also know when to tone it back whereas the Portal’s albums just sound abrasive for the sake of being an irritant.

Imagine listening to any other record on your speakers or headphones then popping on something immediately afterwards that practically busts your hardware and eardrums just because it was unexpected. It is the equivalent of a jump-scare in a Horror film, cheap, lazy and artificial. To mix an album at 11 feels juvenile and pointless. This isn’t the late ’90s anymore where this production style was prevalent. It is as trashy sounding now as it was then. I’d love to call out Merzbow as the prime offender of instilling this into “noise” music as they are one of the oldest and one of the biggest perpetrators of this awful trend.

I am not a “playlist” guy in the slightest but you might as well forget about adding any Portal or Merzbow to your music libraries if you ever expect to hit “shuffle” without a better than average equalizer.

To reiterate, I dig raw production. Loud music is great music. I crank my speakers when I listen to music and turn my amps up high when I’m playing my instruments. The difference is that I have control over the decibels I want pumping into my cranium. Not only that but the music, itself suffers from being distorted in a very inorganic way. It sounds like it is being recorded through a MIDI interface and clipping through every instrument. Maybe this was intended and I just don’t “get it” but it is infuriatingly unappealing.

On second thought, maybe I don’t like Portal at all. Sure, it is great Halloween music if you enjoy the esoteric writing of Lovecraft. Yes, the guitars occasionally do something interesting, like callously strumming open chords to break up the monotony of generic, tremelo plucked strings. There are also a few reprises that come through on this album that make all of the noisy, garbled nonsense understandable in spurts. Yeah, I think I just hate this music but it still deserves to be on this list. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more next year when I give their discography another chance.