Since their inception, Portal‘s outre take on death metal has been something of a curiosity; a malformed fetus suspended in sepia alcohol behind so many dusty artifacts. Few other artists have encroached on their sound, and even fewer can pretend to challenge their simultaneously dour and frenzied Victorian aesthetic. Theirs is horror music, to be sure, but the horror stems from a sort of noir psychedelia, an all-encompassing fractal unrest where the creak of the floorboards and the crack of colliding planets are indistinguishable in scope. Four albums in and still not a crack in their grimy whitewashed facade; Ion is as impenetrable as ever. Noisy, atonal, and downright unsettling, this latest broadcast groans and shudders in the way only Portal can.
Ion sees the band attempting some of their most ambitious and unsettling experiments ever – and succeeding in them. Blotted and stinking parchments of sound slide across each other, catching, tearing open only to reveal further motion beneath. It’s an effect best demonstrated by “Phreqs” which pulls a chapter out of the collected works of Jute Gyte, opening at its midpoint to begin a polytempic canon which gradually pulls itself into a pair of meters shambling side-by-side on their mismatched legs. A stunning set-piece indeed, and one which receives ample reverence.
The band take a few labored breaths before plunging into “Crone,” a song built around a maddening mantra delivered with terrifying conviction. The endlessly repeated groans of “Pray… for sickness” are delivered not with malice, but with a sense of terrible fear. It’s an unsettling sentiment – making a threat, a promise of suffering, that the perpetrator fears even more than the victim. It’s this internecine dread that truly sets Portal apart, and as Ion progresses it seems to only slip further even as it desperately grasps at some specter of sense, well-hidden in the unseen past.
The defaced “Spores” returns for a few moments to the obfuscated and ruined landscape of Vexovoid, now in a screaming sandstorm. It highlights, by contrast, the relative cleanliness of Ion‘s sound, a feature which sets it far above Portal‘s last endeavor. The tightly bound Vexovoid seemed to pummel from behind so much thick, charred skin, but its overwhelming commitment to claustrophobic compression replaced fear with fatigue. As such, it could not truly capitalize on the fear it instilled – after all, one can only tire so much before they stop running. Somewhere before the last third of Vexovoid, it became easier to accept the madness than combat it, and without that tension, the album lost its power. Nothing of the sort happens in Ion; there is always a corner to stop and catch one’s breath in, safe for a moment but never more.
Ion falls apart in the end, collapsing alone into endless black. The indecipherable tasks now completed, it surrenders without relief to something basic and awful. “Olde Guarde” suggests a new beginning, but the rubble from which it rises ensures that the next story will be only worse. Melody, order, sense; these are those horrors glimpsed behind the curtain that writhes and twists in impossible directions. Like any good monster movie, Portal will never reveal the entirety of their conjuration, and it’s precisely for this reason that they remain so successful. Comprehensible or not, this crazed mass of sound is as meticulously constructed as they come, pain-stakingly obtuse when approached from any direction. Ion is a terrible success and crowning achievement for a band who seem to exist in contradiction of music and sense.