Portal – Hagbulbia Review

There are a number of cool things about Hagbulbia, but on my first listen, I figured the coolest was that Portal won’t ever have to make it again. By my fifth, I was convinced that they should. After two decades muddling death metal and noise, the release of thirty-eight minutes heavily skewed towards the latter is not just obvious; it’s almost required. As such, Hagbulbia is a burning distillation of Portal’s less musical humors, but the band have chosen a canny strategy for its release. As an unannounced companion to the more traditional Avow, it can be at worst a novelty rather than nuisance for fans, who may be far more receptive to the cocktail than a shot. But whether taken alone or in combination with Avow, Hagbulbia provides an acerbic yet intriguing taste of Portal’s purest nastiness that will only lure listeners into further intoxication.

The binge begins with “Stow” which allows listeners to gradually abandon expectations as it proceeds at an indifferent pace. It took me about thirty seconds to understand, as reversed, warped, and distorted vocals piled up into howling static, that Hagbulbia was not a typical Portal record. The album pursues an extreme extension of their established sound, previously hinted at in the band’s most cryptic songs. Take Ion’s “Spores,” distort the guitar into an indecipherable shriek, heavily emphasize the vocals and suppress all but the simplest rhythmic devices, and you’ve got a ready-made Hagbulbia song. The basic idea is simple, but its success is a testament to the band’s meticulous aesthetic design.

Hagbulbia descends on the listener like a curtain of lye, candescent and caustic as a false heaven. Ringing and etherial distortions swirl around The Curator’s wuthering exhalations, ringing against the walls of a blank and enormous cathedral. In “Grail” and “Weptune” the slightest echoes of an organ or choir emanate from deep beneath the altar. These soundscapes are not altogether different from those that Dodecahedron explored in the most abstract corners of Kwintessens, but Portal survive them far longer, fully inhabiting these stark and hallucinatory recesses. In this humming vapor, Hagbulbia births something gleaming and noxious.

While many metal-adjacent noise acts like Gnaw Their Tongues or Many Blessings bend samples, drum machines and feedback into the shape or tone of a death metal song, here Portal erode death metal down to its barest contours. The role of the drums is less percussive than textural, most notably in “Of Straw and Cloth,” where looped feedback provides rhythm and towering toms thunder through an irregular beat. The mists of “Weptune” briefly thin above a riff and audible beat before sweeping them back beneath the pall of reverberating howls and shuddering toms. A sound like a ladle smacking a steamer pot wipes away any semblance of the riff and the band attack from the flank, baring a somehow treblier and more incoherent guitar tone. In the last few minutes, a thunderous ostinato guides the song to its conclusion. Though fragments of death metal root Hagbulbia, it produces its haunting effect through their bleak dissolution, invoking the art’s tropes only to callously expunge them.

Chicagoans — or those unfortunate enough to know them — will likely be familiar with Malört. A singularly repulsive bitters best described as tasting “like a tire fire inside your mouth” Malört is equally (and often simultaneously) reviled and adored. Its drinkers include those who genuinely enjoy its toxic astringency, those who love it not as a taste but as a cultural talisman, and those who taste it once and simply cannot stand it. But when in the windy city, the reeking liquor is something guests simply must try, just to understand where they fit into the order of things. So it is with the outré, the inscrutable, and the cannily repulsive. You don’t have to love it. But you will forever remember that it’s out there, despite, yet somehow in consequence of, all reason.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Profound Lore
Website: facebook.com/portaldeath
Releases Worldwide: May 28th, 2021

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