Death metal, as with many other metal sub-genres, is built upon a foundation of a variety of substrata. It can be tech death, slam, blackened death metal and much, much more. DEAD CONGREGATION and GRAVE MIASMA have been leading figures of the darker side of death metal since the turn of the millennium. But any way you cut it, and setting aside nerdy metal debates over metal genre classification, one of the most compelling extreme metal bands of the last 20 years has been the avant-garde death metal monstrosity that is PORTAL. The Australian act returns with its sixth full-length album, "Avow", an absolutely psychotic release that further solidifies its position as leaders and visionaries of dark, experimental metal.
Visually PORTAL is striking with its pure, black presence, literally from head to toe. And PORTAL's vocalist, The Curator, presents himself as an imposing figure, whether it's with his more recent garb likening him to some kind of demonic Pope, or his infamous, earlier wardrobe choice that included a clock covering his head. Appearance aside, PORTAL has always mattered because of its music, and "Avow" is yet another example of the band's ability to transcend death metal's conventional aspects and norms.
While 2018's "Ion" was a relative departure due to the embracing of more traditional death metal aspects, some song sections were borderline death thrash, "Avow" finds PORTAL obeying the gravitational pull toward its most natural state, one that doles out an abstract, murky and shapeless sonic barrage. The layers of dissonance and distortion swell and pulse like a beating heart in PORTAL's signature way. The chaos hits us right off the bat with the discomforting guitar work at "Catafalque"'s onset. The song's ripe with static noise, bleeding into an epic and bold buildup. "Offune"'s riffs and guitar work are certainly decipherable, more clearly defined than much of what we heard from PORTAL in the past, however, the direction is so far removed from traditional song structure and songwriting that there's little wonder why PORTAL stands out as much as they do. "Manor Of Speaking" begins with a more ominousness tone compared to the rest of the album's claustrophobic belligerence, but it, too, soon travels into the abstract, bleak and violent ambience that defines the rest of the album.
PORTAL paints a diabolic landscape, one that's more than apocalyptic: it's downright hellish. There have been no left turns. "Avow" isn't a return-to-form from the relative stylistic departure that was "Ion", it's simply the next step on PORTAL's bleak, bizarre voyage. The Australians have upped the ante yet again, and "Avow" stands as the soundtrack to the outlook one might have gazing, in your final moments, into the great abyss.