Interview: Portal (Aus)
In the same way that old science fiction is retro yet futuristic, Portal‘s death metal seemingly spans decades. The oddball Aussies have gotten much attention for their recent album Swarth (Profound Lore, 2009). I interviewed guitarist Horror Illogium for the December ’09 issue of Decibel (#62, Converge cover, order here). Space constraints meant that I used only a few quotes. Here is the interview in full. I conducted it via email, a medium that allows Illogium to remain “in character.” He is known for bombastic interviews by email, but this one was relatively down-to-earth.
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Portal explores extremes. Could such exploration lead beyond metal, as there is much music more “extreme” than metal?
Portal explores depth and atmosphere in the aim of a descriptive soundscape. The term “extreme” would not really apply to us in the context that other bands would use: the fastest blastbeat or the most technical guitar work. That kind of mindframe as though it is a sport is sickening! Extreme for the sake of extreme in any regard has no place in our art. The feeling must flow, exploring different planes of darkness and atmosphere. There is no interest in taking the main core of Portal beyond Metal at all. In fact, we don’t feel as though this form of Death Metal has reached its greatest potential yet.
The fact that Portal organizes sounds into discrete tracks indicates that it still has limits. Why not descend into literal pure insanity like Stalaggh, who release recordings composed of insane asylum inmates screaming and carrying on?
We are indeed making songs, although our structures are unusual. They are constructed with a great deal of artistic, obsessive scrutiny. The songs are incubated, given life, and sent out into the world. Every time we rehearse and play them live, we relive their birth. The only necessity is that we feel the passion for the particular piece. Otherwise, it is cast aside. There simply is no point playing anything unless the feeling is there. An insane asylum is a structure; our songs can be viewed as structures housing insane elements.
Why add more insanity and horror to a world already filled with those things?
It is the same horror and insanity from the beginning. It is just in different forms and exaggeration.
Portal’s music often attacks from the side or from underneath, rather than death metal’s usual full-frontal assault. Is this a conscious decision?
That depends on the perception of the listener. The style we play has warped itself over time. However, personally I believe our direction is very straightforward and direct. It is important that the point of the song is put forth.
This attack favors the guitars and often obscures the drums. Do you mind that this lacks the blunt power of, say, Bolt Thrower or Asphyx?
In this work, frequencies fight each other. We choose to have the guitars more dominant; it’s more important to let the details of the strings reign. No, we do not mind. I think the classic era of Asphyx was excellent, especially the punishing Last One on Earth LP and its heavy, extreme production. We would not be interested in achieving those kinds of productions with our sound at all. We will leave that to bands that feel as though they have to stick within boundaries set in the past.
The tones on Swarth are more cutting and defined than on previous albums. What drove this decision?
The vibe at the time of creation will determine the outcome of the sound. The last few years [we have] spent striving for a sound we enjoy in the rehearsal room, exploring different equipment for guitar tones with enough articulation as well as dirt. Total tube amps are the key for us. Whether it is recording or playing live in a room, there are only so many frequencies that can share a space. There must be a balance to allow the instruments to spill forth and explode when necessary. This will give a more detailed soundscape and accentuate the impact and depth of certain sections of music.
Is technology crucial to Portal? Could its essence have existed at other times in history, whether past or present? Portal’s costumes, in particular, harken back to another time.
Technology is helpful but not crucial to our recordings. We strive for a more realistic sound. It is balance, using the digital tools appropriately. Vinyl is the ultimate format for the experience, because we prefer a lot of older productions and despise over-use of digital production. Aesthetically speaking, the aura of the early 20th century is ideal. It is an inspiration [that] we siphon into the feeling and atmosphere.
Many of Portal’s song titles feature skewed or augmented words. Are such alterations conscious choices?
These are indeed conscious choices that inspire the music which will eventually envelop it. It goes hand in hand. Word manipulation is something we’ve been doing for years.
Do you listen to Portal recreationally? Is it possible to divorce your listener side from your musician side, and to listen with virgin ears?
It’s impossible to approach one’s own music with virgin ears, having spent months and years creating the songs. However, I do in fact enjoy our own recordings for the atmosphere and feeling. [But] I am more interested in exploring and incubating the new broth.
What does Portal strive to be? How successful has it been at achieving that?
Portal only strives for artistic satisfaction in every facet. We are our own ultimate judge, and for the audience it is just preference and perception. We’re quite satisfied with where we are taking the music.
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