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In H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, an amateur sleuth investigates a seaside town full of people who have developed fishlike characteristics, only to learn he's undergoing the same transformation himself. Australia's Portal, perhaps metal's most thoroughgoing Lovecraft enthusiasts, are the Innsmouth story in reverse. With each full-length emission, the death metal enigmas have become increasingly human, shedding grandfather-clock headpieces and layers of sonic filth to reveal their black, beating hearts. This process has yielded Vexovoid, which may be their best record yet.

Now, to invoke the words of our Clarifier-in-Chief, let me be clear — Portal has not become normal. Vexovoid, like every album the band has ever made, is a hellscape in audio, a truly scary answer to death metal’s typically schlocky approach to darkness and evil. But there’s a reason “Curtain” premiered on Pitchfork and “The Back Wards” premiered on NPR. By marrying the relatively conventional but roughly produced Seepia with the deliberately off-putting weirdness of Outre and Swarth, the Curator and his fellow emissaries have stumbled upon the perfect blueprint for a Portal record. Listenable enough to show your friends; demented enough to give them nightmares.

“Kilter” kicks off the proceedings with a fittingly jagged riff, nodding to Seepia in its Incantation-like slither. The Curator’s vocals enter soon after, with surprising clarity. He’s still uttering incoherent blasphemies – in Lovecraftian terms, think the chants of the Esoteric Order of Dagon set to the music of Erich Zann – but the production now allows us to hear precisely which incoherent blasphemies he’s uttering. The song continues to add layers throughout its six-minute runtime, but unlike with past records, they’re not just layers of feedback and noise. Each instrument is distinct in the mix, and on a good pair of headphones, the listening experience is immersive not just in its ability to convey atmosphere, but also in how friggin’ good it sounds.

The presentation of Portal outside the realm of sound has also undergone some serious renovation since last we heard from them. The Curator will always be most famous for dressing like a giant clock and singing with his face obscured behind wooden doors, but his headgear today more closely resembles a keffiyeh. The band has begun to tour more. The record sleeve looks more like the cover of a pulpy Lovecraft collection than the product of art class at the insane asylum (though the liner notes remain depraved). Even notoriously impenetrable guitarist Horror Illogium is answering interview questions in plain English. Suddenly a band who so recently seemed inhuman is becoming downright knowable.

Vexovoid probably isn’t the most essential Portal experience — for that, the no-holds-barred esoteric horror of Outre still reigns supreme. But with this latest LP, Portal have crafted a near-flawless slab of death metal that functions not as a mere artifact of their continued idiosyncrasy, but as an invitation for neophytes to explore their more challenging work. At the end of closing track “Oblotten,” everything drops out but the bass, plodding away at a simple coda. It seems to stop one measure too soon, practically begging us to replay the album and achieve closure. Like Lovecraft’s “Innsmouth” protagonist, we have little choice. The yearning is too great. May it ever be so.

Stream three tracks including "Orbmorphia", which makes it's debut here. Order yours via Profound Lore.

— Brad Sanders

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