Now before I go any deeper into this, I should note the distance from which I've viewed Portal's career so far. I've been aware of them, heard lofty recommendations (along with a couple vitriolic condemnations) and even dipped my toe into the water once or twice myself, but I've never actually sat down and listened to a whole Portal album before. My impressions of their discography up to this point have, therefore, been largely superficial. On that note, if the things I say don't entirely mesh with the views of an experienced fan of their material, feel free to dismiss this review as the ramblings of an uninformed boob.
Okay, so the first thing I noticed when the opener started bludgeoning away at my eardrums was how dense this record feels. It's a hard sensation to describe, but it just seems that everything is very tightly packed together leaving the listener with a minimal amount of breathing room. The album does open up a bit here and there with some crackling, crumbling ambient bits and some Inception-style "BWAAAAH" horns, but my overwhelming feeling was one of suffocation. Together with that, I noticed that, at first, the dissonant riffs were giving me the same kind of headache I often experience when listening to Meshuggah. Unlike Meshuggah (who to this day remain largely impenetrable to me for some reason) after a minute or two it stopped bothering me so much on this record, though I couldn't tell you why exactly. Once I had broken through and was on the inside, I found that I was quite enjoying myself. The songwriting, as already mentioned, feels tight and deliberately orchestrated to turn you on your head by playing things that are just inherently wrong but doing it well enough to make you want to hear more. The hoarse, roaring vocals seemed a little more hollow than those of many death metal acts, but it kind of worked since instead of trying to wedge into the non-existent space between the guitar, bass, and drums the vocals are just sort of slathered across the top of everything like acid icing on a writhing, mutant cake.
I hope some of this is getting the idea across, because I'm finding it difficult to dissect and analyze this record. It's very much an experience comprised of general impressions rather than specific details. What I can say is that I like it, and I think anybody who likes their death metal ugly and weird will like it too. No individual songs stood out to me, and I'm not sure whether or not I'll find myself coming back to this, but it was certainly a worthwhile listening experience the first time through.
Grade: B+ or A-