Epic. Masterpiece. Mind-blowing. Superlative, superlative, superlative. It's hard to hide my excitement here; Portal Of I, down to its final note, is the perfect metal album.
Listen: "As Icicles Fall" & "Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise"
Talk to anybody who writes about music and chances are that they've established a sort of routine for themselves; a general set of self-imposed rules or guidelines that ensure the fair and standardized review of each album. Here's one of mine: I don't review an album until I feel like I've completely understood the music; until I can confidently discern artistic intent. This process can take one listen or it can take four. Portal Of I got 20 spins on its release day alone, and its gotten roughly five a day since. The fact that I still struggle to form a coherent train of thought is nothing but a testament to the albums sheer and incomprehensible musical vastness; this is an album of infinite texture and constant juxtaposition, a masterfully woven fabric of sound and expression. It's dark, complex, and violent; beautiful, cathartic, atmospheric; deeply melodic, grandiose, emotional beyond measure. Much like its breathtaking cover art, Portal Of I is a maelstrom of abyssal darkness and vibrant color, an intricate deconstruction of both sorrow and joy, and above all, a window to the soul of its musicians.
For those not familiar with the band, what you can expect is this: the musical flavorings of melodic death metal, the dark and spiritual aesthetics of black metal, the progressive sensibilities of say, Opeth or Focus-era Cynic, and the sweet siren call of Tim Charles' violin. Pulling in equal parts from these influences and more (classical, jazz, avant-garde) Portal Of I hits you immediately and constantly with a frenzied barrage of musical ideas, both astonishing and at times utterly overwhelming; at any given moment, often occurring all at once, the listener is met with soaring clean vocals and guttural roars, intertwining guitar parts that number up to three or four, violin leads, furious double-bass patterns, virtuosic bass lines. With less than impeccable composition this would be an absolute failure; however, each note here is so perfectly and meticulously placed that convolution never becomes an issue, not a sound is superfluous. Each note, on every instrument, is significant, clearly heard (thanks to an unbelievable production job by Jens Bogren) and beneficial to the music.
Composition and production aside, the actual performances here are varying degrees of mind-blowing; from the guitarists, bassist, and drummer, who are all playing with tech-death level chops, to vocalists Tim Charles and Xenoyr, who are offering up some of the best clean and harsh vocals in metal today. And for those poetry nerds out there (I am among them), do yourself a favor and delve into Xenyor's incredible lyrics, which are among the best I've read; every line visceral in its imagery and poetically ambiguous in its meaning. The detail and ambition put into the albums artistic composition is on full display here, as this is one of the few cases where lyrics actually enhance the atmosphere of the record, every word reflected in the music.
"Tapestry Of The Starless Abstract" is a fitting opener for the monolithic album that follows; at 12 minutes in length, the song seems to embody both the musical and thematic characteristics that the band is built around. What starts with a flurry of blast beats will slowly evolve into an eccentric progression of off-color melody and pizzicato violin, setting the stage for a musical flourish that weaves prog-metal composition with melancholic and classically fueled harmonies, distant guitar leads, ghostly falsettos and tortured shrieks; a scene that is both stoic and deeply enchanting. Not but a few minutes in and you'll know what sets NeO apart; a middle section of cavernous ambiance, as a deeply emotional and finger-plucked guitar melody meets with the shrill screams of a violin, resonating into a cosmic swell of sound that seems to live and breath with the musicians who are playing it.
As with most everything the band creates, including both lyrics and artwork, there is a compositional movement from dark to light, from despondency to hope; the music of "Tapestry…", reflecting the spiritual journey of its main character, moves through initial passages of anger and confusion, to a contemplative middle-section, to an ultimately uplifting ending. The album follows suit in this regard; each song provides a linear narrative, a cinematic odyssey from one point to the next, with each movement of the music suggesting a spiritual or emotional development. Much like a classical symphony, each song guarantees that the listener will end in a drastically different place from which he began. Even further, the album does this at large, maintaining a cohesive and unified artistic vision throughout, presented as a singular work as opposed to a collection of songs.
"Xenoflux," is unquestionably the heaviest song on the album, passing through a myriad of fiery black metal progressions before reaching the dark serenity at its core; a beautiful section of silken clean guitars, ethereal bass harmonics, crooning violin leads and a sort of free-jazz ambiance, all of which will climax in a stunningly emotional and dramatic ending. As the final notes cut off, you'll realize that what seems like an entire album of emotional content has been packed into just the first two songs.
Many other reviewers have already pointed out that, at 75 minutes in length, the album is both mentally and emotionally exhausting (in the best possible way, of course). With not a second of filler to be found, Portal Of I moves seamlessly from one breathtaking section to the next, each riff refined to its absolute point of perfection, each moment brimming with intellect, passion, and desire. After "Of The Leper Butterflies", a jazzy little number with an unforgettable intro and a superbly eccentric guitar solo, the album moves to its centerpiece "Forget Not", both an English translation of the band's name and perhaps the most remembered song from their demo.
Starting off with the beautiful ambiance of a classical guitar, each member of the band slowly emerges into the collective sound, adding their own unique nuance to what starts off as a simple guitar melody, evolving the song continually and flawlessly. The masterful bass playing by Brendan Brown takes center stage here as it so often does, bumping smoothly through tapped passages and melodic flourishes. Nearly six minutes of this shimmering musical progression will eventually and subtly begin to transform itself, distorted guitars gently fading into the mix, and as the song builds to its aggressive 12-minute climax, drummer Dan Presland (crowned Fastest Feet in Australia) fires away on double bass at insane speeds, while band founder and vocal mastermind Xenoyr lashes out with his powerful and throaty roar.
This gives way to "And Plague Flowers The Kaleidoscope", which begins with a three-minute latin-fusion violin solo before transitioning into a lush panorama of dark melody and rich musical textures, Tim's falsettos echoing gently behind Xenoyr's screams, all pushing forth towards the songs violent middle section and its ultimate resolution. Here we see NeO at their progressive best, jumping without pause between black metal sections and flamenco acoustic sections; proggy solos and tremelo-picked arpeggios.
"As Icicles Fall", though it's hard to pick one, is the stand-out track here, with an updated production that renders the song even more crushing and heart-wrenching than it was on NeO's demo. Tim starts the song with his beautiful jazzy vocals, his range and vocal talent on full display, before it kicks into a flurry of melodeath progressions and melancholic harmonies. What follows is a musical journey that is as beautiful as it is violent, making its way through passages of insurmountable despair and tension, the band firing on all fronts as one single entity. The last lines of the song, in which a tormented Xenoyr desperately yells "Mother" repeatedly, are some of the most spine-chilling moments of 2012.
"Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise" is an incredible album closer that starts with what will eventually become a NeO trademark: arpeggiated clean guitar chords drenched in reverb. This briefly sets the atmosphere before the song dives into its highly melodic and fast paced progressions, transitioning from intense blast-beat sections to jazzy ambient sections with pinpoint accuracy, both Tim and Xenoyr vocalizing the entire way through. The song makes its way through several emotional high points; though, perhaps the biggest highlight of the album comes at the songs end, when Tim demonstrates an otherworldly vocal range that crescendos into an ethereal palette of ambient noise and Gregorian chant, a moment that is as ineffable as the album itself.
If a fault were to be found here, it is simply that the album is too great for its own good; with such a vast scope of ideas packed so tightly together there's hardly a minute to breathe. Indeed, even the band seems to realize this, as each of the albums innumerable musical sections transition almost too quickly between themselves, like the band was afraid of running out of room on the disc (and they damn near almost did). This may seem entirely overwhelming at first, but as with every great work of art, patience and effort will reveal the true genius at work here. Portal Of I is crafted in such a way as to remain fresh and intriguing for years to come, with each successive listen pulling back another layer of composition, illuminating some unheard detail, exposing some unfelt emotion. Ne Obliviscaris have set quite the bar for themselves, as their debut album, in all its vastness and ambition, complexity and eccentricity, is already better than most band's best. A true masterpiece in any genre, and unlike anything I've heard previous, Portal Of I is currently sitting in my top spot for album of the year.