Five years after Vexovoid, Portal has rematerialized into this planar realm to conjure its fifth amalgamation of sonic horror. It's called ION, and although the majority of it's song titles and verses are presented in the archaic tongue of English, as opposed to the inscrutable language that dominated text in the metal entity's prior records, longtime Portal adherents will be pleased to know that the band's music is still among the most harrowingly forbidding in the industry.
Still, ION is a noticeably more accessible listen than the so-called Australian — the band clearly resides in some bleak, alien dimension far from that sunny island, but we'll stick with that location for marketing purposes — quintet's prior releases. This isn't necessarily a good thing. There's no doubt that ION is a quality record, but it stumbles where Portal usually excels and lacks the inhumanely grueling overtones that elevated the band to legendary status in underground metal circles.
ION most obviously differs from Portal's preceding records in atmosphere and pace. The dense, murky sounds that enveloped listeners on prior Portal albums are almost entirely absent here, and in there place is a renewed focus on speed and technicality. The guitars are scratchier, the complex riffs more emphasized, the vocals higher-pitched and a touch raspier. Most of ION's songs are on the shorter side and they tend to individually stand out more those on Portal's earlier releases.
None of this is necessarily bad, but I'm not sure the trade-off is worth it. Portal's strength typically lies in their ability to design otherworldly and genuinely terrifying soundscapes — a cliched term, but one that genuinely applies to most of the band's music — rather than playing really fast or complex, although the band has certainly never lacked in those areas. While individual songs on records such as Swarth or Vexovoid might not have been as distinct on those on ION, they functioned much better as pieces of a whole and created such possessive atmospheres that you couldn't help but be fully enraptured, despite their unerring inhospitality.
ION is certainly heavy, dark and relentlessly evil, but falls just short enough to obscure the fact that Portal has accomplished those things better in the past.
Still, even though ION is one of Portal's lesser manifestations of auditory horror, it's still an easy recommendation for extreme metal fanatics and a record that stands heads and shoulders among the vast majority of works from the band's contemporaries. A so-so Portal record is still of the quality that few earthbound, mortal artists manage to craft, and if you're looking for uncompromisingly wicked and grisly metal, ION most certainly offers that in spades.
“Phreqs” and “Revault of Volts” are perhaps the best results of Portal’s newfound focus on manic instrumentation over heavy atmosphere. Both songs feature particularly phenomenal guitar work and have just enough moments of slowdown to keep things from getting out of hand. The former track boasts the record’s best guitaring by a considerable margin, with two passages that put spiraling riffs at the forefront of the mix to phenomenal effect. The same treatment is ION’s drumming — also generally excellent throughout — on “Revault of Volts,” the latter half of which is carried by the pounding of cymbals and an especially ghastly vocal performance.
It’s no coincidence that these tracks also spawn ION’s most convincingly aberrant displays of musical chaos. These tracks, along with “Crone,” another standout with some remarkably sinister vocal spewings in its outro, concoct ION’s most engrossing atmospherics and resemble the finest tracks in Portal’s discography. Simply put, each depravedly violent aspect of the music is good enough to absorb the listener’s attention, despite the vicious intensity.
Despite being a brief instrumental, “Spores” is easily one of ION’s most memorable tracks. It’s a stripped down, punishing, noisy and chaotic maelstrom of whirlwind guitar riffs, wailing drumming and general mania. It’s brutal, nigh-unlistenable and absurdly painful, in the best possible way. Whether this is a sign out standout excellence or a case of what could’ve been is up for debate, but its 147 seconds of echoing masochism is a sick delight regardless.
Aside from closer “Olde Guarde’s” overlong outro, ION is not afflicted by any real serious quality concerns. ION’s musicianship is solid and diverse, and those that can stand its sheer malevolence will be grimly rewarded. ION’s de-emphasis on atmosphere puts the record at a clear disadvantage when compared to Portal’s most memorably excruciating works, but its still a suitably torturous affair that lives up to the cosmic anomalies that Portal is (in)famous for. This might not be the ideal jumping off point for newcomers, but ION is an advisable listen for veteran Portal fans and otherwise intrepid extreme metal adventurers alike.