“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
– “The Call of Cthulu,” H.P Lovecraft
Metal’s pantheon is inexplicably vast. The entities that reside in the depths of the abyss outstrip the heavenly host in variety, if not in devotees. Still, metal’s priesthoods tend to attract cultists with a deep commitment to the rituals, even though many refuse fealty to any god. The bare step into heresy seems transgressive enough for many. But some bands take their commitment to a mythos much more seriously, not content just to assume the trappings of the occult or the worship of pagan idols. Portal’s gospel of the incomprehensible, non-euclidean nightmares at the edge of metal’s pantheon derives directly from the nature of the mysterious beings themselves. Vexovoid is a temple to the inscrutable, and the geometries and inscriptions featured in its blueprints seem inked in a language only accessible to those whose sanity the Old Ones have already shattered.
A glimpse into vocalist The Curator’s lyrics might afford us a window on this madness. From the first “verse” of “The Back Wards”: “Elabyrinthinian Dementian/ Cthonic Subconscious Lobotomaze/ Mysterion Machinations Mesh/ Suasion Aforethought/ Prescriptic Figments Accost/ Curing the Sane” (found here). This “verse” has a design, but that design lies beyond any grammar that English has ever seen. The string of component words forms a cloud of sense. No truth valuation is going to drop from this proposition, but a vague image of its meaning materializes: that which lies below the threshold of consciousness is an impossibly enigmatic trap that relieves the ensnared consciousness of the burden of sanity. Or maybe that reading is just a feeble attempt to find a logic in this mess. Regardless, there is a plan here, comprehensible or not to the audience. Investigating this design yields a kind of strange loop: in seeking to rationalize the lyrics, the texture of the words themselves fascinates the conscious mind and leads it deeper and deeper into an unsolvable riddle, which also seems to be what the subject of the very song lyrics you’re investigating. The Curator inscribes the process of listening to “The Back Wards” within its own elusive structure; it seems as if the song becomes more aware of the audience’s desire to plumb its mysteries the more closely we listen, as if we have stumbled into the dreams of a slumbering deity and it is slowly becoming aware of our presence as we attempt to put the puzzle together. It’s only the most devoted cultists that the gods devour.
The instrumental aspects of Vexovoid feature similar mind-flaying patterns. Trying to map the structure of any of these songs would leave most at a loss, yet they feel consciously ordered. “Oblotten,” the final, fully instrumental track, whose title I can find in no dictionary, hides within it a leitmotif that repeats in different chromatic registers and picking styles while swelling bass drones and thundering drums deepen the mix. It returns at the ending as a solo bass riff floating in the abyss. While to certain ears it may seem that the individual parts of any song on Vexovoid are independent and self-contained, like an endless series of bridges, what seems obvious on closer listens is the way each song evolves, sometimes into unexpected territory, but always meshing into the internal consistency of each piece. Each part couples the impossibility of predicting its outcome with a thematic and textural interlacing that stretches through the song. What’s more terrifying? That what lies beyond the imagination is a formless void or an unfathomably ordered structure? It’s Portal’s ability to invoke the strange aeons beyond death that makes their music so uncannily horrific. Their death metal refuses to stop at death and continues even deeper into the darkness.
Vexovoid’s production is perhaps the clearest of any Portal album yet, which allows us to hear more clearly the undulations within the clouds of Horror Illogium’s and Aphotic Mote’s guitars. Yet the album loses none of the mystery or filth of Portal’s earlier sound; filth viewed through a microscope is no less dirty. It takes deep listening to parse the guitar work, but what’s clear is that their murky style still contains buried rhythm and tonality. The production equally values the bass and drums with its hi-fi low frequencies. None of this clarity shatters their mystery. On the contrary, the increased ability to hear each instrument means that the intricacies of Vexovoid only become more apparent. These glimpses through the gateway to realms unknown provide clear images; it’s the things on the other side that perplex us.
Portal’s unique choice of mythos reflects in every layer of their being, all the way down to the costumes they wear. In its own way, Vexovoid is a kind of devotional music for Lovecraftian deities. But more importantly, it evokes them, unseating the listener’s expectations of stability and intelligibility and replacing them with horror and convolution. Their strangeness marks them out from more typical death metal bands, while still retaining their brutality and extremity, a distinction that results from the ideas that animate Portal’s work and their commitment to forming their music into a vehicle for the monsters to which they bow. Vexovoid refines these ideas into a more audible form, closing off the listener’s ability to escape it. Just don’t listen too closely or the structure might start making sense.
02. The Back Wards