When I had received Portal's Outre' in the mail, I was not entirely aware of just what a strange and terrifying piece of music I was about to subject myself to. Having spent over a decade honing their playing style as well as their bizarre aesthetic -- a sepia-toned homage to Expressionist silent film, Surrealist art, and the Lovecraftian Outer Gods -- Portal unleashed a bubbling, nightmarish chunk of cacophonous blackened death metal upon the world in late 2007. As I listened through the album and looked through the contents of the gatefold CD case, it became abundantly clear just how much work they had placed into creating a truly bleak and unsettling atmosphere. Needless to say, I was impressed.
"But what does it actually sound like?" some of you 'orgers may be wondering. If I had to paint a rough picture, I would say it was as if someone had put all the earlier albums by Morbid Angel, Immolation and Incantation into a blender, added in the later, more dissonant work of Gorguts, dropped in a few dark ambient albums, hit puree on the blender, and then covered the whole mixture in tar.
But simply listing off a number of metal bands hardly does Outre' any justice, so I'll go into detail. The drumming on the album is a bit subdued and lower in the mix, but it's clear that the drummer (whole goes by the pseudonym of Monocular) is doing wonderful things with his kit, particularly the snare drum. While a lot of death metal bands try to overwhelm the listener with a barrage of double bass and cymbals (often resulting in something that sounds like a vomiting typewriter), the drummer in Portal prefers to use lightning-fast snare rolls; this choice is part of what makes his drumming so interesting, and it gives Outre' a continuous sense of forward movement, almost like a death march. The bass on the album is also fairly low in the mix, and can sometimes be indistinguishable from the guitars, but on the more 'jangly' or 'noodly' parts that pop up from time to time, it's clear that the basslines are just as technical and abstract as the rest of the instruments. The vocals on the album, performed by a member referred to simply as "The Curator," could definitely be classified as death metal vocals, but there's something different about them. Instead of going for the grunting or screaming that most death metal bands use (or, if the band is retarded, pig squeals), The Curator's voice on the album is more akin to a deep, throaty whisper. It's an effective approach, and definitely fits in to the overall creepy vibe that Outre' has.
But the real star of the show is the two guitars. The guitar tone on Outre' is a thick, swirling mass that goes a long way towards setting the mood of the album. It's heavy, creepy and organic without sounding too rough, raw or metallic. Riffs on the album, if you can call them that, are oftentimes extremely twisted and abstract, approaching a level of dissonance similar to Gorguts' Obscura. The picking on the album is extremely fast, creating waves of sound that pass over the listener. Because of this, the transitions are just as fluid; oftentimes, different parts of the song will meld into each other, like some strange amorphous beast from an H.P. Lovecraft story. It's difficult to describe just how the guitarists are able to harmonize together to make such a wash of beautiful noise, but suffice to say, their stylistic choices make Outre' a disorienting and mesmerizing experience.
Atmosphere oozes from this album at every turn. Behind the instruments, you can hear howling winds, metallic clanks and other distant noises that give the album a very surreal atmosphere to it. The combination of the instruments, vocals and noises give the listener the impression that Outre' was recorded in some deep, infernal cavern. These ambient bits also allow for an effortless transition from song to song. In addition to these ambient bits, the intro to the album is a short, cacophonous ambient bit, and the title track is a harsh piece of ambient noise. Even the look of the album fits in perfectly with the creepy atmosphere, a beautiful gatefold package with the CD in one sleeve and the booklet -- beautifully designed and filled with grotesque, unsettling pictures -- in the other. Lyrics have a ritualistic quality to them, and use a lot of strange, often nonsensical words. For example, from the song "Black Houses": "Seepia accord thee / Stygian Obsequious Antipodes / Drear Thy Larder / Paradoor Thy Quay."
Outre' is the total package, an album that transports the listener into strange and often nightmarish territory. If I had to make a complaint, I would argue that some parts of the album may drag on too long, but it's difficult to find too much fault with such an accomplished piece of music. Listening to the album has been a confusing, draining and ultimately exhilarating experience for me, and when the final song "Sourlows" fades out into noise, I find myself in awe, wondering just what the fuck it was that I was listening to, how it is possible for human beings to make such music, and where the band could possibly go from there. This one may not be for everyone, but anyone who has an interest in harsher, dissonant music should not pass over what will likely be one of the most significant metal albums of the decade.