I seem to have a habit of disagreeing with “record of the year” predictions. So far this year I’ve reviewed five albums that have been widely called just that, and thought they were a bit meh. I’ve heard some cracking records but I haven’t at any time thought to myself “this could be the very best new thing I will hear this year”. Until now.
Music talks to me if it fills me with emotion, takes me somewhere I’ve never been, and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, regardless of what genre or sub genre you want to tag it with. I like compositions that see the different instruments, and voice, support, provide contrast and play off each other. I want dynamics, darkness and light, patterns that change like a kaleidoscope where the elements belong together but are ever-changing.
Whether you call it progressive melodic metal, or symphonic rock, there’s a lot of it about, so to get noticed you really have to be doing something special. You need new ideas and you need to be very, very good. Each element on it’s own needs to be brilliant and the combination of the elements needs to work uncommonly well.
In the case of long-awaited (and I mean long-awaited) debut album Portal of I from Melbourne six-piece Ne Obliviscaris, the first element that gets your attention is the drums. Dan Presland (who left the band late last year after recording Portal of I) is fast – really fast. Liberal use of blast beats and twin bass, he also slows it right down and becomes quite loopy when needed, or stops altogether, as around the five minute mark of opener “Tapestry of the Starless Abstract” before returning like a pulsating stream of burning shards of steel. In this way the drums typify the dynamics contained in Portal of I. It’s hard to imagine music that could be any more extreme in the difference between its softest and loudest moments, not just in volume but in its texture, emotion and its very essence.
The next element to explore is guitar – two guitarists in this case, variously banging out power chords, reverb foundations, climactic shredding, occasional flourishes, simple single-strum acoustic chords or classical acoustic picking. None of it is particularly ground-breaking but it is of the highest musicianship and the production is always spot-on. As with the drums, Portal of I is not about guitar, but their presence or absence at any beat is specific, meticulous, considered.
Enter the harsh vocals of Xenoyr- far more articulate, melodic and theatrical that most of this type that I’ve heard. His opening lines do, dare I say it, make me think of what Bon Scott may have sounded like if he sang black metal. Xenoyr’s voice has that clarity, that self assured story-telling feel of songs like “Jailbreak”. Yet as you travel through the record you pick at least three or four variations on Xen’s vocals. At times they are a deep and thunderous roar while at others it’s like Gollum is sneering contemptuously at you in your nightmares. Once again, as prominent as they are, these vocals are not the centrepiece of Portal of I, instead waiting in the wings and striking from time to time rather than taking over the music. If harsh vocals are not your thing, stick with it because this could be the record that opens a whole new world for you.
Less than a minute into the record and you hear the pizzicato of Tim Charles’ violin behind Xenoyr, the first taste of some of the best violin you will hear in rock. It’s not just violin that Tim provides either, and 90 seconds into the record his clean vocals enter to counterpoint the growling tones. His voice is smooth, clear, strong and covers an impressive range when combined with falsetto. Pulled back in the mix, some have confused production volume with strength and depth, but I just don’t know how you could hold those notes so perfectly with a weak voice. Mind you what you hear in the opener is merely a taste of what’s to come.
At the half way point of the 12 minute opener as the noise is reduced to two soft acoustic guitars, Tim’s violin slowly, tentatively creeps into the music adding that extra layer. Look I don’t know the technicalities of playing violin, I just think it is the best instrument ever invented, but Tim extracts a huge variety of sounds in a short space of time. I could listen, no I have listened, to that two minutes over and over completely entranced and he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what you will hear over the next hour and a bit. Strap yourself in music lovers, because a minute later and the whole thing explodes once more with guitar, bass, drums, violin and growling vocals bringing the song to a dramatic close.
It’s only in the second song, “Xenoflux”, that the bass appears in the spotlight, and even more so in “Of the Leper Butterflies”, leading the introduction and laying down some great melodic backbone that continues through the song. Even still, the bass never really dominates front and centre on the record and given the lack of a wall of synth and computer samples it’s the right role.
The songs are long and each one is a musical journey that would make any progressive rock band proud, passing through a variety of themes and emotions. They way the instruments and vocals interact is superb as they step forward then pull back without ever really leaving. Even during the quiet moments you still feel the influence of the silent instruments despite their absence, or perhaps because of it. Each listen reveals more secrets, more depth, and more reason to love Portal of I.
I first met Tim Charles at an Explosions in the Sky gig. He was just a face in the crowd and I had given a thumbs up to his sleepmakeswaves T-shirt, which he responded to by almost climbing over the crowd to talk to me and sing the praises of the Sydney band. It was obvious that apart from being a talker, he couldn’t speak of other bands highly enough. Similarly when I had a brief chat a few weeks ago with Xenoyr he was genuinely excited about the response to Portal of I but very humble, and like with Tim he was quick to talk about other bands he likes. It’s no wonder that the record is not a vehicle for a Prima Donna.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the record and band but I’m going to save that discussion for an interview, so please watch out for that. In the meantime there are dozens of reviews out there (I particularly like Matt Cerami’s on Metal Infection) and plenty of comment from metal fans to read (they really are an excitable bunch that don’t hold back on their opinions). This record hasn’t come quickly, and if that’s how long it takes to create something like this, then I’m prepared to wait for the next one.
Posted by Gilbert Potts