CD review

VEXOVOID, by Portal; You’re Nothing, Iceage

Tue, Mar 05, 2013 - Page 12

VEXOVOID, Portal, Profound Lore Records

Death metal usually has some kind of obscurantist content, secret messages to reward the listener’s desire to belong. In the Australian band Portal’s case, it’s the Cthulhu Mythos of HP Lovecraft’s fiction, which inspires a great deal of the lyrics heaved out in guttural bursts by its singer, who is known as the Curator. But to listen to Portal’s new record, Vexovoid, without reading the lyrics — assuming, let’s say, that you have a total lack of interest in amoral fantasy novels loosely derived from Sumerian myth — is to focus on issues of surface and sound and aural design.

Portal, basically, is about tone and motion. All the information you need to know is in the flattened haze of the guitars, the chop and resonance of the drums. All radical style becomes streamlined after a while, in the search for a common language; death metal, no exception, gradually lost its sense of straining and discomfort since the late 1980s. Now it often sounds efficient. One of the best things about Portal has been its refusal to fall in line with death-metal sound aesthetics. Its music never sounds efficient.

It sounds upside-down and backward. Most Portal songs are loosely connected chains of arrangements; the unity is not on the song level but on the largest level, the band’s constant use of certain modes and rhythmic patterns. You don’t remember how the songs go, but you do remember their weird feeling, their atmosphere. Every beat is articulated, and because of the upward guitar-strokes and the fast, ungainly drumbeat combinations, the rhythm sounds like rising rather than landing — as if the beats are being pulled upward out of the drums. Sometimes, as in Plasm — this record’s best and most varied track, with a couple minutes of numinous soundscape at the end — the music sounds like a viscous batter being hand-mixed with vengeance.

Vexovoid has a different sound than the band’s previous three albums. Each one reinvents the guitar tone; what you hear on Vexovoid, from the guitarists Horror Illogium and Aphotic Mote, is clearer and more elegant, a little less scoured and crackly. The drum sound is deeper, more resonant, with more midrange. We’re talking small but important increments, but this is moving toward traditional rock values. The album isn’t as jarring. It doesn’t sound like the songs are inventing their own structures and falling apart in the process. And there aren’t entire tracks made of overmodulated, rhythmless noise, like the sound of burning microphones.

For that, listen to Seepia, from 2003, and Outre, from 2007. I prefer those records; I think Portal got it right early on. But it makes sense, given Portal’s program of discomfort, to abandon what it was best at.

— BEN RATLIFF, NY Times news service

You’re Nothing, Iceage, Matador

“Excess!” howls Elias Bender Ronnenfelt, heaving the second syllable like a sack of garbage, about four minutes into You’re Nothing, the new album from Iceage. “Excess!” he yells thrice more, a little more measured each time, before the band slows its fury just enough to bring the song, Coalition, to a low-throbbing halt. Left unexplained is the intended purpose of Bender Ronnenfelt’s outburst. Provocation? Instruction? Impassive description? It’s fitting, anyway, though maybe not in all the ways you’d expect.

You’re Nothing comes with a burden of expectation: it’s the sequel to Iceage’s full-length debut, New Brigade (What’s Your Rupture?), which was released to almost instantaneous acclaim in 2011. And the burning question for this dour and brutally efficient Danish punk band is whether that momentum could possibly be sustained. (“Pressure, pressure, oh God, no,” Bender Ronnenfelt cries pitifully in the chorus of Ecstasy, the song that precedes Coalition, and opens the album. And this just after a chorus all about blissful surrender; he’s not a glass-half-full type.)

As it turns out, Iceage has only improved on its formula of turbulent energy and disaffected poetry, managing still to sound youthful, even juvenile — not such a stretch, age-wise — while reaching toward new ambitions. Along with Bender Ronnenfelt, a lead singer who thrashes around a bit on guitar, the band includes the drummer Dan Kjaer Nielsen, the bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless and the guitarist Johan Suurballe Wieth. They deliver as much heat and speed here as on New Brigade, exhausting the potential of most songs within a couple of minutes.

But this is also a band that has worked the circuit for a while now — it came through these parts last month, and will be back on April 20, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom — and it has grown tougher and more focused. There’s a lot of low-end churn and warped distortion in the Iceage sound. Yet the songs are coiled contraptions, unruly by design.

Bender Ronnenfelt squares his vocal style on sturdy precedent: he barks In Haze as if to suggest a raspier Joe Strummer, and elsewhere he calls to mind an Ian Curtis with wasps in his shoes. Bender Ronnenfelt articulates a single song on the album, Rodfaestet, in Danish, spitting out the words in a hydraulic stream. (One line translates to “rooted in frequencies,” which feels right.) His English is more deliberate, a means of conveyance for blunt cynicism: “There’s a vile fury within us / Despite what you’ve been fed,” he sings in Everything Drifts.

He’s capable of delicate imagery (from It Might Hit First: “A distant light / From an orchid’s glow”), and so there are desperate flickers of grace against a backdrop of toxicity. The album’s nihilistic title track even puts forth something approaching the philosophical. And on Coalition, Bender Ronnenfelt confronts his own romantic limitations: “Blockades run through my veins.” And: “Something denies coalition with you.” The martial imagery isn’t new for him, but he’s using it more sparingly now than before. If it’s an excess of feeling that he’s wailing about, he’s artful enough to distill it all to a bitter essence.

— NATE CHINEN, NY Times news service