Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tool's fifth album: Why I don't mind the wait

Via Rolling Stone, some thoughts on the as-yet-nonexistent fifth Tool album, and why fans (like me) are happy to wait 12 years or more for this band. Been cycling through their discography in recent weeks and I'm rediscovering that special sense of wonder that their work can bring about, given ample time and attention. I kind of can't believe how much there is to savor.

I didn't get to touch on everything in this piece, of course. One noteworthy omission is Tool's sense of humor, which is absolutely a key part of their overall aesthetic — those offbeat interlude tracks on Ænima, for example, which seem designed to thwart an over-earnest reading of this often very heavy band (in all senses), and at least faintly suggest that their entire endeavor might just be one very elaborate, very sick joke. It's not, of course — at least, I don't think it is — but Tool have never been about reassurances, have never been about anything, really, other than handing over these dense, painstaking audiovisual texts and saying to their fans, more or less, "Here. See you next time. If there is a next time."

Also, if I'm a little hard on 10,000 Days in that piece, it's probably because of how much I love Lateralus, and because I don't feel its successor quite measures up in terms of overall sturdiness and elegance of design. It's the first time, to me, that I really hear the band sort of grasping, if you will, cycling through old tricks and sounding somewhat tired. Still, though, this is all relative. It's an incredibly rich album that absolutely rewards repeated engagement.

Just to spell it out, there are no inessential Tool works. I've been going back to Undertow and, just this morning, Opiate, and I'm marveling at how vital this music sounds to me still, 25 years after I first heard it. Maybe slightly dated, sure, but thoroughly gripping all the same.

So long live 'em, and may they take all the time they need, this time and every time. Here's probably my favorite Tool song to date. I get an almost supernatural charge every time I hear Maynard jump up to the higher register at around 3:04, and things only get better from there.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

"The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable...": On Portal's 'ION,' and the Lovecraftian horror of alien intelligence

Last week, I wrote up ION, the new Portal album, for Rolling Stone's new-release column. I was happy to be able to shout out the release, but I knew I was nowhere near the point where I had my head around this thing — or, even after around eight years of engagement with their work, around the band in general. In music, though, especially "extreme" or "experimental" music, this is a good problem to have. The feeling of bafflement is, for a certain kind of listener, essentially inextricable from one's fascination with the thing at hand. Many of my musical obsessions — craw, for one — started out as objects of pure confusion.

It's become something of a cliché to frame Portal — a Brisbane band who have been active since 1994 but have only more recently become a sort of household name among fans of bizarre underground metal — in terms of how impenetrable their music is. And having combed back and forth through their discography several times since I first heard their third album Swarth back in 2009 or 2010, I can say that I think this is a perfectly valid way of framing the band. But as I listen more, I feel the need to probe into this reading a little bit.

I'm currently listening to "Revault of Volts," one of my favorite tracks from ION. And with the sound of the Portal back catalog fresh in my mind, I feel a little better equipped to consider the piece (somehow the word "song" seems less than adequate) as a continuation of an established musical approach. To me, this track epitomizes one important facet of the Portal sound, namely this sort of writhing, lurching quality their music has, the way the band will suddenly zoom forward with stunning intensity only to sort of jerk back into a swirling, throbbing nether zone of non-rhythm. Drums and guitar work together in sickly harmony: Rigid blastbeats mesh with jagged, gnashing, whirring riffs — the band formerly used eight-string guitars but have returned to six-strings for ION; the sound is different but the basic quality of the riffs, their seesawing, divebombing, wriggling weirdness, remains unchanged — then give way to these musical breaths if you will, passages of slackening or repose, as though the riff were a chained animal that had exhausted itself and needed to regroup before violently hurling itself forward yet again. Often drummer Ignis Fatuus (all members employ pseudonyms) will sort of roll and shudder on his toms during these pauses in what seems to be deliberately non-metric fashion. Even his blastbeats, maybe Portal's clearest link to the "mainstream" of death metal, sound almost rickety, irregular, which helps to explain why Portal's music moves (breathes, unfolds, etc.) in such an unfamiliar way.

The music keeps petering out, hurtling ahead, and over top of it vocalist the Curator lays these sort of rasped invocations, almost as if he were reciting spells. The effect is more like spoken word than any kind of conventional extreme-metal delivery, seeming to sort of stand to the side of the music, or hover over it, than exist as the songs' focal point. His lyrics are filled with weird spellings and arcane wordplay, heightening the band's fixation with some shadowy, surreal past. Here's guitarist, co-founder and co-composer Horror Illogium, discussing the origins of Portal in an uncharacteristically revealing 2009 interview:
"Some years were spent on crafting our very own dimensions of horror, delving into the antiquated."
In this interview, which seems to be from 2008, he stated, memorably:
"...the vintage world we have created is a compulsion, an illness. "
The Curator formerly wore a grandfather clock headpiece onstage. The band's debut, from 2003, is called Seepia. Some stanzas from that album:

Temporal pestilence reliquaries
Breaching earthen quaint finite
Vint-Age fatalism

Swey excerpts Outre bound
Traversal bled maloccupancy
Perpetuate thee

Omenknow effect
Phreqs to become
Bloating in conquest

Apparatus of the Swey
Usher of Outre
Siphoning the Ether
Ululant Piper

Words and concepts appear again and again in their work. Seepia's follow-up is entitled Outre', and there's a track on ION called "Phreqs." Again, a sense of unification and deliberation. There's nothing random about any of this. It's not impenetrable, or at least any more so than any determinedly outlandish art is. They're simply building their own world, some kind of crazed, yes, antiquated labyrinth, and it's really up to you the extent to which you want to explore it. I feel like I'm beginning to become accustomed to the sensation, but I don't feel any more "comfortable" with this music, and honestly, may it ever be so. We come to music for many reasons, sometimes, as with say great pop, finely chiseled rock or even most metal to sort of block out the chaos of the world. A song can make sense in the way that life rarely can. But other music seems only to amplify or reflect that chaos, or even, in the most compelling instances, to craft its own chaos in response, a chaos that isn't random at all but is merely the outward manifestation of an order that is, upon early exposure, beyond our comprehension. So we call it chaos, or impenetrable noise, or employ some other term that seems to sort of safely contain it.

In that same 2009 interview, Horror Illogium talks about the band's early Lovecraft influence. And though they clearly quickly outpaced this or any other influence (it's instructive to note the Morbid Angel influence he cites as well, and just as instructive to note how the band has taken Morbid's writhing riff-sense and made it even rougher, more turbulent and more irregular), I'd argue that they retained something of that author's sense of horror. It's been a while since I've read Lovecraft's incredible 1930s novella At the Mountains of Madness, but the basic premise and sensation of that tale has stuck with me: the discovery of a vast alien city hidden somewhere on Antarctica, and the horror inherent in the realization that it is the product of some superhuman intelligence.

"I think that both of us simultaneously cried out in mixed awe, wonder, terror, and disbelief in our own senses as we finally cleared the pass and saw what lay beyond. Of course we must have had some natural theory in the back of our heads to steady our faculties for the moment... We must have had some such normal notions to fall back upon as our eyes swept that limitless, tempest-scarred plateau and grasped the almost endless labyrinth of colossal, regular, and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses which reared their crumbled and pitted crests above a glacial sheet not more than forty or fifty feet deep at its thickest, and in places obviously thinner.

The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset. Here, on a hellishly ancient table-land fully 20,000 feet high, and in a climate deadly to habitation since a pre-human age not less than 500,000 years ago, there stretched nearly to the vision’s limit a tangle of orderly stone which only the desperation of mental self-defence could possibly attribute to any but a conscious and artificial cause."

So the root of the horror, then, is the realization that what one is beholding is not random. In fact, it is the exact opposite. As Lovecraft suggests, the idea of random-ness, that something simply came about through the passage of time and the course of nature, is somehow comforting. You're still awed, but you don't have to reckon with the sense of what mind, human or otherwise, could have wrought such a thing. It's once you realize that there's a conscious brain, an intent and deliberation beyond your imagining, a profound order amid the seeming chaos, that the real horror begins. That, for me, is the jumping-off point of Portal fandom. And it's why I hope that their music will never sound any less outlandish. Even back in 2009, Horror Illogium knew that a high bar had been set, and as a fan, I trust that they're not about to fail us anytime soon:

"Usually some guitar parts are created from some inspiration and built upon for months, we know when we have a Portal sound when we feel revolting or just from instinct. There is a lot of unused music that just didn’t touch that horror gland..."

In an interview in the new issue of Decibel, Ignis Fatuus discusses how the band recorded and discarded an entire album in between 2013's Vexovoid and ION. We can only assume that it "just didn't touch that horror gland." Like all past Portal releases I've heard, ION definitely does. The effect of the monstrous sound truly is indescribable — and may it ever be so.