Portal began as a one-man act featuring the
ambient guitar explorations of Mr. Scott Sinfield. Since then
he has added a vocalist, one Rachel Hughes, and expanded his
repertoire to include piano, bass, and drum machine. The overall
effect, as fully realized for the first time on Promise,
is the logical evolution of the mellower side of New Wave music.
The drum machine tinkles along, (mostly) unglitched, like some
lost relic from my misspent teenage years in the 1980's. The
guitar is played through layers of distortion, but it is lanquid
and introspective, not angry distortion (as in punk or metal),
or spacey distortion (as in space rock, or Sonic Youth). Here,
the effects pedals are used to create different layers of sounds,
not necessarily to create a mood. The bass, where present, thumps
along slowly, happy to provide a nice rhythmic counterpoint
to both guitar and drum machine. Finally, new for Mr. Sinfield,
there are synth tones here and about. He has played piano of
late, so i suppose that he must have a spiffy new keyboard that
he is playing with. Either way, it really works for me.
Sinfield is the instrumentalist -- he takes all these elements
and crafts the songs. In a way, Ms. Hughes is another of his
instruments -- he positions her voice for best effect. And they
have done better with her voice here than they have in the past.
When i reviewed the Split album that Portal did
with Yellow6, i noted that Hughes' voice was a little overproduced
on the one track that she sang. On Promise her
voice is still very clear, but not so much out-front. The songs
display a better balance than that one previous track, and i
think it really works. Her voice, combined with the effected
guitar, the low synth drones, and the hi-hat heavy drum machine
really gives the tracks she sings on a New Wave feel.
I guess that the somewhat electronic nature of song construction
(simplistic drum machine and synthesizer), combined with her
clear and somewhat shy singing style are what bring New Wave
to mind when i listen to this album. The overall effect is happy
and vaguely bouncey. The songs are not weighted with overproduction
or too many computer effects, instead they are simple constructions,
allowed to run free within their meagre confines. That is, i
think, what strikes me most about Promise: the
songs themselves seem free and unworried. I associate that type
of feeling with life in the 1980's, with the simplistic beats
and proto-computer music of the era, and i think that this disc
harkens back to that time.
Two songs in particular sound like lost 80's classics. The
first is The Sun Will Rise, track 4 on the album. Here
the bass burbles in a wierd tone -- it sounds like one of those
electronic "stick" basses that were trendy for a week in 1986.
The bass bops along happily, and the drum machine scatters hits
around the bass riff. A wavering synth hovers in the middle
of the song, and keyboardy sounds mingle with the synth. Ms.
Hughes sings harmony with herself, a lovely effect of vocal
layering. This is a great head-bopping tune, and one of my favorites
of the year. It sounds as if it would have been a huge college
hit in this country in 1987 or so. Really.
The second lost New Wave classic is called Henna, and
it appears towards the end of the disc. This is a classic skinny
tie dance song, with that classic, loud 1980's synth sound.
Hughes's singing is louder here, and she carries the melody
well. A great, head-bopping song.
But that is not to say that Mr. Sinfield has forgotten the
guitar ambience that Portal started out with in favor of New
Wave dance music. Ghost In The Sand and Visions
are both updates on the guitar ambience that we have come to
know and love from Portal. Both of these tunes are interesting
for their modern IDM-ish beat. Given the retro-80's feel of
some of the other tracks, these blasts of modern drum machining
provide a nice contrast. On the other hand, From May To Decmeber
is a very typical Portal ambient tune of light, effected guitar.
Arion and The Rain That Clears the Air are almost
noisy, showing more of a Flying Saucer Attack influence on the
guitarwork than is usually evident.
So, this album is pretty diverse. It goes from New Wave dance
to FSA-esque noisy musings, from glitched ambient guitarwork
to minimalistic guitar drone. Given that variety, it is quite
a feat that Portal manage to hold all of this together as well
as they do. Indeed, the album flows quite nicely as a whole,
even if the individual songs show a wide range of influences.
Overall, i am quite impressed with this disc. If you enjoy
mellower New Wave, synthpop, and/or ambient guitarwork, then
this is an essential purchase. I know that i have enjoyed this
album quite a bit over the course of the year.