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  Make Mine Music  
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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.

Related Links:
  EP featuring, among others, Portal collaborating with Schengen.
Split, an album featuring Portal and Yellow6.
Remixes of Portal songs.

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