Xasthur - Portal of Sorrow [Disharmonic Variations - 2010]Portal of Sorrow is to be the last we’ll hear of Xasthur, as the band’s sole instrumentalist Scott Connor AKA Malefic has decided to call it a day: “The motivation and inspiration used to be there full time and now it's not there at all… It is a role or persona that I have simply outgrown.” And it shows throughout the album where musical ideas are repeated without being extended or explored and the lo-fi production dilutes the dark drama one usually expects from stalwarts of the 21st century international black metal scene.
Initially, though, the album surprises in its lack of the usual power tricks associated with the genre. Across the 14 tracks, folksy acoustic guitars are featured more centrally than electric, creating a shade of dark that bit deeper than the expected pantomimic power chords and not dissimilar to the dogmatic purity of the neofolk scene. Also untypical is the choice of time signatures where over half the tracks are waltzes, lending a nomadic ethnicity to the ghost story melodies. Most enchanting of all though is Marissa Nadler’s vocals that appear on almost all tracks but are best represented by ‘This Abyss Holds the Mirror’ and ‘Released from this Earth’ where her delicate balance between haunting and hymn needs no further accompaniment to disorientate and beguile its audience.
But this subtler approach would have had so much more influence if the production was better. All tracks sound like demo versions where only the top end of the drums is evident maintaining an annoying splashy sound while any dynamic force of the electric guitar, when it is used, is flattened. The compositions also lack variation, possibly a symptom of Malefic’s otherwise impressive one-man band approach in that it lacks the gestural interplay of fellow musicians that can create contrapuntal tension and release. Instead many of the pieces on Portal of Sorrow are built around a single refrain where the only progression is the bringing in and out of the limited range of instrumental layers (guitars, piano, synth strings, bass and drums).
Without Marissa Nadler’s vocals the album would not be up to successive listens, and with better recording qualities and more interplayfulness it could have been a much more dramatic finale to Xasthur’s last waltz.Russell Cuzner