From crushing metal to math-rock, Portals Festival has all bases covered and pulls together heavy bands of varying stripes and presents them inside the impressive surrounds of Hackney’s EartH venue. With the action spread over three stages, some difficult choices must be made in terms of clashes, but the compact site means you can cram the maximum amount of rock action into one day.
It’s always hard for festival openers, especially those performing on an early afternoon, what with the laissez-faire attitude of the slackers and ne’er-do-well rolling up late. However, those who’ve pitched up early have their hangovers blown away by Shy, Low, a quintet who dish up some of the finest instrumental rock known man. Building huge, monolithic sonic structures in worship of some strange pagan deity makes for a pretty overwhelming experience, as does the triple guitar assault which creates an impenetrable wall of sound. Yet, they make great use of musical dynamics and juxtapose loud sections with quiet, creating a multi-dimensional set, and one that raises the bar high for the rest of the day. Over on the Theatre stage and hailing from Cork (on the isle of Eire), God Alone aren’t recommended for the faint of heart, and their energetic, epileptic modus operandi finds them all over the stage like a rash. Their music is like a piece of Dada art with sounds cut and pasted, seemingly at random, yet with lashings of melody, and with a guitarist/vocalist who looks like he’s escaped from Frankie Goes To Hollywood, things border on the surreal. Full-on and frenetic, God Alone turn a stagnant Sunday afternoon into a sparkly Saturday night. Having blazed a trail up and down the UK, Portals is something of a home town gig for London-based Pupil Slicer, and they hit the stage with the confidence of a band who know they’re on the upswing. Vocalist Kate Davis is mesmerising, and spits her words like Regan MacNeil (from The Exorcist) and, in conjunction with bassist Luke Fabian, makes for an intriguing proposition, the pair are like oil on water, at odds yet inseparable. It’s a spirited set that’s full of raw, visceral power and if you want to catch their gist, then imagine a jackboot stomping perpetually on humanity’s face and you’ll have something approaching to power of Pupil Slicer.
After the Pupil Slicer’s histrionics over in the Hall, things take a more sedate route on in the Theatre. With a name as enigmatic as his sound, VLVM employs tonality to great effect and sculpts sonics to create a sound that reaches into the very depths of your psyche and plucks at your heartstrings. The raw concrete, pitted walls and decorative ceiling make the perfect frame for VLVM’s evocative set, and despite the low key, parred-back performance holds the crowd’s rapt attention over 35 spellbinding minutes. Imagine Gary Numan colliding with Godflesh, and you’d have a sound that’s akin to dark and discombobulating (but strangely enticing nonetheless) sound of the Netherlands GGGOLDDD. With a vocalist who writhes and ululates as if subjected to a series of electric shocks, GGGOLDDD crawl along like a creature existing on the seabed, and with the weight of a whole ocean bearing down with uncomprehending pressure. Not even a slight mishap with the band’s electronics can throw the group off kilter as they proceed to trap the crowd in a kind of mass hypnosis. I’m unsure into what category GGGOLDDD fall (if any) but whatever it is, I like it. Aussie rockers SEIMS are no strangers to the UK (or, indeed The Midlands Rocks, we caught their explosive set at 2022’s Arctangent, reviewed here) and since they last played these shores they’ve aged like a fine malt whiskey. Riding on a wave of confidence, they hit the stage like a raging tornado and dazzle the crowd with their take-no-prisoners ethos. Judging by the show SEIMS put on, there really should be more viola in rock and it gives the band a folksy, earthy quality that sets them apart from their peers. It means the band can get light and airy, and then stomp with that Sabbath swing, and their cinematic sound draws a crowd to the stage like swarf to a magnet.
From the creative hub that is Bristol comes Svalbard, a group of four malcontents who combine various strands of extreme music into a red-hot laser beam. Serena Cherry is the quintessential front-person, and a screeching cry is just what’s required here. However, it is bassist Matt Francis who plays sitting down and with his leg in a cast and gets awarded the “Trooper Of The Year” badge. They seem genuinely enthralled to be playing Portals and they deliver a no-holds-barred set that’s full of piss and vinegar, and never have songs about depression and suicide sounded so good! You’d expect a singer attired in pyjamas to deliver a subdued set, as if about to turn in for the night, but not so with The Guru Guru (so good they named it twice) vocalist “Tom The Bomb”. Looking like he’s just escaped from an asylum, he paces the stage in an agitated manner, which only adds to the spiky feeling of dislocation that hangs over the stage. Like Devo, only updated for Generation Next, The Guru Guru are a force of nature and their set is part gig/part theatrical performance with poly-rhythms that teeter on the edge of chaos, and songs such as ‘Make (Less) Babies’, from the forth-coming album of the same name, signposting a bright future. Leicester’s Maybeshewill are a pleasing amalgamation of the organic and the electronic. Despite containing four burley guys, the band move gracefully, as if a flock of swans, ululating to the music’s hypnotic beat. The band have an impressive discography, and dig deep to deliver a set that ebbs and flows like a river of silk wending towards some distant horizon. This is music that emanates from another world, nay dimension, and has a strange ethereal quality that exists somewhere between wake and sleep. Maybeshewill don’t rely on fancy gimmicks or suchlike, in fact each band member tends to fade into the background, and this has the added bonus of bringing their songs to the fore, and with songs this good, that’s exactly where they should be.
The final night of their UK tour (before they jet off to the continent) finds Japan’s Paranoid Void headlining the Bar stage, and the sizeable audience they’ve drawn attests to the buzz and excitement surrounding the band. The crowd are packed tightly centre stage, the band appear with little fanfare and proceed to dazzle us with their musical deftness. At once complex and accessible, there’s a strong focus of melody and song structure that underpins everything the band do, sometimes that melodic sensibility is hidden in a maze of ingenuity, and sometimes it’s on the surface, but it is always worth seeking out. These run of dates have sharpened up Paranoid Void, and the band lock in together like a well-oiled machine with the lithe guitar entwining the elephantine bass, and the two dance a waltz over some dexterous drumming. The band deliver a crowd-pleasing, 45-minute set (of which ‘travel #afterward’ is a definite highlight) that seems to alter the very fabric of time and is over much too soon, yet it has left the crowd hungry for more, and eagerly awaiting a promised return next year.
In a career that has been characterised by a rugged self-determination, there’s not a high that headliners MONO haven’t reached. Since their formation in Tokyo in 1999, the band have forged their own path and have left a trail of critically-acclaimed albums in their wake. In a typically understated fashion, MONO’s set promises to be a slow builder with songs that grow and blossom organically. Cinematic is a word that could be applied to several acts playing this year’s Portals, but it is no more apt than when used to describe the sound that emanates during this set. Creating a thousand different vignettes in a thousand different minds, ‘Riptide’ and ‘Imperfect Things’ (both from 2021 album Pilgrimage Of The Soul) get things off rather ashen start, yet the band starts rolling and takes on new shape and form as it traverses. Like a frog in a bowl of water that’s slowly boiled, MONO subsumes us in sound without our knowledge, and when we become aware, we are already encased in a warm fuzzy ball. Evidencing an easy, natural chemistry, MONO collectively slide and sliver like a snake over hot sand, and as if some strange hydra, are synced in perfect harmony and move as such. Their eight-song set is culled from five albums, and does a good job of touching all bases, but time constraints will mean somebody is always going to be disappointed with song selection (my own bugbear is no tracks from Scarlet Holliday) but how can anyone feel disheartened when an encore like ‘Com(?)’ rings out sure and true, and brings down the curtain on my Portals in fine style.
MONO Set List:
- Imperfect Things
- Nowhere, Now Here
- Halcyon (Beautiful Days)
- Ashes In The Snow