Surging with violence and dripping with venom, Portrayal of Guilt’s half-hour of industrial-grade hardcore is enough to purge the darkness from anyone’s soul. Casting aside their sixty-second tantrums in favor of songs with more fully fleshed out structures, Matt Taylor delves beneath the band’s deplorably intelligent brand of metal.
We are barely a month into 2021 but, with the release of their sophomore album We Are Always Alone, Portrayal of Guilt can already stake a claim to have created the most entertainingly punishing albums you will hear in 2021. A blistering twenty-six minutes that melds elements of screamo, black metal, hardcore, and power electronics, with bluntly nihilistic lyrical content that offers up ruthlessly critical self-examination, it creates an aural experience with the uncomfortable-yet-compelling appeal of probing a mouth ulcer. Portrayal of Guilt’s refusal to commit fully to one aesthetic camp is their greatest strength, and We Are Always Alone displays their greatest level of genre hybridity yet.
Their association with Chris Taylor of legendary early-2000s screamo band pg.99 (who provides the album artwork as well as a guest verse on opener The Second Coming) hints at reverence for the genre that is borne out by their constant oscillating between a queasy, clanging clean guitar sound and all-out, visceral distortion. However, whereas bands like pg.99, City of Caterpillar and their ilk used these tones to construct often melodic guitar parts, guitarist/vocalist Matt King lashes them to chord progressions that have the eerie chromaticism of a horror movie soundtrack; it cannot be understated just how well these songs aestheticize ‘evil’, making the efforts of most metal bands look pedestrian by comparison. Lead singles It’s Already Over and Masochistic Oath were accompanied by a music video resembling a grisly slasher film in miniature, and the rest of the album could soundtrack it just as well.
‘This is a bruising album that refuses to compromise.’
The blast beats and tremolo-picked riffs featured on tracks like They Want Us All To Suffer also seem to ground the album firmly in second-wave black metal territory, and guitarist/vocalist Matt King’s rasps and growls are certainly more evocative of the demonic incantations of early Darkthrone than screamo’s emotive outpourings; however, that genre’s propensity for lengthy song structures and guitar histrionics is undercut by Portrayal of Guilt’s economical songwriting, with three songs clocking in at under two minutes each. To complicate things further, there are the briefest of nods to hardcore punk, such as in the halftime breakdown of Anesthetized. However, this short groove is tempered by almost a full minute of creeping ambiance immediately afterward; splashing cold water in the face of anyone here expecting libidinal release, the tense atmosphere the band creates isn’t going to be dissipated that easily.
More so than on 2018’s Let Pain Be Your Guide, ambient segues are foregrounded throughout the album, harkening back to when the now three-piece had a fourth member operating from a dedicated noise setup (à la contemporaries Full of Hell). Dispel any new-age baggage associated with the word ‘ambient’, however; while these sections (provided by Mack Chami of power electronics duo Terror Cell Unit) are beatless and textural, they consist of grinding industrial noise and sickly synths that bludgeon rather than float. At its best, such as when a sputtering car engine seamlessly transitions into an aggressive drum-driven Masochistic Oath, and further into They Want Us To Suffer, they elevate the album from being a sequence of great songs into a cohesively oppressive soundworld. It’s bleak, and it never lets up.
There are small gestures that suggest the band could be attempting to appeal to a broader audience than on Let Pain Be Your Guide, most notably in the cleanly sung vocals of My Immolation or the surprisingly catchy A life / misled / my body / so still refrain that underpins standout track It’s Already Over, but the fundamental sound is too hard-edged and ragged to suggest major success coming their way. Instead, these sections serve as welcome melodic embellishments that show a band expanding their palette without abandoning their essence. This is a bruising album that refuses to compromise, but the sonic intricacies reward close listening for those who can stomach it.
Written by: Matt Taylor
Edited by: Alex Duke