Review Summary: Powerful techno on and off the floor.
There's often a decidedly reigned-in approach taken on techno albums. Even the heaviest hitters can be willing to soften up their sound in an effort to create an album that's more dynamic and appealing as a complete package, rather than something that sounds too much like a collection of club tracks. It can easily be a recipe for success, but often it comes at the cost of the artist losing some of what appealed to their listeners in the first place. There are no ambient passages, mellow interludes, or softening of sounds to be found on Vril's Portal
, and if there was ever an album to prove them unnecessary, this is it.
“Portal 1” is as close to “build-up” as anything here could be considered, with its slightly restrained drums chugging along under slowly swelling pads. From then on, it's earth-shaking, propulsive techno from wall to wall. Every track here is filled with alarming percussive force. Even the melodic elements play a percussive role, whether it's rhythmic chord stabs in “Portal 3” or the simple sliding note opposite the machine-gun-fire drum hits in “Portal 6”, there's never a single layer of sound present that isn't being utilized to its full potential.
The sound here is undeniably direct and aggressive, as is to be expected with techno so perfectly fit for the dance-floor, but Portal's ability to remain captivating from start to finish comes from the subtle ways that tracks develop underneath the mesmerizing repetition. The chirping percussion and soft rumble of “Portal 2” slowly transform into devastatingly hammering drum hits and a wailing, haunting ambiance, while “Portal 7” starts off as a brisk, mechanically clattering passenger car, and ends up feeling like a life-or-death moment; a frantic engine sliding off the rails with its breaks cut. Some of these tracks end up drastically different and far more grandiose than when they began, but they build and evolve in such a smooth way that it's not always obvious they've done so. And while techno that's this mechanically forceful often feels hopelessly bleak and aesthetically grayscale, Vril lets in just enough melody to create powerful hooks while illuminating their dark surroundings, providing a welcome colorization to the industrial imagery that Portal evokes.
In many ways, the largest appeal of Portal
and Vril in general is not that far off from the appeal of techno that's oriented for bedroom listening. All the subtleties that make those albums captivating and meditative are at work, only here they're operating on a colossal scale. Portal
could easily get by as a collection of excellent dance-floor cuts just based on its raw power and blistering energy, but it's elevated far beyond that by Vril's expert attention to detail. As an album, it's both endlessly rewarding and immediately appealing. It's powerful techno on and off the floor.