Cynic: The Portal Tapes

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Cynic: The Portal Tapes
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Cynic: The Portal Tapes
Adult Contemporary, Jazz Fusion, Progressive Metal
Season of Mist Records
March 27th, 2012
Release length: 47:02
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Since Cynic reunited, they have been a band that has stayed on the tip of Metal fans tongues. But, then again, have they ever really slipped off and been lost? Either way, the mythos of this intriguing group has been forged stronger as of late thanks to their recent full-length album, and two following EP titles. Not to let their history be forgotten, Season of Mist Records have issued a strictly limited pressing of the only recording members of this act issued while under the name Portal, which disbanded in 1996 and led to the formation of Cynic back in the late nineties. Prepare the Way Back Machine once more, as The Portal Tapes returns you to their Progressive Rock and Metal roots.

This effort is surprisingly clear for a late nineties demo tape recording. In fact, you might assume this to be a remastering or remix of the full-length recording. Chances are it is given the crisp modern clarity, but unfortunately this information was not given with the press release, and there’s really no information to be found on this subject other than some fans claiming it’s louder and cleaned up compared to the original, though this could be just digital format versus tape. If it isn’t, then this was a superbly recorded release for back in the mid-nineties. The guitars here are pushed back in the mix with a much lower volume outside of the random midly heavy passages that appear throughout the recording. This is met with a louder bass performance that is more vital to the music than just a back up instrument. The lighter tone is accentuated nicely by the keyboards that come off crystal clear and set up a very soothing environment for the listener, coupled with soft and haunting female clean singing, as well as some male leads that try to pull off the same thing. While still a good performance, they don’t quite feel as emotionally driven as its counterpart. The drums are playing in a smooth, lighter manner with a slight echo to help fuel the ethereal atmosphere of the music. The cymbals are pretty clear, the snares sound tight, and the kicks have a lower thud that suits the momentum and output. However, there are times where it seems like the first two parts of the kit mentioned can be a little washed out, or just mixing badly with the aforementioned effect used on them. That issue aside, this all works well with the spiritual tone and foundation of almost all of the tracks.

While this release may carry the Cynic name, it definitely is an entirely different entity. If you’re expecting some of the technical elements of the group’s debut 1999 recording to show through, or even the more aggressive elements of it’s Progressive Death Metal sound from any point of their carrier, you will be quickly let down. The Portal Tapes is a very laid back Progressive Rock experience, and if you approach it as such, it does offer some enjoyable music that is often laced with rich environments. Unfortunately, not all end up working out, as listeners do have to worry about the empty material that lies in wait. “Karma’s Plight” offers up some of the heaviest chords and dominant male vocals you’ll find on the release in its chorus, but outside that it’s really soft and thin, relying greatly on the bass to fill in where the unique guitar distortion can’t as it goes off working on the environment more than consistancy. The same can be said for “Road to You,” except this has less going on in it everywhere but the chorus, and the slightly edgier tones are also completely erased from that passage too.

Luckily, there’s not a lot hollow material, but many that work in pure harmony with both elements. “Endless Endeavors” introduces you into this whimsical music world very well, utilizing the bass to give off what sounds like a Middle Eastern hint of influence. The keyboards add a bit of a digital synth spike to the music to enrich certain bridges, and the haunting female vocals are softer here, going for an innocent approach while dueting with the male leads here and there. While a good song, it’s when the music really works with the atmosphere to weave a richer performance. “Circle” acts as the best representation of what Portal was trying to accomplish here, bringin together beautiful material into the stand out atmosphere through all the instruments, and the layering of stronger male leads against the softer, distant female singing. The simpler, slightly heavier, but highly infectious chorus can immediately hook the listener. The more intimate vocal piece that appears later on, as well as the Space Rock solo towards the end, really shows the potential they have, but never seems to really show off. “Cosmos” is another superb balance that finds the guitars and bass working together more, while the keyboards often give off a bit of an astral sense to the music to perfectly reflect the title of the song, mixing together some heavier moments with the less aggressive and lighter side of the group.

But, are The Portal Tapes a bad experience, or even deserving of half the flack this recording receives? Honestly, not really. Yes, there are a couple empty songs that could have been filled better, not every song is a catchy hit, and if you go in expecting anything Cynic related you will be let down. But, this isn’t Cynic, nor is it meant to be any of those things. The Portal Tapes is a very laid back demo recording that, unfortunately, can take the lighter music a bit too far in the attempt to be spiritual and environment driven. While the current band name be slapped on to avoid confusion with an established band of the same name, this is Portal as they were back in 1995. This is definitely not an album for everyone, but for the niche market it’s geared towards, this demo recording definitely has some tracks that are well worth experiencing, and many that are just sub-par, but not bad. Either way, unless you’re adding this as a collectable item, or are a die-hard fan of this act in its current form, The Portal Tapes are definitely something you would want to sample before rushing out for something new to listen to.

01. Endless Endeavors – 4:04
02. Karma’s Plight – 5:34
03. Circle – 5:10
04. Costumed in Grace – 4:24
05. Cosmos – 4:21
06. Crawl Above – 3:57
07. Mirror Child – 5:04
08. Road to You – 4:25
09. Belong – 4:20
10. Not the Same – 4:29

Overall Score: 6.5/10
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Digital review copy of this release provided by Season of Mist Records.