Album Review: Portrayal of Guilt – Devil Music

[Run For Cover; 2023]

The symbolism of christian religion is based on a duality that is best described by the german term ‘Kippfigur’. The term describes a drawn image which – dependent on perspective of the viewer – can collapse into two different realities. The implicit meaning here is that two things can be true at once for the very same thing. It’s somewhat of a didactic moral play, an idea modern culture is very uncomfortable with, as it allows for ambiguity and questions the perception of individual truth. But it also highlights a dualism in all spiritual understandings of the world, which can be found in the great second hermeneutic principle: “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above.”

Directly applied to religious principles, it leads to the theological concept that heaven and hell are not so much ‘real’ places, but states of being which reside within us at the same time and express themselves outwards within our spiritual conquest of everything that transpires within and around us. Lust and suffering can be inextricably connected, just as religion is both sacred and profane at the same time. French sociologist Émile Durkheim even considered this the central characteristic of religion itself: “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden”. For Durkheim, the interests of the religious unit (an outer authority) collide with the concerns of the individual believer (the authority of the inner voice). All interpretation of religious principals to reach any higher state of spiritual being or divination thus must become a struggle.

When applied to mythology, the thesis underscores that demons are fallen angels and that the concepts of eternal damnation and eternal glory in the metaphysical realm of heaven and hell are overlaid on top of each other. This, of course makes way for an uncomfortable observation: what if good and bad are merely synonyms of opposing interests which apply to the motivation of control? History is written by the winners, so who’s right if the kingdom of god has been eternally divided between those that follow and those that fell? Even more complicated, any such debate within the constraints of the church is no less than blasphemous, as it directly questions the value system of the institution. And things become even more spicy when the classic christian mass (which reacted to pagan ritualism) is compared to that of the satanic church, whose mass is a direct inversion – or parody-ritual – of the catholic mass: one cannot exist without the other, as it is a direct byproduct of and reaction to warring religious ideologies.

So what the hell has any of that got to do with Devil Music by Texan hardcore figureheads Portrayal of Guilt? Well, the newest record of the decadently perverse three piece is a direct manifestation of the concept “As above, so below” applied onto music. At 30 minutes, it’s an EP with a unique and poignant concept: the A-side consists of five garish and raw hardcore tracks that incorporate metal and screamo elements, while the B-side interprets the very same five songs as baroque classical compositions performed by a string section. It’s a daring artistic concept, faintly related to how Sinner Get Ready saw Lingua Ignota exchange industrial for folk instrumentation, but after the Texans decided to manifest a horror-film-as-record with CHRISTFUCKER, there’s little in the realm of impossibility for them.

And so the A-Side hacks and slashes itself through its five tracks, rich in atonal melodies and ominously spidering guitars. Compositionally a step forward from the raw violence that its predecessor rewarded, it also comes across significantly less malicious. There’s a newfound grace to the use of blastbeats and vocal excursions, a storm of grim passion that envelops all senses. These five songs by themselves could have been a worthy release, but on their own they would have almost seemed a bit of an afterthought.

And that’s where the B-Side kicks in, delivering the alternative interpretation of those songs in all their abysmal glory. Backed by a beautiful gothic short film, their story becomes something larger than its parts, growing into a rural psychological horror-story that embraces stark romantic imagery. In this framing, the sexual nature of some of the lyrics reveal themselves, strongly associating mental struggles and self harm with catholic fears and satanist pleasures. Demons, angels, nuns, witches – it’s all part of a greater duality inherent to human nature. Freed from the pounding noise that comes with the band’s metal configurations, the music reveals its subversive spirit through a newfound gentle wardrobe, which retains every lascivious sway and angered growl.

In this sense, yes, this is very much devilish music that toys with ideas of perversion and unholy communion. When, on “Burning Hand”, a rasping growl announces “Her burning hand will always haunt me / Bound by desire, lusting over me / She paints my body in her own blood / It’s like I’m living in a nightmare”, there manifests a sense of imminent doom and spiritual submission that is uniquely religious in its anticipation of the inevitable and quest for absolution. Purity is a theme that reoccurs throughout the record and short film as an essential misunderstanding – a division honed by a fractured belief system: purification through other means of experience. Very Clive Barker, it debates pain as pleasure, and pleasure as pain.

Cryptic and obtuse, Devil Music never spells out concrete answers for its thematic struggles – there’s no definitive closure. Instead, it asks the listener which version is the dream and which the nightmare. Sonically it succeeds in opening up the future opportunities of a band already rich with ambition. And artistically, well, it skirts as close (and intelligently) to blasphemy as a 21st century project could – and Portrayal of Guilt indulge in this act with glee and artistic sensitivity. That it may remain a ‘minor’ work in their discography seems unjust, but then anything that blossoms from the seeds laid here will likely be even more garish, more haunted, more graceful than this black mass.