Austin post-genre, unholy noise peddlers Portrayal of Guilt have spent the last five years making the kind of relentlessly bleak, extreme heavy music that could have its central thesis statement be boiled down to the assertion at the top of this review. Your response to that statement – c’mon, who doesn’t love a little self-discovery via multiple choice? – should suffice to indicate the degree to which you will relate to, and possibly even enjoy, the band’s astonishing and punishing new album We Are Always Alone.
The merest glance at the track names – “A Tempting Pain”, “It’s Already Over”, “Garden of Despair” – should let you know what you’re in for. Matt King, guitarist and vocalist (rarely has the term ‘vocalist’ felt so lacking to describe the sound that emanates from a particular person’s mouth) is a self-confessed misanthrope and nihilist who spends most of his time alone in his bedroom and thinks of the clusterfuck of the past few years as little more than the grand-scale confirmation of a long-held pessimistic outlook on humanity. Fortunately for us, he and his bandmates are partially selective in their nihilism, and at least have enough belief in the value of making music to have dropped a couple of EPs and several split releases, as well as their blisteringly promising 2018 debut album Let Pain Be Your Guide.
That LP, which packed a veritable grab-bag of metal sub-genres into a breathlessly exhilarating and anxiety-inducing 22 minutes, heralded the arrival of a special young band; one hugely indebted to Converge and 2000s screamo royalty like Majority Rule and pg.99, but also incredibly ambitious and forward-thinking in their own right. Unbeholden to any one aesthetic lane, Portrayal of Guilt surrounded a backbone of vicious metallic hardcore punk with black metal blast beats and blizzards of guitar, heavingly monumental doom, sludge and post-metal – then cut it all up with industrial ambient interludes.
Let Pain Be Your Guide also bore some of the telltale signs of being a debut. For every standout track (like the multi-headed beast of an opener, “Daymare”), there was another that relied more on intoxicatingly frenzied energy than especially memorable or differentiated songwriting.
This is a shortcoming the band have resolutely addressed on their sophomore LP. Several years of intensive touring (cruelly cut short by the Covid-19 crisis) have seen the band grow not only technically, but also with regard to their songcraft and studio mastery. We Are Always Alone is a phenomenally produced record; the band, along with producer Philip Odom and mastering engineer Will Yip (whose name you’ll recognise from many of the best-sounding heavy music records of recent memory), expertly toe the line between DIY-rawness and GodCity Studio hugeness, all whilst creating an atmosphere of horrifying existential dread. Of course, a great sounding record wouldn’t count for much without the songs to back it up. And on that front, the band resolutely brings it.
Sequenced with the express purpose to be listened to front-to-back as a complete whole (not exactly a tall order given the album’s sub-half hour duration), We Are Always Alone sees Portrayal of Guilt invest as much attention and energy to their shortest, most face-melting tracks as they do their more expansive forays into relatively epic four-minute runtimes.
Every song has something, or multiple things, uniquely interesting about it. In the opening trio of songs there’s the sudden pivot to catchily snotty punk-rock on “The Second Coming”; the rumbling bassline and Jesus Lizard guitars of “Anesthetized”; and the spiralling melodic descent that makes “A Tempting Pain” an irresistible vortex of human misery.
“It’s Already Over” arrives shortly after, juxtaposiing clean emo gang vocals with King’s gargoyle hell shriek. Following that comes the pure horror of “Masochistic Oath”‘s noise rock, which suddenly takes flight with black metal dramatics before switching gears into a punk gallop and then back again to enter a nightmarish call-and-response between coruscating noise and a ghoulish chorus of voices from the catacombs.
Barely a breath can be gasped before “They Want Us All to Suffer”, which seamlessly segues into album pinnacle “Garden of Despair”, a track that functions as a sizzle reel of everything Portrayal of Guilt are capable of. Full of abrupt changes, the song experiences extreme mood swings, from violent eruptions to dread-inducing lulls, culminating in a deeply uncomfortable minute of horror movie strings.
Penultimate track “My Immolation” will stand out to many on first listen, with its intensely insistent refrain of “breathe in, breathe out” as King describes burning down his own house, before it unexpectedly lurches into gothic post-punk, replete with pleasantly sung vocals describing his own skin and bones succumbing to the flames and turning to ash. “This is where I belong,” he sings, and for the first time, the overwhelming sadness that informs the album’s every word, every convulsive breakdown, every sonic assault, emerges from the chaos. It’s heartbreaking.
For all its horror trappings and flat-out aggression (the album-closing title track even ends with one last fakeout jump-scare blast to the face), We Are Always Alone is a deeply emotional record. It is catharsis writ large; a writhing, wailing, violent resistance against the injustice of a cruel world full of self-serving people. But, most of all, it is the reflection of a mind not made for this life; a psyche horrified by its own existence. No wonder the record feels like it’s tearing itself apart.