Do you remember your first time hearing Converge? I remember mine: September 2001, a listening station at a Syracuse record store, maybe a week after Jane Doe came out. And I remember what I thought: something along the lines of what the fuck? This was clearly heavy, intense music, and I knew that I’d be in for that before I pressed play. But what I didn’t understand was how jagged and off-kilter it all was. These amazing riffs would come in, but they’d barely ever repeat, and the songs would spin off into some new direction. Time-signatures would switch up every few seconds. Bursts of sudden violence would erupt out of nowhere. Nothing made sense; it didn’t follow any internal mathematical logic that I could recognize. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, like running through a minefield. And sometimes it was frustrating, too.
All these years later, that sound makes a whole lot more sense. It makes more sense because Converge and their disciples have been making it all these years, and it also makes sense because the feelings that inspire that music have become all-pervading forces in our civic and personal lives. Converge’s Jane Doe came out a few weeks after 9/11, when it felt (at least to sheltered Americans like me) that the order of the universe had suddenly been shattered into nothingness. Seventeen years later, it becomes more painfully obvious every day that there is no order, that there never was to begin with. There are only forces of gluttonous avarice, willing to plunge the world into darkness and chaos as long as they can hold onto whatever scraps of power they have left. Maybe that was always the case, and maybe the only real difference is that they’re now being outright dickheads about it. But now we’re all walking around pickled in anxiety and depression and anger. And that’s what Portrayal Of Guilt make music about.
Portrayal Of Guilt come from Austin, and they know they’re working within a certain splinter of the hardcore continuum. Converge are clearly an influence. So are Majority Rule and pg. 99, two bands who helped define what screamo was when screamo was still an insurgent hardcore subgenre. Majority Rule’s Matt Michel produced Let Pain Be Your Guide, Portrayal Of Guilt’s first album, and he also sings on one song. Pg. 99’s Chris Taylor did the artwork. Dylan Walker, of grindcore experimentalists Full Of Hell, sings on another song, as does Maha Shami, of old-school screamo revivalists NØ MAN. And yet Portrayal Of Guilt don’t sound much like any of those bands, Converge included. They don’t really sound anything like emo or hardcore. In their erratic brutality, there’s more Napalm Death than Orchid or Earth Crisis.
Sometimes, Portrayal Of Guilt play so fast, in that black-metal way, that you can barely hear the drumbeats; it all comes out as an undifferentiated blur of sound. Sometimes, they go for gathering-storm-cloud guitar clangor, their eerie and tingly minor-key riffs portending the sudden onslaught that you just know is coming. Sometimes, they’re in basement-hardcore blitzkrieg mode; you can just picture the pile of bodies around the mic, singing along with words that are only barely recognizable as words. Sometimes, they make synthetic gothic-industrial noise. And all throughout they album, they continue switching gears suddenly and without warning. It makes for a hell of a ride.
Portrayal Of Guilt don’t write very specific lyrics, going instead for big-picture societal-ill stuff: “How’s it feel to be living on the edge of a knife? / No consequences / We’re born into this,” “My sins will haunt my soul until the day my memories fade away.” The entire text of “Death Is Gentle” is as follows: “The semantics don’t change my position.” The entire lyrics of “Chamber Of Misery (Pt. II)” are this: “Suffer.” Frontman Matt King sings in a raspy, overwhelming demon-screech, obscuring the band’s lyrics but emanating a sense of seething. And yet the band’s instrumentals are just as expressive as their other songs. They tell that same story of a world where everything has gone wrong.
Last week, on Election Day, I listened to Let The Pain Be Your Guide a few times. I was anxious, and I needed anxious music. Portrayal Of Guilt make anxious music. They make music that speaks to powerlessness and fear and depression. If I encountered Jane Doe today, I think it would make a whole lot more sense to me. And by that same token, Let The Pain Be Your Guide makes all the sense in the world right about now.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Smashing Pumpkins’ quasi-reunion effort Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1.
• Anderson .Paak’s as-yet-unheard Oxnard.
• The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s brooding return Merrie Land.
• Axis: Sova’s noisy, melodic garage rocker Shampoo You.
• Ryley Walker’s full-length Dave Matthews tribute The Lillywhite Sessions.
• Rose Doll’s spindly, lo-fi debut Your Dog.
• Mariah Carey’s latest comeback Caution.
• City Girls’ sneering Miami rap debut Girl Code.
• Leikeli47’s art-rap full-length Acrylic.
• Priors’ spacey garage-punker New Pleasure.
• Sloucher’s old-school indie rocker Be True.
• The Brainfeeder X compilation.
• Claire George’s Bodies Of Water EP.
• Mk.Gee’s Fool EP.