Matt King’s voice is a strangulated demon-howl, an elemental hell-rasp. The frontman of the Austin trio Portrayal Of Guilt sounds like something other than human. He comes off as a shrouded wraith, drifting his way across windswept moors in the dead of night and bringing doom to all he touches. If you listen to We Are Always Alone, Portrayal Of Guilt’s second album, without a lyric sheet, then you might only pick up a few of King’s words through the storms of jagged guitars and turbulent drums. (I like how he bites down hard on the word sorrow. As in: “sor-row.”) Based on tone alone, you expect King to be singing about castles in the mist, about ships with black sails, about death. And Matt King does sing about death. But he sings about death like this: “My eyes roll back. The terror begins. I follow the light. There’s nothing at the end.”
Portrayal Of Guilt aren’t into mythology. They’re into misery. We Are Always Alone is a brutal, bloody-minded, immersive album. Drumrolls explode like grenades. Guitars clang and screech and bay. Ominous clanks and whirrs and hums fill the space between songs. King screams like he’s got broken glass lodged in his throat, like the blood he’s gargling is making it so he can’t form the words quite right. The music on We Are All Alone is aggressive, convulsive. But it’s not angry music, and it’s not power-fantasy music. It’s music made from a place of numb, bottomless sadness.
The name “Portrayal Of Guilt” is not a figure of speech. Nobody chose it because it sonds cool. It’s a literal depiction of the stuff that King roars about throughout We Are All Alone. The entire LP is a concept album about regret and isolation. King’s words come from the perspective of someone who cannot wait for the embrace of death, who sees life as nothing but a series of fuckups: “Hopeless and afraid/ I’ve reached the bottom/ I’ve failed you.” It’s some of the bleakest music I’ve heard in a long time.
Here’s Portrayal Of Guilt on getting ready for the day: “Pill after pill, I prepare myself for the morning ahead. My body folds, writhing in pain. No one is here for me.” On religion: “Your faith can’t save you. Your prayers, they mean nothing.” On waiting out your days: “This burden of living never seems to end.” And while the band depicts life itself as a near-unbearable trial, death doesn’t sound that great, either: “I’ve lost myself in solitude. My time is now. Into the grave, my body molds.”
Portrayal Of Guilt have been dealing with this kind of brutal emotional heaviness since we met them, and their 2018 debut album Let Pain Be Your Guide was not exactly light reading. But We Are All Alone is deeper and starker and nastier, and it’s recorded with more depth and intensity. There is no comfort to be had on We Are All Alone. The closest thing to transcendence arrives on the penultimate track “My Immolation.” Again, that title is not a metaphor. King tells a story about burning his own house down, then walking outside and looking at what he’s done: “I think about my life and begin to cry. Breathe in. Breathe out. I close my eyes and step inside. I become one with the flames. I’ve never felt so alive.” (That’s how it looks in the lyric sheet. On the song itself, “breathe in, breathe out” becomes a barked, rhythmic mantra.)
The music offers no comfort. Portrayal Of Guilt come from the worlds of hardcore and metal — places where small genre differences matter, where slight deviations in sound become matters of tribal self-definition and ritual and maybe even comfort. But Portrayal Of Guilt don’t subscribe to any of that. Their songs don’t have the interlocking pieces — the mosh-part breakdowns, the guitar solos — that tell us where to locate the music on an imaginary map. Instead, they swing from sound to sound with wild-eyed abandon. Long stretches of We Are All Alone sound like black metal. Bits and pieces — like the thudding telltale-heart bass at the end of “They Want Us All To Suffer” — recall scuzzed-out ’90s noise-rock. Every once in a while, the band will let in brief glimpses of shredded melody. All of it fits together into one whirling, seething whole.
Portrayal Of Guilt have toured and collaborated with a lot of screamo bands. Two members of legendary Richmond screamo crews, Pg. 99’s Chris Taylor and Majority Rule’s Matt Michel, contribute to We Are All Alone, just as they did on Let The Pain Be Your Guide. But I don’t think that’s Portrayal Of Guilt signaling which fractured subculture category they belong in. I think it’s more that Taylor and Michel are friends of the band, and that the tone of their screams fit the songs best. It’s a mistake to listen to an album like We Are All Alone through the lens of genre. Instead, the right way to hear it, I propose, is to dig deep into the masterfully jagged ugliness of it, the wounded sputters and the lonesome cries.
We Are All Alone plays as one continuous whole, each new burst of raw exposed-nerve intensity careening right into the next. It’s a symphony of bad feelings. The band conceived, wrote, and recorded the album during the pandemic, when their touring plans fell apart. It’s not a pandemic album, and it’s not really political, though a song title like “They Want Us All To Suffer” certainly has some cultural resonance. But We Are All Alone is choked with the remote, defeated loneliness that’s hit so many of us so hard in the past year. It’s an album about waking up every morning, looking at the same face in the mirror, and realizing you’re just about done with that fucking person. And if Portrayal Of Guilt don’t offer any hope reassurance, any hope that things will get better, can you blame them?
We Are Always Alone is out 1/29 via Closed Casket Activities. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Madlib’s Four Tet collab Sound Ancestors.
• Weezer’s OK Human.
• Arlo Parks’ Collapsed In Sunbeams.
• Tribulation’s When The Gloom Becomes Sound.
• The Notwist’s Vertigo Days.
• Baio’s Dead Hand Control.
• Goat Girl’s On All Fours.
• The Body’s I’ve Seen All I Need To See.
• The Besnard Lakes’ Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings.
• Lawrence Rothman’s Good Morning, America + Not A Son.
• The Sonder Bombs’ Clothbound.
• Buke & Gase and So Percussion’s A Record Of….
• LNZNDRF’s II.
• Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s New Fragility.
• Indigo Sparke’s Echo.
• Lia Ices’ Family Album.
• Anna B Savage’s A Common Turn.
• Lucero’s When You Found Me.
• Ani DiFranco’s Revolutionary Love.
• Katie Dey’s urdata remix album.
• Martin Gore’s The Third Chimpanzee EP.