Portrayal Of Guilt Bring The Insular Apocalypse
Expectations can be a bitch. Unrealistic expectations can be such a bitch. Sometimes, when you’re going to see a band you really like for the first time, unrealistic expectations are the only kind that you can manage. That’s how I was with Portrayal Of Guilt. That band makes a sound so dark and huge and pulverizing that I half-anticipated them coming out onstage spitting blood-geysers into the sky like Triple H with the water bottle. A friend once referred to Portrayal Of Guilt as “the Misfits of screamo,” and that’s what I wanted them to be. But no. They’re just some guys — guys who make huge, dark, pulverizing music, but guys nonetheless. It’s not their fault that they’re not mystical demon-wraiths. It’s my fault for thinking, somewhere in the darkest recesses of my mind, that they might be.
In my experience, you usually can’t find mystical demon-wraiths in the backroom of a Mexican restaurant on a Monday night, but that’s where I found Portrayal Of Guilt last week. This was the day after daylight savings time kicked in, and I was dragging ass that night, but I was determined to finally catch POG, a band that I’ve loved since Let Pain Be Your Guide. Portrayal Of Guilt might not make the most sense for this column, since I’m not sure whether they define themselves as a hardcore band. Hardcore is a big piece of what they do, but it’s not the whole picture. They typically operate within the screamo wing of the underground, but that’s not the whole picture, either. There’s a lot of stuff going on in POG’s music — black metal, noise-rock, the clanking chains of the angry dead, etc. On the band’s most recent album, the second side is nothing but orchestral reworkings of the songs on the first side. I don’t think Madball’s ever going to try that.
When I first heard Portrayal Of Guilt, my main reference point was Converge’s Jane Doe. That was the biggest, most important hardcore record of its era, but you don’t hear too many echoes of it in hardcore anymore, and most of its influence probably extended to other genres. Maybe that association is why my brain refuses to let me hear POG as anything other than a hardcore band. But they don’t carry themselves like a hardcore band. At most hardcore shows, a band’s main job is to incite chaos, to get people moving. POG don’t do that. They don’t try. They barely talk between songs, and when they do, it’s quiet enough that I couldn’t really tell what they were saying with my earplugs in. (Some people go see this band without earplugs, but I have no idea why.) They don’t make a whole lot of eye contact, either. Matt King sings while playing guitar, something that most hardcore frontmen don’t do. He also keeps his head down, avoiding eye contact, and that’s something that hardcore frontmen never do. King’s not a huge guy, and he kept his hat pulled low over his eyes the whole time he played. For most of the set, I could barely see him.
So Portrayal Of Guilt weren’t the larger-than-life death-monsters that I had foolishly trained myself to expect. They didn’t perform. But they sounded amazing. When you see them, the waves of roiling chaos and aggression kind of wash over you. All three members play with ferocity and precision, and they’re completely locked-in with one another. When they’re playing loud, all the pieces of their sound, like the little black metal cymbal-dings, hit extra-hard. It was interesting to see a roomful of people react to that stuff, and to see myself react to it, too. For about the first 15 minutes of their set, people stood still and watched them. Then suddenly, at no particular inflection point, a pit opened up in the middle of the floor. The changes in POG songs aren’t mosh parts; there’s nothing in their twisting, chaotic music that exists to get people moving. But you could almost see the crowd step up and decide to become the show. Like: The guys in the band are busy. They are cranking out this intricate heavy evil, so if you want a physical experience, that’s on you. So go ahead. Start shoving into the people around you. Jump off of one of the tables that’s been pushed into the corner. Make your own fun. People did that, and it was fun.
This was my first Portrayal Of Guilt show, so I don’t know if they’re all like that. In their presentation — cover art, music videos, album titles like CHRISTFUCKER — Portrayal Of Guilt are a theatrical band. Live, they’re something else, and the theatricality was up to the crowd. That wouldn’t work for every band, but it works for them. At the show I saw, Portrayal Of Guilt were the one touring act on a four-band bill, and they didn’t play last. (Apologies to the Richmond metallic screamo crew Listless. They’re an absolute spectacle live, but they weren’t getting on that stage before 10:30, and I was tired as fuck.) The other bands on the bill all came from the screamo world, and most of them were locals, but none of them really sounded like each other. If you venture out into the wings of the screamo and hardcore world, you can see just how wide that umbrella is. Consider: True Body.
All the bands that I saw on that bill last week used sequencers or recorded effects. For most of the bands, that meant spooky drones and groans between songs, maintaining the atmosphere. But True Body are a full-on gothed-out post-punk band — a really good one, at that — and they used their gizmos for brooding keyboard riffs. True Body were something to behold. Singer Ivy III is a tall, diesel trans woman with a full-throated Glenn Danzig bellow, and she is a performer. The band played in front of a handprinted “Free Palestine Now” banner. Their percussive riffs and drones had urgency and style working for them. They played that Mexican-restaurant backroom like it was Madison Square Garden. I can’t believe a band this fully-formed is just sitting there in my local scene, that I’d never seen them or heard much about them even though they’ve been releasing music for nearly a decade. If you get a chance to see True Body, do yourself a favor.
A band like True Body would stand out in any context, but they stood out even more on a bill full of noisy, damaged screamo. Openers Ostraca, another long-running local band, share a general metallic-screamo aesthetic with Portrayal Of Guilt, but they approach that style in different ways. Ostraca sound lo-fi even in person, but their riffs are cleaner and more linear, less likely to lurch into another time-signature without warning. All the bands that I saw sounded huge, and it’s always striking to hear people channeling vast and mysterious forces while playing to a few dozen people in a venue that doesn’t seem to encourage that kind of dark transcendence. I generally feel more at home at relatively conventional punk and hardcore shows, but things are happening in that screamo universe. I was a dummy to expect something vast and intangible at a Monday-night DIY show, but when the records are so overwhelming, can you blame me?
Hardcore shows have really ruined my ability to enjoy live music in just about any other genre. At hardcore shows, you need to pay attention to your surroundings. If your radar isn’t functioning, you might catch an elbow to the chin without proper preparation, and that physicality forces you to live in the moment. When that possibility isn’t on the table, I have a tendency to disappear into my own head, to shut out the outside world. At a show from Portrayal Of Guilt or one of their peers, you can definitely catch an elbow, but I still tend to go on my own internal trip when they’re playing. It’s a funny sensation — existing within your own head while also being aware that someone might jump on that head. I haven’t found that in other genres. It’s not always what I want, but when I get to experience it, I’m glad that I did.
Combust – “Dark Corners” (Feat. Rome Streetz)
There’s a great story about Cold World procuring the Jim Jones drop that they used on “Refuse To Lose.” If I remember right, someone in the band was working as a parking attendant or a busboy or something, and they told Jim Jones that “Cold World” was the name of their internet radio show. Jones, still near peak Dipset era, had no idea that he was endorsing a hardcore band. I don’t think that’s the case with underground-rap big dog Rome Streetz on “Dark Corners.” It’s easier to imagine him and the Staten Island goons in Combust shopping at the same bodegas or whatever. But the spirit is the same — a familiar rap voice sounds its approval, and then the nasty riff kicks in and bedlam ensues. Combust’s hard-bounce forearm-smash NYHC is perfect for that kind of setup, and “Dark Corners” is an anthem that lives up to its intro. [From Promo 2023, out now on Triple B Records.]
Diztort – “Diztorted World”
In a pre-pandemic world, Huntington Beach’s Diztort were primed for big things. I saw them in 2018, and all the members of the band were rocking matching Diztort shirts, like they were a paramilitary unit. The singer was ripped as shit, and he looked like Mark Wahlberg. Five years later, that guy doesn’t look like Mark Wahlberg anymore — he’s got a longhair-prophet thing going on — and the long-promised Diztort album caught the world off-guard. But holy shit, what a perfect hardcore record. Diztort’s juddering bounce has lost none of its commanding force, and the combination of riffs and leads is some truly triumphant chest-beating shit, like King Kong after he swatted that first biplane. [From Vengeance Is Mine, out now on Advanced Perspective.]
Gazm – “Unicorn Tattoo”
Brutal and disgusting basement-punk tends to sound better when it gets more unhinged, and very few bands are more unhinged than Montreal’s Gazm. “Unicorn Tattoo” sounds beautifully disgusting and deranged even before singer Seb starts barking and howling like a coyote. When that happens, it’s fucking over. If you can make animal noises on a song and sound like you mean it, you have entered scum-punk Valhalla, and the rest of us must simply bear witness. [From Fuck You II EP, out now on Ice Island Hardcore.]
Infant Island – “Another Cycle”
I have been waiting for this Infant Island album for a very long time. I know that the guys in Infant Island have been waiting for a long time, too. (I’m friends with one of the band members, and the waiting process really opened my eyes to how much of a pain in the ass it must be to keep a DIY band up and running.) But the violent majesty of this song makes that wait feel like nothing. Infant Island were already a pretty transcendent screamo band, and now they’re soaring off into realms unknown, mysterious vistas of basement black metal that only intrepid acts like Deafheaven have really explored. When the hectic rush gives way to the gasping ambience and the anvil-drop rifffage, I can feel myself levitate. [From Obsidian Wreath, out 1/12 on Secret Voice.]
Ingrown – “Cold Steel”
When I saw the Boise trio Ingrown’s “Waste” video a couple of years ago, I did a real double-take. Their blistering, grindcore-adjacent pummel would’ve sounded explosively fierce even if it didn’t soundtrack images of dudes in ski masks riding around on four-wheelers and waving assault rifles around. I had to make good and sure that Ingrown weren’t sketchy. (I have it on good authority that they are not, in fact, sketchy, even if they do love their guns.) On “Cold Steel,” Ingrown keep the disorienting speed that they had a couple of years ago, but when they lock into mechanistic riffs, it feels even more reckless. I can’t wait to see what a song like this does to a crowded room, though I just missed a prime chance. This month’s column definitely would’ve been about the Harm’s Way/Fleshwater/Ingrown/Jivebomb tour if it hadn’t come through town on Halloween. If you’ve got kids, you can’t go out to a show on Halloween. It’s prohibited by the social contract. [From “Cold Steel” b/w “Grunt” 7″, out now on Closed Casket Activities.]
Ozone – “Don’t Know Shit”
Messaging is important. You should be able to tell someone everything that you need to say in a few simple, blunt words. Words like: “You! Don’t! Know! You don’t know shit!” That is the big message of the Fort Worth band Ozone’s “Don’t Know Shit,” and everything about the music, from the unrelenting speed to the singer’s high-pitched weasel-growl to the absolute evilness of that bassline, works to reinforce it. They’re definitely right, too. I absolutely do not know shit. [From Shutting You Down EP, out now on New Morality Zine/Coreruption Records.]
Paint It Black – “Safe”
“Not everyone is free! And that don’t feel safe to me!” Paint It Black, the Philly melodic hardcore heroes, were quiet for a decade before they suddenly came roaring back with their new album, which came out just after frontman Dan Yemin released another great record with his other band Open City. Yemin couldn’t have known how heavily those words would resonate when “Safe” dropped. The song isn’t written about anything happening in Gaza; it’s about the way that certain people in our own society ensure their own feelings of safety through the brutal repression of others. But that shit hits me extra-hard right now, when that tendency is being pushed to brutal extremes in front of the world’s eyes. “Safe” would be a great, passionate hardcore song even without that extra context, but now it feels like something else, too. [From Famine, out now on Revelation Records.]
Scarab – “Seeking”
Tyler Mullen sounded like the angriest person in the world when he was the singer for Year Of The Knife, and he somehow sounds even madder in his new band. Philadelphia’s Scarab play fast and mean and hard and ugly. Their dynamics are pure down-the-middle hardcore, complete with massive chugging breakdowns and Mullen screaming the band’s name. But the feverish intensity owes a lot to death metal, and so does Mullen’s inhuman gurgle-roar. If I wanted to make a small child cry, I would put this on and then tell them that the singer is hiding outside their bedroom window at night. This is not a parenting tip. I definitely don’t think that you should use Scarab’s music to frighten kids. I’m just saying that you could. [From Seeking Chaos And Revenge After Betrayal EP, out now on Rebirth Records.]
Sentinel – “Avenge”
I really thought Sentinel was going to be a pandemic-era one-and-done situation. The people involved are all busy, and they all have other bands — Mindforce, Mutually Assured Destruction, Restraining Order, Age Of Apocalypse. Colossus, another Mindforce project that put out an EP around the same time, has yet to even play a show. But Sentinel has turned into a full-on band, with an album on the way and everything. You don’t have to be super-talented to make an apocalyptic bark-it-out gutter-punk anthem like “Avenge.” It’s music that was invented so people who were not super-talented could make some shit that sounded like the end of the world. But when people who are super-talented make that music, it’s the kind of thing that I want to hear the next time I’m in full armor, riding horseback, about to fight some dinosaurs. [From Age Of Decay, out 12/8 on Convulse Records.]
Tozcos – “Presos”
If this song was crap, the music video still would’ve made a believer out of me. When someone puts that level of attention to detail into their early-‘80s punk pastiche, I mark the fuck out. Everything here — the haircuts, the sunglasses, the wristbands — could’ve come straight from The Decline Of Western Civilization. But this Santa Ana band’s righteous gallop is nowhere near crap. Instead, it captures all the catchy, revved-up snarl of early-‘80s California bands like Agent Orange and TSOL, but with a purposeful drive that feels extremely right-now. I feel like this song has been in my life for years, and that’s a great feeling. [From Infernal, out 11/21 on Toxic State Records/Quality Control HQ.]