As the site’s biggest Cynic fan, I was excited to learn that Season of Mist would be officially issuing The Portal Tapes for the first time ever. Though not an actual Cynic release in and of itself, it’s an important part of the band’s history and an interesting bit of curiosity when looked at as part of the band’s post-Focus output. So before we start in, an explanation: in 1994, a year after the release of Focus, Cynic broke up. Following the dissolution of Cynic, guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal, guitarist Jason Gobel and drummer Sean Reinert formed a new band, Portal, with Cynic live bassist Chris Kringel and vocalist/keyboardist Aruna Abrams. The band put out a demo tape, but nothing else ever materialized, and soon the members had drifted apart to other projects. Three of the tracks, “Endless Endeavors”, “Circle” and “Cosmos”, were packaged with the 2004 reissue of Focus, but not until now was the complete demo given any kind of official release. So as it is, this is not strictly a Cynic production, but having three out of four (or five, depending on whether you count vocalist/keyboardist Tony Teegarden) members of the band involved is going to lend certain Cynicisms (yes, I get to use that word in two articles!) to Portal’s sound. Enough history, let’s get down to the music.
Elements of Portal’s sound are immediately familiar to any Cynic fan. Reinert’s signature drumming style, the jazzy chord phrasing and fretless bass are all present. The biggest difference between the two bands is the near-abandonment of Cynic’s death metal stylings (aggressive riffs, harsh vocals, double bass, etc.) in favor of more atmospheric layerings and an emphasis on clean female vocals courtesy of Abrams. The full-on embrace of jazz fusion is understandably an immediate turn-off for some fans, but if you were a fan of that aspect of Cynic’s sound, it’s cool to hear that territory explored more thoroughly. The band splashes and moans through the first two cuts, “Endless Endeavors” and “Karma’s Plight”, accompanied by crawling bass lines and keyboard ringing. “Circle” (previously known as “The Circle’s Gone”) is almost a stab at a pop song, with a catchy guitar lick and a big, dramatic chorus. It’s clear that with songs like that and the following “Costumed in Grace”, the Portal crew are aiming for a more approachable sound, but they sometimes sound like elevator smooth jazz in the process. It’s a hard line to walk, and Portal are prone to succumbing to their indulgences, but there are songs like “Cosmos” that sound close enough to Cynic to forgive some of the more cheesy moments.
Portal never went anywhere. This demo is the only release the band ever had, and this rerelease is the same product. Your enjoyment of the music itself depends on what you like about the Cynic sound and your tolerance for fusion (note: if you’re reading this website, there’s probably not enough metal on this for you). But if you’re a Cynic fan interested in charting the musical evolution of Masvidal and co., this is a crucial document. It fills in some of the space of the long gap between Focus and Traced in Air, and there’s some legitimately good music to be found here if it’s your bag. More important than the music itself, though, is that it’s being made available again in the first place, and that’s pretty cool.[signoff predefined=”Signoff 1″][/signoff]