Portrait - Burn the World - (8.5/10)
Published on September 30, 2017
Looking around at the retro metal scene of the last decade, it’s difficult to tell exactly what remains of the enthusiasm for all things occult and analogue that sprang up and, in many cases, disappeared just as quickly. Two parties seem to have weathered the natural selection process better than others, those being the bands who subscribed more to the retro rock side of things, digging pre-album Pentagram and Coven in the manner of Witchcraft, Graveyard, and Blood Ceremony, or the group that took Mercyful Fate’s twisted heavy metal template into heavier waters, of whom Wolf and Attic have drawn the most attention in recent times. Portrait belongs to the latter group, adding substantial ballast to the occult metal formula with 2011’s Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae, which featured material that could even be considered as extreme metal going by the barrage of percussion and some blackened riffs. Since then, however, the Swedes have been sliding back in the opposite direction, Crossroads proving in 2014 that the band also valued the traditional approach with its catchier ‘80s feel.
That Portrait have been around for 12 years now perhaps explains their ability to fuse all those elements together into one on newest album Burn the World, which gives up none of the trademark dark lyricism or evil overtones, yet presents the cutting edge of the band alongside more gently rocking moments that welcome the older bands mentioned in the previous paragraph. The easiest comparison to make is still to King Diamond and his cohorts in Mercyful Fate, not least because of Per Lengstedt’s strong multi-octave vocal efforts, though it must be said that his performance is now more balanced than on previous efforts. However, there is ample evidence that Pagan Altar were on the playlist before recording, since “Martyrs” opens with an easily loping riff and contains the same laidback soloing that Alan Jones used throughout Mythical & Magical. The two instances of Hammond organ are similarly retro reminders of older influences, the brief instrumental track “Saturn Return” proving an atmospheric way in which to kick off proceedings, but “Likfassna” suffers from the slapdash deployment of the solo in contrast to the regular pounding drums that back it.
Those worried about a band gone soft needn’t spend too much time shortening their fingernails, the title track quick to convince on that count as it leads in with just about the grimmest riff of the band’s career, sounding like a band playing with Satan’s coattails as he ascends in search of retribution. Likewise, the fiery charge of “Flaming Blood” mixes speedy riffing with intense double bass and one of the most electrifying vocal hooks of the album. The drums hit hard in other places too, though don’t cite blastbeats as frequently as back on Crimen…, more often pounding thickly without being incited to any true violence. Melodies and solos, on the other hand, are used to excellent effect on several songs, rising like an eerie wind along with Lengstedt’s voice, while solos are deployed both to adrenalize and to ornament proceedings, both of which are highly successful.
The vocal performance is probably the biggest marker of how far Portrait have progressed since their early days and the reason why they remain relevant today. The vocal hooks are so much more persuasive than the majority of bands pedalling this style, setting the quicker “Flaming Blood” and “To Die For” alight, while ensuring the steadier “Martyrs” and epic closer “Pure of Heart” steal your breath in an altogether more comfortable fashion. That the band have largely managed to achieve this without sacrificing the complexity of their instrumental ideas (down to a three-piece for this album, it’s quite a feat) is testament to their hard work and vision, resulting in their most successful outing to date.
For all the positive features, there are nevertheless a few nagging doubts about the catchiness of a song like “Likfassna” and the seemingly unnecessary “classic rock” moments that break up a generally fast album that – lest one forget – already includes two very serviceable mellow instrumental interludes. In addition, the band’s Achilles’ heel returns to haunt them and a few moments get lost in the girth of the longer numbers. The band’s tendency to overcomplicate is obvious when listening to the special edition, which includes “The Sower’s Cross”, a sub-four minute romp that proves at least as fun as all the main album tracks and complements the listen far more by its presence than absence.
However harsh these criticisms may sound, grouping these various strands together into a single comment is decidedly in Portrait’s favour. Burn the World is a more diverse and interesting album than anything the band have previously put their name to, showing a strong command of the basics of their dark heavy metal, including a lot of addictive riffs and uplifting leads, the inclusion of which means their own particular formula approaches closer to total success than ever before. With another step in the same direction, Portrait may be ready to take on the world.