"The Portal Tapes" is an official release, under the CYNIC banner, of songs that Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert worked on as a side project with then-current CYNIC guitarist Jason Gobel, bassist Cris Kringel and keyboardist/vocalist Aruna Abrams in 1995, under the name PORTAL. Before listening to this album I was not aware of "The Portal Demos" and as such went into this album expecting to find the missing link between the rumbling, jazzy Death Metal of "Focus" and the tripped out Prog Metal of "Traced In Air."
Initially the album sounds quite familiar. Sean Reinert’s distinctive toms open the album in a way not dissimilar to “Nunc Fluens“ from "Traced In Air." In fact I was quite taken aback by how similar the beginning moments of “Endless Endevors” are to that album. Given that these songs were written more than 10 years before "Traced In Air" and the huge, stylistic differences between it and "Focus," which is "The Portal Tapes" relative contemporary. The sudden interjection of female vocals was quite unexpected – again, I had no prior knowledge of "The Portal Demos" – and this coupled with the non-derivative, fretless bass work of Chris Kringel furthers the gap, bringing to mind more readily the "Carbon Based Anatomy" EP than any of the band’s 1995 output. When Paul Masvidal’s vocals do finally make an appearance it is in a form as yet unfamiliar in the world of CYNIC; deeply crooning, almost goth-like, behind the Aruna Abrams’s lead. Through effortlessly straddling the line between the familiar and the unexpected, this track was quite effective in building my expectations for another, brilliant, prog outing from Masvidal and Reinert.
Upsettingly, all the great work laid down by the opening track is undone by “Karma’s Plight”, which seems to start the whole build-up process all over again. It perhaps could have served as a good middle or end track, but placed back-to-back with “Endless Endevors,” it becomes a very same-ish and redundant track. Aruna Abrams’s ever-present vocals are starting to become irritating at this point, especially when Masvidal’s vocals, by comparison, are much more accommodating to the music that is being played. Upon a retrospective listen to "The Portal Demos," I am pleased that his voice has been stripped of the band’s trademark vocoder effects. One thing that has really stood out from CYNIC’s two EPs – as well as from ÆON SPOKE - is how beautiful and capable a vocalist Masvidal is encouraging that the band seems to have made the decision to do away with the vocal effects as there have been none, now, on their last three releases. “Karma’s Plight” keeps seeming to build up to nothing until it is finally rounded out with a guitar solo played in a beautiful, warm guitar tone.
So perhaps here is where the album picks up then? Well, no, not really. While "Circle" is distinctly CYNIC sounding to begin with, this treading of more welcome territory quickly recedes into a verse that sounds exactly as the last two songs’ did. The female vocals sound more naturally suited to this track, and it once again features a wonderfully, impressive tech-melodic solo but the near irradiation of any guitar presence in favour of an emphasis on keyboard and bass interplay is thoroughly unsatisfying and is a characteristic that will continue to define "The Portal Tapes."
From here on the album doesn’t particularly go anywhere; Reinert remains criminally undercontributive, all the bass parts sound the same as the vocalists continue to trade exceedingly cringe worthy lyrics, thinly disguised as meaningful, higher order affair. There are some good moments, such as “Costumed In Grace’s” clean guitar and the promising, bass heavy riff the begins “Road To you”, but one wonders – and not for too long - if these are only better parts amidst the repetitive drivel and not actually inherently valuable. For in the face of these strung-out highlights are the tracks “Mirror Child” and “Not The Same”, the former which sounds as though it is being song by Jenna Maroney from 30 ROCK and the later interjecting it’s ELTON JOHN/KIKI DEE invoking verse with bouts of ear piercingly shrill female vocals.
"The Portal Tapes" reek of ill-advised self-indulgence. While CYNIC’s post-"Focus" output shares many qualities in similar with these songs, the official inclusion of them in the CYNIC discography is a strange decision - one that, while perhaps a good marketing ploy in the short term, will not be met with much acclaim from fans.
(Online February 26, 2012)