If nothing else, let’s give Xasthur credit for being consistent. Xasthur has manged to get worse with each release. In 2002, Xasthur released an excellent album called “Nocturnal Poisoning”. Dense recording techniques gave the album a boxed in sound; packing guitars, keys and vocals atop one another. The culminating sensation was like being stuck in a nightmare and knowing it’s not real, but being unable to wake. A plethora of eerie melodies and unpredictable song structures drove home the otherworldly aesthetic. The album was a promising start to Xasthur's career.
The next album, “Funeral of Being” was good, but inconsistent. The next two albums were redundant and unoriginal, though they still had their moments. The next three albums were poorly composed, full of weak melodies and uninspired. “Portal of Sorrow”, the final Xasthur album, somehow manages to reach a new low, failing in almost every respect possible.
I assume the goal of the album is to create a dark, depressing world in which the listener is forced to face his or her ultimate and inevitable demise (that’s basically the goal of every Xasthur album). However, the album rarely comes close to achieving such a profound effect. “Portal of Sorrow” is a dull and draining tour through a series of poorly composed and even more poorly executed ambient black metal songs.
To begin, the production on the album is awful. The instruments are terribly mixed. It takes a major effort to distinguish anything other than the keyboards and the female vocals. Malefic’s screams (which can be quite powerful) are indiscernible as they are regulated to the outer limit of the recording. When you can discern the instruments, the musicianship is atrocious. The guitars are sloppy and the drums cannot even stay in rhythm. Why Malefic didn’t just opt for a drum machine is beyond me. He clearly doesn’t know how to play drums.
The songwriting is also poor. The songs basically are composed of one or two spooky melodies repeated for 2-5 minutes. With the exception of “Stream of Subconscious” the songs lack any sort of development and fail to create any tensions that might captivate the listener. Furthermore, the melodies are either terribly corny or flat out dull. At least the former are good for a laugh. The cheesy piano line in “Broken Glass Christening” and the goofy bass line in aptly named “Shrine of Failure” conjure images of buck-toothed vampires and toilet paper mummies getting ready to do the monster mash. I must admit, seeing an artist fail so profoundly to achieve his pretentious goal is quite entertaining. Unfortunately, the comically cheesy moments are greatly outweighed by innocuous passages of uninspired ambiance.
It is only fair to mention the one song that is actually quite moving. The aforementioned “Stream of Subconscious” is a dynamic song, in which a hopeful desire for transcendence is contrasted with somber sense of resignation at one's own finite nature. The melody is hymn like, and the synths and female vocals create sense unquenchable yearning. That said one song simply is not enough to redeem an otherwise terrible album.
Thus ends the long and painful descent of Xasthur. When I first heard “Nocturnal Poisoning” in 2002 I never would have guessed the Xasthur would become such a complete and utter laughing stock. Somehow Malefic has managed to regress not only as a songwriter (that isn’t too uncommon) but also as a musician! Like a person who has spent years suffering from an illness that should have killed them long ago, Xasthur needed to end. With Malefic’s obsession self-destruction and suicide, it’s too bad he didn’t euthanize Xasthur years ago.