Vocals have become more and more rare across Xasthur's work as it has progressed. They were a necessary casualty of the direction Malefic wanted Xasthur to move in, and their absence is only flutteringly felt, like a butterfly flapping against your cheek. I mention vocals because biggest coup d'etat on this record is the appearance of folk chanteuse Marissa Nadler on a good majority of the material. Here her presence is obvious but her vocals are shapeless for the most part, transformed by Malefic into cones and arcs of blurring, warm ambience, a blanket of companionship against all the loneliness and isolation that Xasthur has summoned into the world. It's all anxiety and inexpressible unease in Xasthur's universe and Nadler's being in it sheds an interesting light on the work as a whole and points towards why Malefic has decided to end Xasthur at this point.
The reasons are discussed in detail on Malefic's blog but there was a basic feeling that the band had gone as far as it could under the hand of one person. Malefic did not want to deal with other musicians but also felt that the project would stagnate without them; fear of relying too heavily on collaborators and the resultant loss of identity accompanying such reliance prompted the dissolve of Xasthur. Nadler's inclusion, then, is both the apex and nadir of what Malefic hoped to achieve. While her vocals are gorgeous and add a somewhat otherwordly feel to the music (and not otherwordly in the usual disorienting sense associated with Xasthur) they also aren't all that transfixing or iconic-this could have been any young lady with a decent voice. Anything that points to this being Marissa Nadler other than a credit on the album sleeve is completely obliterated, lost in waves and washes of sound and tone from all the other instruments employed. She becomes merely another sound in an endless parade of them, unable to take things beyond the seasick tedium Malefic has worked so hard to create.
There are no peaks on "Portal of Sorrow." It's an hour long journey across a flat and empty landscape, constantly beat down by rain, sleet and howling winds. There are no stars and no light. It isn't hard nor particularly oppressive but it just doesn't stop. That feeling of melancholy expanse is where the album's greatest strength comes from. It's tiring and defeating in a natural, enervating manner, a sort of music that wears at optimism and shrouds any sort of positivity with a shadow of infinite bleakness. It isn't depressing, per se...just exhausting. Even the moments of beauty-the lovely keyboard swells at the beginning of "Karma/Death" or Nadler's ethereal choir that opens up "Mesmerized by Misery"-are just short reprieves from the larger sojourn to the heart of disillusionment.
This is the end. There is no more Xasthur. "Portal of Sorrow" is not a definitive statement of any sort, nor is it the best Xasthur recording, and it certainly isn't any sort of summation. It's a strong depiction of one part of the overall sound but it really doesn't need to exist. Malefic stated that he was unhappy with the last Hydrahead effort, "All Reflections Drained," and wanted to end the project on a high note. I personally thought "All Reflections Drained" was a masterpiece, one of the best later period Xasthur albums, where the focus on extended song lengths and a more minimalistic sound approach brought the project to a new brink of isolationist transcendence. "Portal of Sorrow" is another beast entirely, an overflow of stagnancy and riffs shaped into a sort of hazy depressionistic symphony that leaves little lasting impression after the listener has waded through its muck. Maybe that was Malefic's intent. Maybe he never wanted Xasthur to make any sort of lasting impression; maybe other people's opinions (like mine, sadly) got in the way of creativity and expression and shaped things more than he would have liked. Expectation can really fuck with us.
I remember one night about three years ago, when i was going through some very difficult emotional fallout, i turned off all the lights and threw on "Subliminal Genocide" at an incredible volume, just to drown everything else out. Ben called me in the middle of the listening and asked what i was doing, and i told him. He said i shouldn't be doing that, it probably wasn't a good idea knowing what i was going through. He was right, but it was the only thing i could think of that i COULD do. Xasthur was the band that defined those feelings for me-all that sound was the very idea of agony and depression and anger and listening to it made me feel a little better, like i wasn't totally alone and that great things could be borne of misery and hopelessness. It's sad to me that there won't be another chance at that. I can only hope that as Malefic goes on to other projects he finds the sense of completion that has been eluding him, that he creates the music that is his alone, that satisifies the creative and emotional drives that lonely artists fall victim to. Malefic seems to feel that people into Xasthur won't like the new music he's making.
I can't wait.