The Portland-based Zack Frey has got a great idea. He is to combine post-punk, post-punk, and post-rock together, and he’s going to do this with a new, guitar-based, instrumental project. Enter Portal Nou.
In Passing is Portal Nou’s debut offering. A 7-song collection with a bold ambition. The matter of hitting that ambition, on the other hand, can be debatable. For starters, instrumental music is a very tricky thing to pull off. The human mind has come, over, the eras, to expect words to accompany the music, to give it meaning and put it in a context. These words can be lyrics, high/low brow poetry, spoken prose, or any other form of linguistic communication, and in the absence of words, the music needs to convey its own language across, with phrases, verbs, nouns, questions, and answers. Listen to Bach or Mozart, Vai or Satriani, love their music or not, it’s instrumental, and it works.
What Zack Frey get right is just as much as he doesn’t quite get right. The songs in this project are all drop-dead gorgeous, with distinct characters that are reflected eloquently in the titles. Indecisive is jumpy and modal in sound, never settling on a minor or a major tonality which indeed lends the song an indecisive quality, the consistently beautiful and clean guitar work is efficiently introduced in this song, with a spidery melody that revolves around the rhythm delicately. Interpositions is a Green Day summoning stunner. Sweet guitars, and summery chords on top of a tight groove, all manage to elevate the song and give it a very bright vibe. Inner Logic is perhaps where the problem with this album starts to take form. A dazzling, mystical and unexpected composition is the basis of this song, very promising and original, but quickly it starts to sound like something big is amiss, and that thing is simply… words. For all the effort Portal Nou spent on the composition, Zack seems to have run out of melodic ideas as the potential gets spent and the song retreats to just repeating its interesting chords and sparse, but beautiful guitar lines on top, not quite exploring further where it could have gone.
Inertial holds a lot of potential on grounds of its uncommon, airy synth, and the chorused guitar alone, not that there’s much else left. The guitar lines are, again, minimal and to the point, very efficient player Zack is. Inadvertent Exposure called to mind really early Wild Nothing, with quick beats, multiple overdriven guitars and driving basslines. The closer, Intrinsic Value, is stunning and sprawling, with huge bass sounds that pay homage to Mogwai.
It’s a pleasure to listen to this album, but very sad to realize all that missed potential. With touching guitar passages, dynamic rhythms, and surprising harmonic choices, Zack Grey is a talented songwriter, by all means, but songs need words to be sung, and it’s a thing this album dearly misses.