The weight of expectation is a real and powerful thing. Just ask Interpol, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party or any of the dozens of modern rock bands who garnered popularity and/or acclaim with a stellar debut. Following up a home run on your first at bat is nearly impossible in the music world, and eclipsing that success improbable enough to cause music fans like me to write an entire intro to a review about it. Though I put less stock in the sophomore album’s importance than some (it’s the third album that typically cements legacies, in my observation), there’s no doubt that the amount of difference in quality between a band’s first and second record has a marked impact on their continued success. Minnesota’s False approached this dilemma more starkly than many bands in their genre. After releasing their successful and critically acclaimed Untitled EP in 2011, black metal fans had to wait a full four years for the band to make good on the promise of their first release. Thankfully, their debut full-length of the same name was every bit as potent as fans were hoping for, finding its place for many among the best metal records of 2015. This year, the band release their highly anticipated follow-up to their fantastic first record, Portent, to my great excitement and trepidation. So do the band continue to build upon their reputation as one of black metal’s most exciting “new” voices? The answer to that question, thankfully, is an emphatic yes and then some.
From the record’s opening frame, a few things become clear. Firstly,this record is a much leaner affair than their debut, minimizing its track count by 1 and runtime by nearly 20 minutes. Portent brings a more focused offering than the release that preceded it, which in this case offers a marked improvement over Untitled’s principal flaw: bloat. Where their debut could have done with a trim or two, Portent blasts out your speakers with the fat shorn away, presenting four tracks of focused aggression that never overstay their welcome (even at 10+ minutes each, minus the instrumental closing track). Opener “A Victual to Our Dead Selves” kicks off the record in glorious fashion, highlighting improved production and mixing as well as a songwriting aesthetic that goes straight for the jugular. False don’t mess around when it comes to shoving listeners directly into riffy mayhem, feeling more akin to Mayhem, Darkthrone, and in general the Norwegian second wave in this regard than some of their contemporaries. Emperor and Immortal should be mentioned here as well, as the band’s sense of melodrama and melody is even more finely tuned here than it was on their debut, featuring memorable and aggressive song structures that are diverse while never losing their innate sense of propulsion. It’s a stunning opening that paved the way for the wonders that await on the remainder of the record.
In case all of the above sounds a bit too run-of-the-mill with all its second wave worship, fear not. “Rime on the Song of Returning” has you covered. It’s 12-minute runtime is split between a highly melodic, blisteringly paced first half and a straight up doom-infested latter half, which shows the band expanding their musical chops well beyond expectation. The end of the track ties these two styles together brilliantly, continuing the slow dirge of guitars while ramping up the drums to full-on blasting, making for a blackened doom masterpiece that could easily exist on a Bereft record. It’s a highlight of the record in both songwriting and performative fronts, with the marriage of Travis’ drum work and Skorpian’s manic guitar leads reaching something close to pure perfection. The album’s third track “The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat” offers no fewer riches. Clocking in at 16+ minutes, it’s the band’s longest and most epic composition yet, combining the restraint, aggression, and emotional power of the band’s music thus far into a towering achievement that displays all that this band is capable of. Coupled with the album’s understated and beautiful instrumental “Outro”, it makes for a stirring and impactful end to an absolutely fantastic listening experience.
Fans of False’s debut can breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice: Portent lives up to expectations in every way. These songs are beautifully and expertly composed, and performed with passion and unwavering competency. Mixing the second wave’s penchant for aggression and melody with a distinctly American sensibility, Portent is everything I hoped it would be and more. Lord only knows what wonders their third release will bring, but for now we can bask in the fiery glow that Portent provides, and that’s more than enough. An outstanding release from a band fast cementing its legacy as one of black metal’s best and brightest.
Portent drops July 12th via Gilead Media, and is available for pre-order on the band’s Bandcamp page.