The truth is almost exclusively painful, but so too are truths are gleaned through pain. Life as of late has been nothing but suffering for so many people—indeed, we are pretty much surrounded by agony in every direction these days. It is through art that we face those horrors that surround us, and those that germinate within us, in hopes of confronting and embracing the truths that lie within. And with their new record We Are Always Alone, Texas trio Portrayal of Guilt stick their hands down into the hot coals of that horror, stripping away both flesh and fear to grasp their truth and bring it to light.
Portrayal of Guilt must have played some single-use instruments in the studio to get this intensity—there’s just no way those cymbals and guitars survived making music this rowdy. Double kick patterns shake the speakers in tracks like “Anesthetized,” and there are plenty of blastbeat walls to be crushed underneath. The bass guitar’s crunchy tones punch up the tracks like a wild boar running amok in a church sanctuary. Hideous throaty growls and heady yells smear dark lyrics across the thumping compositions. Tracks like “Masochistic Oath” use guitar melody more like a filigree than a focal point, conquering the high register with off-kilter arpeggios and color tones that layer a shroud of beauty over the churning chugs and thrashy progressions.
Instrumentally, We Are Always Alone is an onslaught of palpitating percussion and razor-sharp riffs, which the band chooses to punctuate with the ambient noise contributions of Mack Chami (Terror Cell Unit, God is War). A volley of screeching strings follow the pounding coda to “Garden of Despair,” the tinnitus-high tones mirroring the pain inherent in the lyrics. “The Second Coming” kicks the record off like a volley of artillery with bombastic drums and pained vocals, then suddenly drops into a foxhole of quiet, ambient fear at the end of the track. The unnerving outro to “Masochistic Oath” cranks up the tension to 11 with a rapid mechanistic clicking, before dumping us into the mire of noisy notes that is “They Want Us All to Suffer.”
These small statements of noise and ambience act like the layer of glue that seals this coffin full of gloomy songs shut, but it is in the elegiac writing where the real darkness is found. The lyrics on We Are Always Alone are focused through themes of mental illness, self-harm, and suicidality. “A Tempting Pain” seems to point towards the impulse to destroy the self in moments of doubt: “My time is now / Into the grave / My body molds.” “Masochistic Oath” expertly captures the experience of depression running rampant: “I am trampled by thoughts / Weighed down by memories…. / This burden of living never seems to end.” The lines “I become one with the flames / I’ve never felt so alive” from the penultimate track “My Immolation” show the speaker embracing the destruction of self, not with fear, but with relief.
We Are Always Alone is more of an experience than an album—while every song stands strong on its own, this record really demands to be listened through, front-to-back. There are no open spaces, no pauses for breath, no smoke breaks; every track runs right into the next as if Portrayal is jamming these songs in your living room for an audience you are not a part of.
And truly, these songs don’t feel like they’re for anybody but the band. The dissonant guitar riffs, the vocal-cord-pulverizing roars of “There’s nothing at the end” or “A gloom you’ll never know,” are neither inviting nor reassuring. Rather, this record reflects back at the listener an intense sense of alienation, of unabated and unforgiving loneliness, feelings many of us have been all-too-familiar with this last year.
We Are Always Alone is a collection of incredible songs dredged from the deepest tar pits of 2020, a testament to how pain can be alchemized into something positive and powerful. Like a glowing hot brand set to cauterize, there is plenty of suffering to be found in the experience of this music, but through that hurt comes healing. Portrayal of Guilt pour vicious riffs, bleak biting lyrics, and plenty of vitriol over the still-burning fire of the last twelve months, a sacrifice offered to the scorched earth that it may start to heal. So heat-treat your turntables, because this record is liable to catch fire as it spins.
My Top Track: “A Tempting Pain”
We Are Always Alone is out via Closed Casket Activities; you can stream the album on Spotify or try and pick up a physical copy from Bandcamp (they’re selling fast!). For all things Portrayal of Guilt, follow them on Facebook and Instagram @portrayalofguilt, or check out their website.