In 2020, everybody listened to ambient music. The anxiety of living during a pandemic—everyone’s lives upended by a deadly virus—forced us all to change our habits, spend more time at home, and minimize our in-person interactions with each other. That would make anyone feel uneasy, and it did make most of us feel uneasy; anyone who found it difficult to make their way out from under the musical equivalent of a weighted blanket can be forgiven for not doing so. It’s been rough, and we all just have to make the best of what we’ve got.
I can only speak for myself, but there came a point in which the effect of soft and soothing music eventually wore off, or at least became less effective. If going anywhere physically was out of the question, then music driven by intense forward momentum was going to have to pick up the slack. Hardcore, metal, even noise to scrape off the rust—these became a form of sonic salvation, or at least a kind of motivational fuel. I can’t be the only one who’s been waiting for an album like Portrayal of Guilt‘s We Are Always Alone to shake me back to my senses.
Driven by anger and despair and playing at speeds that could liquefy frozen chickens, Austin’s Portrayal of Guilt are as much a hardcore band as they are a controlled open of Pandora’s Box for 30 minutes at a time. Since 2018’s Let Pain Be Your Guide, the group has seemingly grown even heavier, more aggressive and unhinged. The nine tracks on We Are Always Alone are always surging with violence and dripping with venom, its half-hour of industrial-grade hardcore enough to purge the darkness from anyone’s soul.
The sheer intensity of the album is part of what makes it satisfying, but even more than that, few bands can harness the kind of manic, explosive energy that Portrayal of Guilt does with such skill and creativity. From the opening gallop of “The Second Coming,” it’s up to the listener to try and keep up with the group as they embark on a relentless sprint. But the band has indeed evolved and diversified their approach in two short years, mostly casting aside their 60-second tantrums in favor of songs with more fully fleshed out structures and a greater degree of nuance, like the ominous post-hardcore jangle that opens “Anesthetized,” the hyper-speed screamo that courses through “A Tempting Pain,” or the melodic noise rock tension that drives “It’s Already Over.”
That Portrayal of Guilt have graduated to writing longer songs gives them a bit more real estate to explore what they can do. Three of the tracks on We Are Always Alone surpass the four-minute mark, and it’s in these moments where the band stretch themselves the farthest. “Masochistic Oath,” for instance, feels like three songs packed into one: A menacing sludge-metal guitar scrape, a misanthropic black metal maelstrom, and a machine-gun hardcore brawl session. There’s a similar tug-of-war between speed and sinister mood in “Garden of Despair,” which is driven by a slow, utterly evil sounding doom-metal crawl. And “My Immolation,” for how much bile comes spewing out of vocalist Matt King’s mouth, has the deepest grooves of any track here. It’s an anthem by Portrayal of Guilt’s barbed-wire standards.
As Portrayal of Guilt continue to perform and evolve, at no point do they seek to make anything easier for the listener. Their music is formidable, harrowing, unforgiving—don’t bother dropping the needle without proper preparation. We Are Always Alone isn’t a casual listen or even really a comfort listen; it demands a lot. But what it takes in comfort it gives back in a kind of therapeutic, empowering invincibility.
Label: Closed Casket Activities
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.