Review: Portals Festival 2021

Around a year and a half ago I was made aware of a small alternative festival, based in London, which hosted all manner of alternative and niche bands. After seeing that Ohhms and Midas Fall were on the bill, I decided to dive in, and get myself a ticket. Literally as I was heading to organise said ticket, the UK became very aware of coronavirus, and the whole world came to a halt.

Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Undeterred, I messaged the organisers to see what would be happening, moving forward, and to my surprise, I actually got a response, saying that they were still busy working on having the event go ahead. Jump forward eighteen months, and I finally got to attend the festival, and got to meet, and chat with, the very same people who had actually taken the time to reply all them months ago.

What I found was that the festival itself, was just as warm, and friendly, as the very people who took the time to organise it in the first place. That event is Portals Festival and is two days of experimental rock.

In all my time of attending gigs, and festivals, I’ve never experienced such a warm welcome, a chilled vibe, and an all-inclusive environment, as I have with Portals Festival. It takes place over three venues in Tufnell Park, The Dome, Boston Music Room, and the bar Aces And Eights, and between the three, all manner of alternative tastes were catered for.

Portals Festival 2021

The event is organised in such a way that it flows, somewhat seamlessly, with bands split, enough time to get from one venue to the next and with the minimum of fuss. The staff were welcoming, helpful, and really friendly. The bars were well run, and there was even on-site catering, for anyone needing to refuel between acts. It isn’t the biggest of events, but therein lies its beauty. There’s a real sense of community, and each venue was a good size to facilitate the bands, and audience, without any sense of discomfort at all.

After nearly two years of being away from live music, the thought of being in crowded areas had me feeling a little anxious, but the second Mountain Caller opened the weekend, that dissipated instantly. As the band ran through their opening bars, I literally felt shivers, and an instant feeling of being home. Mountain Caller were as heavy as they were intense, and it was a performance that literally set a fire under the festival, like igniting fireworks.

Midas Fall were next, and this was the band I had been waiting for since the day I saw they were going to play. Criminally underrated, Midas Fall were an absolute dream to see again, and I was left completely satisfied by the time they left the stage.

Midas Fall @ Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
Midas Fall @ Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Now it was time for the phenomenal Jo Quail to grace the stage. Having only a brief knowledge of Jo, I really wasn’t prepared for just how incredible she was, and I think the word ‘mesmerising’ is the best way I can describe how her performance was. Completely unexpected, totally enthralling. After a quick stop at Aces And Eights to catch the virtually unknown band Outcries give a fantastic performance, It was time to refuel, ahead of the evening’s entertainment.

The Hyena Kill were next on the list, and I was keen to see these again, after previously catching them as a duo, they’re now a four piece. Portals Festival was the first performance in this new arrangement, and after a shaky start, the band found their groove, and by the end, they were functioning as if they had always been set this way.

Ohhms @ Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
Ohhms @ Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

As the evening rolled on, for me it was all leading up to this point. Ohhms headlined the Boston Music Room stage, and after Ohhms being the last band I caught live, pre-covid, and just how impressed I had been, this for me, was everything. To say that the band were immense would be an understatement. Captivating live, to watch them perform again was absolutely everything I had been aiming at for nineteen months, and I wasn’t disappointed, at all. As front men go, Paul Waller isn’t just a vocalist, he’s an artist. Surrounded by musicians who were giving it their all, was sublime.

After Ohhms, it would have to take something truly special to even compete, so when Bossk took to the stage of The Dome, as you can imagine, expectations were high. Bossk came at the crowd with a ferocious performance, engaging, entertaining, ambient, and enthralling, in equal measure. The perfect end to a perfect day of live music, and it left me wondering if Sunday would even compare on Saturday’s level of musical bliss.

Bossk @ Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
Bossk @ Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

After a reset, and a warm welcome back to the festival from the lovely door staff, Sunday’s entertainment for me started with the band known as Human Pyramids. Having only the briefest of knowledge of the ensemble, I wasn’t really prepared for what I was about to witness. The whole stage was filled with musicians, a string section, trumpets, percussionists, and even a vocal group, it was truly an experience to behold. Somewhat reminiscent of The Arcade Fire at times, I implore you, if you get the opportunity, to see these live, they were incredible to watch.

Human Pyramids @ Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
Human Pyramids @ Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

After half an hour of the barrage that is Garganjua, tearing the venue a new behind, CLT DRP came to the stage, and were taking no prisoners. A blistering, antagonistic performance showcased just how fresh the whole scene still is, and that the new bands coming through are as volatile, and abrasive as ever. This band is the one to watch, as given the right chances, they are going to be hugely influential.

CLT DRP @ Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
CLT DRP @ Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

After CLT DRP, I relocated to The Dome to catch Pijn give a mesmerising performance. Absolutely next level, Pijn were in a captivating mood, and the forty-minute set could have gone on forever more, without any complaining for me. As is the case with all of these things, the inevitable end was looming, but not before one last surprise. Pop punk tinged Nervus came on to close the day at the Boston Music Room, and the four-piece were keen to keep the party going. As entertaining as they are important, they were the perfect end to a perfect weekend for me personally.

Pijn @ Portals Festival 2021 - Photo by Lee Beamish
Pijn @ Portals Festival 2021 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Having already booked tickets for Portals Festival 2022, and looking back on the last weekend, my return to live music was an overwhelming success. In part it was being able to see live music again, and in part, because Portals is literally the nicest experience I’ve had in all my years of live events.

To be clear, I can’t emphasise enough just how welcoming the whole festival is. It’s an all embracing, all welcoming event. The sense of community is absolutely incredible, and what’s been created is a space for all, free from any pretence, attitudes, and egos. For a small festival, it has an enormous heart, and I can’t sell that enough. Roll on 2022, and to the next Portals adventure.

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Words & Photos by: Lee Beamish