Portals Festival 2023 – Saturday

Having started in 2015 as a one-day event, Portals Festival was created, with the purpose of bringing some of the most underground and unique alternative, math, and post-rock bands together in London, at the New Cross Inn. Now eight years later, the event has been transformed from a little in-house set up, to one of the UK’s best, and most well-loved two-day smaller festivals, which this year has found a new home at EartH in Hackney. To say it’s a small festival doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the sheer scale of what has been created, and while it doesn’t match the scale of your Download’s, or Glastonbury’s, what it does have is a feeling of warmth and community to it, both of which none of those larger festivals can truly capture.

Portals Festival 2023

Main organisers Asher Kenton, Sam Festenstein, and Arran Oakes have taken what was an idea, a concept, a dream, and delivered something truly special, a festival which can bring together such diverse bands from the very fringes of alternative music, and house them in a space which is as illuminating as the very bands they’ve collected.

This year saw the festival step up a notch, and where The Dome, The Boston Music Rooms, and Aces and Eights in Tufnell Park had been Portals home for the last number of years, it was time to evolve once more. The new setting is now the aforementioned EartH in Hackney, it’s a phenomenally wonderous setting, and a place just as unique as the festival it now houses.

With three floors to showcase some of the planet’s most awe-inspiring acts, the line-up is curated in a way so that you can catch most of the bigger acts separately, without missing any, and the Bar Stage houses the smaller bands, in case you fancy something a little less in scale while you recharge your batteries. The two bigger stages are equally as different where the Hall Stage is more of a standard venue set up, the Theatre Stage is a real showcase setting to fully submerge yourself into complete with a wooden amphitheatre seating arrangement.

Full of excited enthusiasm for the weekend, I arrived on Saturday, just in time to catch Ogives Big Band opening the festival on the Theatre Stage. Having the opportunity to settle myself in for the foreseeable, I had the pleasure of witnessing the band kicking things off in a truly abrasive style. Both heavy and experimental, the Bristol based band did an incredible job of setting things off with a bang.

After a swift relocation to the Hall Stage, I found myself front and centre for my surprise of the weekend, Leeds sextet Hundred Year Old Man. With a sound that instantly nudged me at Cult Of Luna comparisons, this band were absolutely enthralling. With tunes as dark and foggy as the setting was, the band pummelled their way through their set and left me absolutely staggered at just how good they were. Definitely a band I will be wanting to catch again live at some point, the intensity and sheer density of the sound blew me away.

Hundred Year Old Man @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

As is the way with Portals, you never stay still for too long, so after Hundred Year Old Man finished, I made my way up to the Bar Stage to catch Mount Forel, and then one of my ‘must see’ bands for the weekend, The Broken Islands. Mount Forel were an absolute pleasure to watch and caught me somewhat by surprise, but after that, I had a prime position to see The Broken Islands perform.

The Vancouver outfit stepped up to the challenge and put on a show which was both heart-warming, and enjoyable to see, capitalising on the room full of people, and I’m sure winning themselves a whole load of new fans in the process. A particular highlight for me was getting to see Highlife played live, and it was every bit as magical as it is on record.

After a swift break, I got myself set up to watch the truly uplifting entity that is Human Pyramids, a band who I had previously seen at Portals 2021, so I knew exactly what I was getting ready for. If you are unaware of them, the, by my count, twenty-three-piece band, which includes a choir, trumpets, wine bottles, and all other manner of wild and wacky instruments, are simply the most joyous, and soul-filling band on the entire planet. To watch them perform is like watching a group of friends having fun, the warmth from the stage radiates and fills the whole room. There’s only really one word which can fully describe Human Pyramids, and that is magical.

Bo Ningen @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Next up is Bo Ningen who really had to go some to top what I had just witnessed, and by Christ did they do an incredible job. Absolutely off the wall, this band seem to have written their own rule book on making music, and the outpouring is something altogether outrageous, for lack of a better description. Never dropping on energy, the band show the audience just how to get the party started, and with their spirited performance, they really did shine.

Bossk @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

By the time Bossk hit the stage I was ready for something absolutely monstrous, and the band don’t fail to disappoint. Again, after catching them at Portals 2021, I was ready for a commanding performance, but this was next level. To witness a band, such masters of what they have created, gel like such a unit on stage, is why I knew this was going to be something special. Every bit as engaging live as on record, the band dominated the stage and left it as champions.

Such is the setting for the Theatre Stage, by the time A.A. Williams had hit it, I had a prime spot to witness the beauty in the darkness unfolding. There was no way I was going to miss watching her perform, on what would now be my fourth time. As is with every time, it is always an otherworldly experience, filled with depth, heartache, and sombre tales of love and loss, pain and sorrow. As always, A.A. put on a performance which really solidified what an absolute star she is, and as the music died away at its climax, it was utterly heart-stopping.

A.A. Williams @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Due to time constraints and travel arrangements, my plan to see Nordic Giants, and end the day on a high, were unfortunately cut short, but nonetheless, I still had time to catch And So I Watch You From Afar before I had to leave. Armed with only a small amount of knowledge of the band, I wasn’t finished just yet, so took to the Hall Stage to catch them perform. Knowing the calibre of bands that had been on throughout the day this main band weren’t going to disappoint and I was incredibly happy to find out just how right my instincts were.

Absolutely engaging, And So I Watch You From Afar filled the room with an audience who you could visibly see were enjoying every single second. The band too, were obviously having an absolute blast on stage, and the whole experience just encapsulated exactly why this festival is such a joy to be part of, even just as a bystander. By the time they finished their set, I was happy to head out, knowing that I had been able to have a whole day of incredible acts, and not one had been anything short of fantastic.

Hundred Year Old Man

Hundred Year Old Man @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Bo Ningen

Bo Ningen @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish


Bossk @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish
Bossk @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

A.A. Williams

A.A. Williams @ Portals Festival 2023 – Photo by Lee Beamish

Words & Photos by: Lee Beamish