Entering day two of Portals Festival 2023, I knew my day was going to be a hectic one. Already buzzing that I would be seeing not only one of my most favourite bands, Mono, but that I would also be getting to finally see VLMV and GGGOLDDD, as well as the monumental Jambinai, my heart was already pounding.
As I got into the venue Shy, Low were taking to the Hall Stage, I promptly headed for the front so I could catch a band who I knew were going to be an absolute blast to see. They didn’t let me down. The US quintet were on fire, and as the set played through, the level of intensity was thunderous. For such an understated band, they make such a big sound and it’s an absolute travesty that they aren’t bigger than they are. If ever there was a way to start a second day of ANY festival, then this was it. Shy, Low set the bar, and anything following on really had to step up and prove themselves for sure.
Next on my list of ‘must see’ acts for the day were a band whose second album, Blossom, I had just been in the process of reviewing and that band was Pupil Slicer. Obviously, I had wanted to see if the live performance paralleled the studio experience, but I was also keen to see if the band live were as visceral as they are on record. They’re a band who are being tipped to be the next big thing. The name seems to be appearing on a few big events this summer, including Download, so seeing them at Portals the week before their new album got released, was a bit of a revelation. Firmly sitting in that bracket of bands with the likes of Svalbard, I wanted to see if the hype matched the reality. As they kicked off, it was evident they were hungry to start a riot at any given moment. Aggressive, brutal, and engaging, the band delivered on all their promises, and the performance seemed to be a real hit with the crowd.
Unfortunately, I had to cut my Pupil Slicer experience short, but it was for the best reason, and that reason was VLMV. Now, just for clarity, after the name VLMV appeared on the line up when Portals 2023 was announced, I did what I always do, and took to the internet to research whether it would be an act I would end up wanting to see. What I found was an artist, so incredibly deep and mind blowing that I made a point of investing in every single item that has been released, and ever since, my life hasn’t been the same. I would implore anyone who doesn’t know of VLMV to go and source them out, because this music is so monumentally emotional and moving, that if it doesn’t move you, then I would be surprised.
Anyway, wanting to get a front-row seat, I made a point of getting as close to the stage as I could, to watch setting up, sound check, and then performance. To say what I witnessed gave me such intense overwhelming emotions that I shed tears is both possibly an embarrassing revelation and an affirmation of just how intense the performance was. It was so spiritually powerful, that it made me contact one of the people I love the most in the whole world, just to share that moment with them. Such was the beauty of the performance, and the sense of vulnerability, that I haven’t really ever experienced before, yet with VLMV, it just completely took me away. Such is the power of music, I guess.
After that powerhouse performance, I returned to the Hall Stage, to finally catch one of the bands I have been desperate to see for several years, and that was GGGOLDDD. Performing tracks from the incredibly powerful album This Shame Should Not Be Mine, an album which I had previously reviewed. I got to have a bird’s eye view as the band dominated the stage with one of the most intense, and emotional performances of the whole festival. Milena’s vocal was as sublime as it could have been, and the musical accompaniment was thunderous and dark. Knowing the album as I do, live it added another level, and coming away from it afterwards, it took a little time to process what I had just witnessed.
Having seen Svalbard support Mono in London last summer, I was aware that what I would be getting exposed to would be nothing short of a face-melting experience, filled with equal measures of abrasive anger, and softer moments of sombre goodness. As was the case, I wasn’t left disappointed, and as the band pummelled through their set, there was never any doubt as to just what a powerhouse this band are live.
By the time Maybeshewill hit the Hall Stage at 19:20, I was already getting myself set for the imminent arrival of Mono and Jambinai in the coming hours. Thankfully Maybeshewill were the perfect distraction, who played a set which was incredibly powerful, while at the same time was joyous to watch. Showcasing just how prolific the band really are, from start to finish, they were spellbinding. Complete with tracks from their sublime album No Feeling Is Final, seeing them perform was a real pleasure for me.
Only having the briefest knowledge of EF, but knowing they are signed to Pelagic records, who always have incredible bands, I felt it only right to go and see for myself just exactly who this enigma were. I managed to get in just as they were starting their set and was met with an ensemble who create such incredible noise, that I wondered exactly why I haven’t picked up on this band before now. Post-rock soundscapes had me thinking of Explosions In The Sky, and by the time I headed back to the Hall Stage for Mono, EF were firmly burned in to my brain.
Ok, so by now it may well be evident to anyone reading these reviews just exactly who I may have been here for especially, and now, it was time…
So, last year I got to see one of the most enthralling and musically emotional bands on the entire planet perform live, and it was none other than Mono. Having purchased every album over the last few years, I had completely fallen in love with the band, and so seeing them was more than just a bucket list item for me. From the second they finished playing last year, I said I wanted to see them again, such was the spectacle I witnessed. When they got announced for Portals 2023 it was like all my Christmases coming all at once, and ever since I have been counting the days until I saw the band again.
This time round I got to have a front row seat, and as much as I’m trying to articulate this into a review, words fail me on just how incredible they were to see for a second time.
If you have no awareness of them, then just briefly, they are a Japanese quartet, who make the most lavish soundscapes known to man. What they do is beyond art musically and watching them live is a revelation. They paint sounds like an artist would paint a picture, and each new track is a work of art. To be speechless watching them perform would be absolutely no surprise, and as they played, they were everything that is beautiful about music, and then some. Add to the mix a special appearance from Jo Quail on cello, and what resulted was nothing short of epic. It doesn’t get any better than this, Mono were perfection.
The final hurrah for this years Portals was the Korean band Jambinai. A five-piece post-rock band, who are as mesmerising to watch live as they are to listen to on record. Thankfully Jambinai were only just starting as I got to the Theatre Stage, and as I made my way down to the front, I got a great view of the band in all their glory. Part of their charm is the use of instruments that here in the west we have little knowledge of, and the sounds they create are just wonderful.
Where Mono are the masters of intense guitar focused soundscapes, and the progression of intensity through the work, with Jambinai, it’s a vastly different set up. The band use the uniqueness of each instrument’s sound to create, at times, these tunes which are equally as uneasy to listen to, as they are intoxicating. Jambinai make music that makes you, the listener, feel the struggle. They make a sonic world, filled with pained outpourings and extremely powerful messages through the most beautiful soundscapes. Watching them was absolutely transfixing, it holds you in place, breathless and embracing every single note.
Coming away from Portals 2023 and seeing the achievements of those who took the time to organise such a wonderful event, the incredible bands who performed, and the love that’s held at this festival, it really is something magical. Portals 2021 was superb, especially after covid, it was just what was needed to move on from it all. Portals 2022 upped the ante on just what was possible, both bands wise, and scope wise, and with Portals 2023, it’s been a revelation.
To see how, in even three years, this whole event has evolved, it’s just incredible. This is why I love Portals, the sense of community, respect, and love, is truly heart-warming. It’s an absolute pleasure to be able to talk about this festival, and its achievements, because ultimately, this is everything, and in my 48 years of kicking about this planet, I have finally found a place that feels like home…
Words & Photos by: Lee Beamish