Calling The Portal Tapes a Cynic release is odd, because the material on this record was never meant for Cynic, but for Portal, a ditched side-project from1994-1995 that featured mainly members of Cynic and vocalist Aruna Abrams. On The Portal Tapes, Abrams' voice dominates, which sets quite a different tone from most of Cynic's other material. Aside from an overwhelming emphasis on female vocals, though, the material is not much different than what fans of Cynic's latest efforts have become accustomed to. There is less "metal" and more experimentation. Synthesizers are used liberally, and there are more spaced-out atmospheric sections than heavy, technical ones. Some songs are even audacious enough to have been written in the major key, with sprinkled airy-piano throughout.
In addition, Chris Kringel's fretless bass work on many songs really adds to the project's individuality. On the lighter, Jazzier songs it really shines. While Traced in Air was a good album, it really seems stylistically regressive compared to the territory this project was blazing into circa '94-'95.
The Portal Tapes might not work as an full-length album (even as it's longer than most Cynic albums), but it is an interesting and rewarding look at a band that has always valued innovation, progressiveness, and self-discovery through music. After listening to The Portal Tapes, it's become increasingly obvious to me that Cynic's current musical direction is one that has been in the works for some time. Not everything on The Portal Tapes is good, but Portal were tapping into some potentially awesome styles of playing that were well ahead of their time, and I'm glad to see that Cynic, with releases like Carbon-Based Anatomy, are finally fulling that potential now.