Review: Portrayal – To the Black Sea

Overall Impression


Musical Quality


Total Score


Release Date

27 March 2015



Posted December 9, 2018 by

The Review

‘To the Black Sea’, Portrayal’s only full album to date, is full of dreamy synth pop, post-rock and melancholic darkwave melodies. Indiebeat named this two-man band from Shrewsbury UK (since 2013) the ‘Best kept secret in the indie/alt world’, and its relative obscurity might just be one of their compelling features for me.

The opening track ‘Departures’ draws the listener instantly in, taking off from the musical runway of this album slowly but steadily, with ever increasing energy. It has a forceful pace, dictated by menacing drums, guitar riffs and a strong base sound that has vague reminiscences of Joy Division and the many many bands that followed in their footsteps (all the way up to Interpol and Editors). Once Joe Crooks soothing vocals kick in, the song starts to balance between an uplifting shoegaze sound and a more sinister edge, not least due to the minor keys that alternate major ones. An ominous song with great pace and melodic value. A very comforting full sound also, not least because of the angelic vocals that never overpower, but that nevertheless give this album an uplifting vibe and balance out the more threatening bass line, edgy guitar riffs and at times haunting melodies.

‘Never Adjusted’ is a great song and almost archetypal for their entire musical sound in the way in which soothing melodies quickly flip over into an eerie wall of music with drifting vocals hollowing out whatever might have initially seemed to be a peaceful musical trip. Its sound is characterized by uplifting rhythms and drums combined with gloomy and melancholic vocals.

‘On Wire’ also has a forceful, pounding rhythm and pace thanks to drums, guitar and bass. We are seated on a frenzied train now, rushing through the countryside, and once again Joe Cooks celestial voice manages to add a haunting tonal range to this very good track.

‘Black Water’ is a beautiful, introspective song, opened by lyrical piano chords. Once the beat and guitars set in, the song is given a magical lightness that is backed by a pulsing pace of beats. Synthesizers soon after stack up a complex wall of uplifting sounds that nevertheless – thanks to the pressing synthesizer that starts to hoover over the last third of this song like a prying drone – does not lose the menacing quality of sound that characterizes this album.

‘Universal libraries’ and ‘Rooms’ are two other calming, non-pretentious and beautiful album tracks. ‘Universal libraries’ has a steady build up and an eerie, memorable chorus melody. Between verse and chorus, the pace of the drums slows down and accelerates again, with the chorus parts having the stride of a train hurtling over the train tracks. This “train track pace” as I call it, gives most of the album an uplifting urgency that I love in particular. It reminds me of the pace of songs like ‘The Theme’ from Last Leaf Down, as well as ‘Nothing in My Way’ from Keane (a completely different band, albeit from the same home country and with a similar love for dreamy eerie angelic vocals and melodies, but much more commercial sounding), or the song ‘Et hav af Udstrakte Hænder’ from Danish singer Søren Huss.

‘Stuttgart’ is one of the albums stand out tracks I think, while emphasizing that the album in its entirely is of a high quality.

‘Slow Wait’ is one of the least interesting songs on the album for me, sounding decisively like a variation of ‘Rooms’ and ‘Universal Libraries’ and is as such frankly.. dispensable.

‘Out of Light’ is another lesser song, and fully instrumental. It sounds more like an interlude than a strong track in its own right, which it probably is with its short duration of just over two minutes.

Closing track ‘You and Everyone’ is like a candle burning out, slowly releasing some of the (at times high) energy of the rest of the album. We hear some of the characteristics of this album as a whole – haunting melodies, pretty guitar riffs, prominent drum rhythms – for the last time, but less urgent and high paced as before. A fitting end for a good album.

I haven’t mentioned the lyrics yet, which are very suitable to the general musical mood of the tracks: abstract (sometimes nearly cryptic) sketches of situations and atmospheres. They add to the cinematic air of some of the tracks, with people walking poetically in forlorn nightly city scenes, reminiscing about partners lost or decisions that need to be made.

All in all a strong album with atmospheric musical qualities, many musical influences – ranging from prog-rock to shoegaze and electronic ambient – that nevertheless are woven into a soothing and at times mysteriously brooding sounding unity, not least by strong melodies and dreamy vocals. To counteract them, Portrayal uses rhythmic drums, sharp electronic riffs and strong baselines. The many layers to some of the songs on this album prevent the music from ever becoming one-dimensional or boring. Instead some songs are quite hypnotic actually. A great listening experience, if you happen to like this genre of music.


In 2016 Portrayal released the outstanding singles ‘Solecism’ and ‘Sea’ and in 2017 the band brought out the excellent single ‘Lost Souls’. Don’t forget to check them out too, they are very good and rely on the same success formula of their previous tracks, but with new demanding melodies.

To further underline the cinematographic quality of this album: several tracks from ‘To the Black Sea’ have featured in a short film called ‘In Touch with One Another’ by Fabiano Araruna, which was included in the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival of 2016. See the trailer here.



Stand out tracks: Stuttgart, Never Adjusted, Departures, On Wire.

If you like this band, also check out: Ourlives, The Boxer Rebellion, Oh Hiroshima, Last Leaf Down, Radiohead, The Slow Readers Club, The Pineapple Thief, The Mayan Factor, Seas of Years, Interpol, Lapis Exilis, The Domino State, IAMTHESHADOW, Manchester Orchestra, In Letter Form, Slowdive, Mew, The Twilight Sad, The Daysleepers, Scarlet Youth, Archive Lights.


Track list:

1. Departures

2. Never Adjusted

3. On Wire

4. Black Water

5. Universal Libraries

6. Stuttgart

7. Rooms

8. Slow Wait

9. Out of Light

10. You and Everyone



Rob Tranter – Guitars, Bass, Synthesizer

Joe Crook – Vocals, Lyrics, Guitars

Record Label: Self released album


Portrayal, To the Black Sea:


And of course don’t forget to check out my long youtube playlist with many good songs, mainly in the genres shoegaze, post-rock, indie, atmospheric rock, melodic metal and dream-pop.

Natalja O.



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