Portal’s ION Is the Soundtrack to the Lost DOOM Game
“For the first time ever, the Profound Lore reliquary has cracked open to grant you access to a lost and forgotten heresy from Portal‘s mysterious past. ION, the new album from the eldritch channelers, has been eight long years in the making, but the gates of DOOM have finally been torn ajar to usher in the final era.” So read the mysterious promo from Profound Lore that set me on a wild path of discovery and danger. This is the story of how ION was birthed in the blistering darkness of a Texas hellscape some eight years ago, but it’s also the story of how this album nearly destroyed one video game studio and cursed millions of fans the world over.
In 2007, John Carmack, lead developer at id Software, indicated at the annual Quakecon convention that the latest sequel to the highly acclaimed DOOM series, DOOM 4, was in development. Its premise: an infernal invasion on Earth where demonic forces rip and tear civilization asunder as they seek to plunge all of humanity into the darkness of the Umbral Plane. According to Danny O’Dwyer, it was to be a cinematic, theatrical vision of fel grandeur, one that conjured the primal terror of Robert Zemeckis and cast it into an interminable urban hellscape of rust and corrosion and so much viscera. It was to be hell on Earth. What’s commonly forgotten, however, is that the game’s creative director Kevin Cloud, an ardent metalhead, had conscripted the most elusive and malevolent band he could find to craft the industrial-versus-infernal soundtrack; that band was Portal, and that soundtrack, now released for the first time, is ION.
Of course, fans of the DOOM series will note that a version of DOOM 4 did eventually surface in 2016 as DOOM. Gone however were the sprawling urban landscapes of pentagrams and abandoned vehicles, supplanted instead by the blowing red sands of Mars and the dripping hellfire of Kadingir. Although id CEO Todd Hollenshead claimed in 2010 that DOOM 4 would be the realization of fan hopes and dreams, conflicting accounts began to arise as early as 2011 when it was revealed that development had been completely rebooted. Although id Software’s creative director Tim Willits claimed in 2013 that the development was rebooted due to a lack of character (remarks echoed by Marty Stratton in 2015), the truth, as always, is a bit more complicated. As reported in 2013 by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, DOOM 4 had been trapped in hell, but was that hell really a developmental nether-realm, or was something more sinister afoot?
What really happened in 2011, and how were Portal involved?
Fans of the Australian death metal cult will recall that there was a four-year gap between 2009’s Swarth and 2013’s Vexovoid; considering the fact that the majority of Swarth was written shortly after the release of 2007’s Outre’, attested by the similar sounds noted by critics like Exclaim!‘s Denise Falzon, that’s a substantial gap in time for the elusive penitents of the Ancient Ones to be inactive. The truth is that some time in 2008 Kevin Cloud contacted Portal and, impressed with the arcane threat present on the Swarth demos they sent him in response, contracted the band to write the soundtrack for his vision of infernal invasion.
In early 2009, five cloaked Australians appeared at id Software’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas, ready to begin the composition of what was to be a conjuring of demonic forces and cybernetic abominations. Shortly thereafter, strange things began to occur at id headquarters.
“At first it was kind of funny. There was this weird dude walking around with a clock on his head, muttering in what he dead-pan called ‘The Black Tongue’ while grabbing coffee from the pot on the second floor kitchen. We thought it was harmless, but then stuff started to go missing.”
In research for this story, I communicated with several interns and developers on the DOOM 4 project who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “At first it was kind of funny. There was this weird dude walking around with a clock on his head, muttering in what he dead-pan called ‘The Black Tongue’ while grabbing coffee from the pot on the second floor kitchen,” one intern notes. “We thought it was harmless, but then stuff started to go missing.” It was little things at first, mostly electronics. Calculators, earbuds, electronic staplers would periodically go missing in the first few months Portal was in residence. When Carmack asked lead guitarist and composer Horror Illogium if he had seen any of the missing tech, all he got in response was a shrug and some baffling mumble about, “The masters claim all frequencies for the ‘ESP ION AGE’!”
Next, strange graffiti started appearing around the office. “One of the interns found what looked like hieroglyphs carved into the bottom of his keyboard after he turned it over one day when the ‘6’ key got jammed. I thought it was fairly harmless, but he seemed pretty spooked,” a senior developer told me. “Another intern said he would find a weird film of goop on his monitor every morning. He initially just attributed it to Portal’s rhythm guitarist Aphotic Mote’s odd diet [Ed. note – A lot of Vegemite and foul-smelling eggs, apparently] since the guitarist was seated at an adjacent desk, but later the goop started to look like an ‘Exponent n script.'”
Still, Cloud and the development team were pleased with the band’s progress on the soundtrack, which sources tell me was mirroring the thematic elements of the game closely. “One day former developer American McGee stopped by the office while on layover from Hong Kong so that he could say hi to his old pal John [Carmack]. American was super into industrial metal [Ed. note – Recall that McGee was the one who got Trent Reznor to work on Quake], and he was stoked to see Portal working on the soundtrack. He said that there was a strong industrial vibe to the record, like something you might hear from Throbbing Gristle, but it was definitely a textural thing that suited the hellish atmosphere.”
In fact, Kevin Cloud said that the album’s first single, “Phreqs,” perfectly captured the aggression and frenetic energy of the game’s first level, a metropolitan block overrun with Imps and Pinkies. “It’s just a really moody, technical track with a schizo solo that comes out of left field. We planned to have that song actually sort of drag out through the level, and whenever the Imps were attacking, that chaotic solo would just make you go nuts.”
It was shortly after the band finished “Phreqs” that things took a turn for the worse. In late 2009, just as crunch time was beginning to set in at id’s headquarters ahead of Quakecon the following summer, the odd happenings around the building began to occur more frequently. Interns reported hearing drummer Ignis Fatuus yell, “Unchain the eschatonic lightning of Imperatrix chaos!” just before the power supply would dim or even completely short; oddly enough, the band’s recording sessions could still be heard with perfect clarity.
“It was as if they actually had a UAC portal to the Argent Well and all these skittering, odd riffs were pouring out. The music was way more clear, and way gnarlier than their old stuff,” one intern said. “But the lights would dim, and we would hear these odd, sort of chittering noises, coming from the shadows in the building. More stuff was disappearing. Some of my the higher ups would conspicuously take coffee breaks whenever the blast beats would start. We were sure it was because of the wave of nausea everyone felt.”
“But the lights would dim, and we would hear these odd, sort of chittering noises, coming from the shadows in the building. More stuff was disappearing. Some of my the higher ups would conspicuously take coffee breaks whenever the blast beats would start. We were sure it was because of the wave of nausea everyone felt.”
Other paranormal phenomena were reported. Two receptionists claimed they would find long scratches on their skin after work. The sound engineers said that their food in the second floor refrigerator would literally decompose before lunch. Everyone reported a rotten smell in the bathroom. Numerous complaints were filed with HR, but no one seemed to have proof that the band was behind the odd happenings.
By the time the band finished their second single, “Phathom,” a chromatic whirlwind of squealing guitars and oddly juxtaposed caveman drums, in November 2009, morale had reached an all-time low. The song was supposed to accompany a hellfire-steampunk Golem boss (that would eventually be reworked into a more chitinous boss called the Hell Guard), but the programmers started filing complaints with HR that they could hear the clanging, almost industrial percussive crashes in their sleep; these sounds always accompanied nightmares of prowling demons lurking ever closer each night. Developers began calling in sick. Coffee breaks grew longer. Carmack became convinced that the demo would not be finished in time for Quakecon.
So, in an all-hands-on-deck meeting in March 2010, id management decided that they could ignore the odd happenings no longer. The executives resolved to confront Portal and, if possible, to cancel the soundtrack. On April 16th, 2010, John Carmack and Kevin Cloud, flanked by a number of black-suited “contractors” who looked like government types according to one source, approached the in-house studio while Portal were in the midst of recording the album’s final track, an off-putting mantric number called “Olde Guarde” that uses almost maliciously reverent chanting and a wall of feedback to capture a sense of both grandeur and terror.
Unfortunately, due to the electrical fluctuations that corresponded to every recording session, all in-studio cameras short-circuited, so no visual logs remain regarding the confrontation. Although some audio files can be found online, it’s difficult to discern anything amid the discordant note frenzy of Portal’s music and the throaty, almost “Stairway to Heaven” in-reverse garbled vocalizations. Carmack and Cloud have refused to speak about the event in question, and I was unable to track down any of the security guards who were present that day. All I’ve been able to glean from the interviews with interns and other personnel is that when Carmack opened the door to the studio, a haunting crimson light shined out; one intern said the light struck one of the contractors, triggering a rapid ossification of his skin. Another intern who apparently looked into the door said that they couldn’t even see the band amid all the swirling light, but there seemed to be a fire inside the studio. Amid all this, Portal’s music could still be heard. More flashes of light were seen, screams that sounded like Lost Souls were heard, then suddenly everything turned dark in the building and the music stopped.
As you know, the development team ultimately abandoned their work on the project, scrapping everything they had in 2011 and burying the project beneath a mountain of false reports. Staff was reportedly put on leave for several months following Quakecon in 2010, and progress finally resumed in 2011. Two years later, John Carmack resigned from id and joined Oculus VR as CTO. The shift in focus ended up paying off for Doom 4. The reboot, simply titled Doom, launched in 2016 to widespread critical acclaim. It featured a heavy industrial-driven metal soundtrack with pulse-pounding chords and heart-stopping electronic noise, but it bore Mick Gordon’s stamp, not Portal’s.
As you know, Portal released Vexovoid, a comparably tamer affair with an odd sense of dynamic and an almost too-crystalline production, in 2013. Whatever they recorded, whatever demons they channeled for the lost Doom 4, remain unheard.