Matt King doesn't like to leave his room, and his expressed mission is to make "sad as fuck music" with Austin screamo act Portrayal of Guilt — but that doesn't mean he's depressed. At least he doesn't think so.
"I don't really leave my room ever," he says when he answers Revolver's call. "I'm in my room right now. I'm usually just in my room sitting on the computer listening to music and stuff. I definitely just sit in bed all day, but I don't even know if you can call that depression."
Whatever antisocial tendencies he's cultivating in his isolation, at least he's managing to stay productive. In fact he's so skilled at channeling his ennui, he's helped create one of the fiercest screamo records since the halcyon days of Robotic Empire and Ebullition Records with Portrayal of Guilt's debut album, Let Pain Be Your Guide. The band's adventurous approach — merging a wide swath of harsh genres into one frenetic sound — earned the album spots on multiple Best of 2018 lists, and allowed Portrayal of Guilt to meld perfectly while supporting all sorts of touring acts, from scene favorites Touche Amore to punk veterans Screaming Females.
The guitars are classically screamo, but King's vocals often sink into lower registers than one would find normally, allowing some songs to approach a stupidly heavy — albeit tasteful — level. There's noise, shreds of powerviolence, and a completely breakneck speed that makes listening to the record feel like being chained to the bottom of a well, as water steadily closes in and darkness engulfs everything in sight.
Thematically, the record represents a catharsis for King, allowing him to scream away his feelings of frustration and powerlessness with the world at large. "The way I see life? You have nobody to depend on but yourself, and that's just the reality … people just don't give a fuck," he says. "What's happening right now in the world, like who our fucking president is and all this crazy psycho shit that's going on … I can't even describe it. And the feeling of just essentially being helpless … just alone, most of all, is something I would relate the album to. But I can't say I'm just a 'sad' guy. Cause I don't talk to anyone on purpose. I would just prefer to be alone than with anyone else."
The road to Portrayal of Guilt started with King's previous band Illustrations, a sludgy hardcore crew that became scene regulars in Austin. They caught the attention of the Fall of Troy's manager in 2016 and soon were under his management. From there, a band that mostly played local shows throughout Texas was flung into a high-stakes situation, getting flown out to record a very ambitious record, Acts of God, as well as a Fall of Troy return tour offer. On paper, the weirdo post-hardcore of Fall of Troy matched up nicely with Illustrations' style of extremely dark hardcore, and King and Co. had high hopes for the run. But things didn't go quite as planned.
"The shows weren't even that great," King says bluntly. "All the shows were much better that were not with [the Fall of Troy], it was just weird. There were members in [Illustrations] who didn't really want to tour, just had other ideas and stuff. When it was all said and done, I ended up paying thousands of dollars to the managers basically on my own."
With the wind quickly departing Illustrations' sails, in early 2017 King switched directions and started Portrayal of Guilt with Illustrations drummer James Beveridge, and the nascent group promptly dropped an explosive self-titled EP. The three-song effort picks up right where the heyday of screamo left off, but imbues the music with a more modern approach thanks to well-produced guitar work that sounds a lot chunkier than much of what makes up the canon. The EP showed the band's ambitious range, and they quickly caught the attention of the passionate online communities built around screamo.
With just one release, Portrayal of Guilt was getting heat in a way that Illustrations didn't, and later that year, not surprisingly, Illustrations announced they would be ending the band. After months of frustration, King suddenly found himself creatively re-energized and free to explore PoG's broader range of styles, many of which are directly inspired by the singer's earliest hardcore influences — which he first discovered courtesy of an unexpected houseguest.
When King was a teenager growing up in San Antonio, he played in smaller fledgling bands, and through the scene he befriended a promoter Richard out of the tiny town of Kirby, Texas. The two hit it off well, and as fate would have it the promoter was in between living situations — and the Kings happened to have a free couch. One thing led to another, and — thanks to King's extremely chill mom — the promoter ended up living with the Kings for a month and opening the young musician's eyes to a new world of extreme music.
"During the time he just put [this hard drive of music] on my computer, and on it was pageninetynine, Majority Rule, City of Caterpillar, just like all of this crazy shit. That's sort of the shit I was into before anything else, before I could have a deathcore or a scene phase or whatever. I feel like we started the band because I was writing darker riffs and stuff on my own time. I've always been stoked on that kind of music, I guess."
King's love of that early screamo material came full circle when in 2017 Portrayal of Guilt was asked by Majority Rule's Matt Michel to join them on tour with fellow screamo legends pageninetynine.
"It was amazing. I remember we were playing that New York show with pageninetynine and Majority Rule and I saw them at St. Vitus the night before the show, I was straight up tearing up because it was so good," he recalls. "Just to hear those riffs live, just your favorite band playing in front of you is insane always." Their friendship with Michel blossomed, and he invited the band to record some demos in his home studio in Washington, D.C. Things went so well that they asked if he'd be interested in recording the entire full-length album, and Michel was more than happy to oblige.
Let Pain Be Your Guide is the result of the pairing. And while the record has a legit screamo tastemaker behind the board, the album's true success comes from its non-nostalgic desire to evolve the genre. "[Majority Rule and pageninetynine] are some of the bands I felt who write music outside of the box rather than like, some sort of cheap-thrill thing," says King. "But as far as with our band and screamo or whatever, I guess it's like taking our favorite elements of music that we like, and sort of [nodding] to the greats. But we'll do our own thing."
The most obvious way King and Co. subvert the usual screamo band makeup is the addition of sampler Rick Flores. Samples are definitely part of screamo's fabric, but they're mostly restricted to movie-quote intros and interludes that add some random bits of personality, and that's about it. But with Portrayal of Guilt, electronics are an integral part of their sonic DNA — adding a layer of total weirdness to the band's sound and also representing the wide range of possibilities King sees for the future of the band.
"A lot of people are kind of confused by it. But eventually down the line I want it to be sort of more of a spectacular thing to see rather than one guy pushing buttons," says King. "In my mind, I feel like it should just be Nine Inch Nails or something like that with all of the instruments going on like that. But that's obviously like a far thought away but getting started with the sampling is what I had in mind."
While Portrayal of Guilt are intent on evolving beyond many of the genre's musical boundaries, they still maintain some emo-as-fuck tenets central to the style. The ferocity and anguish are all in service of the central idea of powerlessness, having to navigate a harsh reality, and screaming back against it all.
A prime example of this is heard on the penultimate track "Death Is Gentle," which features an austere, vaguely melancholic breakdown, picking apart the individual riffs for an incredibly strange mostly instrumental track, save for King's repeated screamed lines: "The semantics don't change my position." Any other band would likely keep it extremely heavy, but the way Portrayal of Guilt deconstruct their sound speaks to their outlook. Approaching this kind of darkness could easily seem opportunistic or lame, but King is extremely self-critical.
When asked how to write screamo without it being corny, he laughs, "I don't know… Maybe I'm just jaded or a hater or something, but I honestly think so much stuff is corny … for all I know we're corny. It's corny. I don't even know, I would just never want to be corny.
"I'm part of a Facebook group or two, and I see what people say … it's just the cringiest stuff I've ever seen," he continues. "I definitely read stuff and pay attention, but I don't even know what defines like one general idea in screamo, or what makes something screamo. That's what I feel is corny: that there can only be one idea of what screamo is."