Papier-mâché’d from scraps of Motown soul, flower-power devotional, classical harp recordings, and even warp-speed country, Portal Orphanage is a 25-minute postscript to last year’s late-stage-capitalism beat mosaic End the Summertime F(or)ever, and quite possibly one of Spencer Stephenson’s final releases under the Botany moniker for the foreseeable future. Where his previous LP anchored bleary-eyed optimism with concern and disillusionment, this EP ascends to the upper atmosphere to watch the dust of the 2010s-- the decade encompassing most of the Botany discography-- settle from a slightly more opiated vantage. Though there is still some sunlight breaking through the clouds, Portal Orphanage hums in somber resignation toward the darker promises of the future that have come true, while digesting the events of the last few years pensively instead of decrying them urgently.
Culled from the same stack of 45s that were wrought into Botany’s 2020 conceptual piece Fourteen 45 Tails, opening track “Times” constitutes the most frenetic energy of the suite as fragmented vocals jut through rattling percussion and heavy 808s with a jungle-esque cadence. From here the EP trades its hasty jog for a long stride that is slower, though no less determined. The nearly drum-less “No Refuge in the Past” is tethered to a heavy, plodding kick drum to keep it from completely disappearing into space, while “Snowbyrd” and “Hypernap” flaunt the hard-hitting and percussion-forward style Stephenson has sharpened over the years. Twin centerpieces “In This Community” and “Fuck This Whole Day” highlight Stephenson’s skills as an instrumentalist with dizzying drum rudiments, and sweetly complex bass guitar lines that hearken back to the Feeling Today EP, Stephenson’s first foot forward as a green twenty-two year old in 2010. “Glistener” proffers the aspect of Botany’s sound that melds exploratory psychedelia with loose, free-jazz drumming, resolving in a shimmering canvas of marbled drones and splashing timbres. On “Rare Jubilation” Stephenson is joined by label mate Joseph Shabason who uses improvised flute to charm the final wisps of Portal Orphanage into the upper atmosphere. Between antique harp motifs, and Shabason’s breezy arpeggiating, a stilted voice can be heard singing “and we can change things”. Whether this is a message from Stephenson to himself, or an offer of hope to the world at large, “change” feels imminent. In his own words “I never intended for the Botany title to be an avatar for myself. It has always simply been the name I’ve put on whatever I’ve put out, and was meant to be totally freeform. But over the years, it feels like there’s a little bit of a mitosis that’s happened whether I want it to or not, and the name has crystallized into something that sets parameters for me, instead of the other way around. I feel compelled to get away from that a bit.”
Whatever changes may come, Stephenson’s hall-of-mirrors sample manipulation blurs with his own instrumentation here on Portal Orphanage, displaying the balance of musicianship, curation, and sound design that has formed the through line of his career. Dripping with mossy textures that are both blurred and hi-fi all at once, the EP is a post-ambient, post-beat music sendoff to an era of Stephenson’s creative life. The values that have always been projected in the Botany sound, like transcendence, elation, and awe, still gleam beneath a subtle mourning of the fact that such values have struggled to take root in the soil of the modern age. Still, anytime one wishes to be among these sentiments, Botany’s music will be there holding the doorway open.