Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Usnea appeared in the extreme doom/death scene fairly recently, releasing their self-titled debut album back in 2013. It did not take long for them to be noticed by Relapse, which put out their sophomore record Random Cosmic Violence the following year. Even though their second album was good, it felt like the band might have rushed the compositions and the recording of the album slightly. While interesting and captivating, it seemed that there was still a lot of aspects of the album left unexplored.
Returning now with Portals Into Futility, Usnea keep working their way around the doom/death essence, inspired by the dystopian elements of today’s reality. Their two previous works was influenced by primordial concepts, like “Chaoskampf” the eternal struggle against chaos, and ancient history, showing an interested towards the torture device of “The Brazen Bull of Phalaris.” For Portals Into Futility, the focus swifts towards the sci-fi territory, referencing Ursula Le Guin’s “Lathe of Heaven,” and the haunting notions of today’s society leaning towards pseudoscience in “Demon Haunted World,” named after Carl Sagan’s seminal work.
Label: Relapse Records
Musically, what one can really appreciate in Usnea’s new record is the concept of balance. The band dives into the extreme doom/death realm attempting to provide an experience that will encompass all of its representations. Kicking things off with “Eidolons and Increate,” they tie in the depressive end initially with a melodic touch, but as the record unfolds further intricacies begin to float to the surface. The path becomes darker, and the dissonance roams freely crafting a space that is asphyxiating. The opening track morphs through these different modes, with the upbeat tempo providing a more appropriate background for the experimental edge of the guitar work.
What really works for Usnea, however, is the dynamics and pacing of their record, both of which are essential in retaining the narration. The pace for the most part retains its glacial, extreme doom/death mode, with each cymbal hit combining with guitar strums to create echoes through the humongous space. It aids in also bringing a more epic perspective to the front, as is the case with the heavier riffing of “Pyrrhic Victory” and of course the entirety of the closing track “A Crown of Desolation.” On the other hand, as the pacing retains a one-dimensional approach, the dynamics need to fill in the space and add some variety. That is where the more explosive moments come in and compliment the slow progression, especially with cleaner parts being introduced to change the tone and ambiance of this work.
The atmosphere is an intrinsic part of the band’s sound, and in Portals Into Futility Usnea take extra care in establishing a strong setting for their atmosphere to grow. As was the case with previous works, they introduce clean parts that provide this necessary change of scenery, combining them with a ritualistic sense of movement as well as an ethereal take originating from the guitars and deep, chant-like vocal delivery to bind them all together.
Portals Into Futility presents a very well balanced, thoroughly crafted extreme doom/death record. Usnea manage to find their place between the light and the dark, making full use of their arsenal and its capabilities. The album includes epic moments of grandeur, but also solitary ambient passages. It has a melodic touch, but also accepts its dissonant edge. It travels from the lyrical sense of melancholy to the brutal end of depression, bridging these territories in an exquisite manner.