Like labelmates Graves at Sea and Lycus, and fellow American’s Bell Witch and Samothrace, Usnea live life in the slow(er) lane. Their brand of doom features a rotating spit of tasty off-shoots: funeral doom, black metal, sludge, and progressive metal all permeate through the five dense and atmospheric tracks of Portals into Futility, the band’s third full-length. A vague and ethereal science-fiction concept runs through the album, too. I’ve deduced this not from the lyrics but from the reading list supplied by the band: the works of Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, Carl Sagan, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Frank Herbert are expected to be cosmically crumbled into this curious concoction. With an average song length of 11 minutes and enough fuzziness and bass-heavy chug-work to grind the plaque from your teeth, Usnea certainly don’t hold back. There’s tenderness, too; soothing and dreamy melodies are supplied through a greater use of clean vocals and major melodies. Uniting these two features — the dark and the light — in a communion of excellence is a mission that many have attempted and failed. Can Usnea reach Nirvana or are they destined to plummet back down to earth?
Tenderly, twelve-minute opener “Eidolons And The Increate” flutters into fruition. Deep, chanting clean vocals reverberate above the rich and slow twang of guitars before gradual denseness ensues. Increased fuzz, a heavier bass presence, and a stark, rough half-sludge, half-black vocal drawl drags the song into murkier territories. As with many long-form songs, atmosphere and steady progression are key and these tropes are integrated well enough here. Subtle riff-progressions, enhanced drum heaviness, and the inclusion of deep death-metal growls take the song further into its pit of despair. Mid-way through the song reaches its peak as it melts into a mid-paced chaos-fest of noisy guitar tones, rumbling drums and snarling vocals. Then, overindulged with its own frenzy, the song settles down during its final minutes into a slumber of decent cleans and stretching solos.
It’s strong and formulaic, continuing the sound of previous release Random Cosmic Violence but painting it with denser and more contrasting hues. The three tracks in the middle of the album, bookended by the Goliath opener “Eidolons And The Increate” and mega-Goliath 19-minute closer “A Crown Of Desolation,” continue the tricks and moods of the opener with a greater sense of succinctness and focus, though they lack their feelings of grandeur and immersion. “Lathe of Heaven” grooves at a steady pace, fizzing, grinding and flailing to its end with menace, supported by a wonderfully bubbling bass tone. “Demon Haunted World,” a grind-core song in comparison to the rest, running at six-and-a-half minutes, both cranks and shines as melodic-leads akin to a moodier Pallbearer navigate the denseness and noisy sludge. Both are strong tracks but, when I compare them with similar songs in the genre, they don’t push to the front of the pack. “Pyrric Victory” trudges with menace but fails to hook its claws with enough venom to really capture the imagination. Its slow and repetitious sound doesn’t create a trance-like effect, instead, it might send a listener on a journey to 40-winks.
All roads lead to “Crown of Desolation,” the album’s closer. Simply, it’s too long. Fourteen-minutes would suffice. Ten minutes, even. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Once upon a time an enchanting atmosphere, layered with chanting-cleans and glistening guitar melodies, emerged. Yet, a sense of malevolence — a strangeness in the cosmos — began to claw through the esoteric harmony of life. And soon the invasion began and a mid-to-fast paced stoner groove exploded through the mesh of slowness to profound effect. For three-minutes, the grooves, accompanied by bellowing growls, unravel before the invasion just seems to collapse and simmer out into anti-climatic nothingness. Have the earthlings won? I can’t really tell. The song moves into a solemn and steady end that lasts for eight-minutes plus, failing to really capture anything beyond a re-molding of the sounds and movements already featured on the album. The first half of the tale is excellent, building and writhing out of comfort well, but it falls flat on its face and fails to rekindle the energy of the build-up. A shame.
There are many good moments here, some exceptional, but also a few that don’t support and polish the excellence. This style usually goes two ways for me: it’ll be outstanding or dire. Unusually, Portals into Futility falls somewhere just past halfway in good territories. I really, really wanted to love it, and in theory — based on what I usually look for in my metal — I should, but there’s just something lacking here.