Portals into Futility by UsneaRelease date: September 8, 2017
Label: Relapse Records
Usnea were a band out of time. They had always felt to me like an outfit rooted in the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when a slew of bands were creating tidal wave riffs and tidal wave imagery – Isis’ Oceanic, Graves at Sea’s Migration and Ocean’s Hear Where Nothing Grows. Of course, Usnea don’t quite fit in when it comes to the imagery (replacing it with sci-fi infused darkness), but they are of that ilk: a band willfully slowing staggeringly heavy riffs down even further, screaming woeful tirades as if from mountaintops, and heating the whole cocktail of bile up in the studio to a point that it boils down to a primordial sludge.
Their early self-titled release particularly reminded me of Ocean’s gargantuan debut, and the follow-up, 2014’s Random Cosmic Violence (and their first for Relapse) cemented Usnea as ‘ones to watch’ to a worldwide audience. Both albums offered a collection of four songs with only one of those less than twelve minutes long, with most averaging at quarter of an hour, and therefore – of course – the albums clocked in at around an hour. Portals into Futility features a similar running length, but with the middle three tracks all under ten minutes duration, the pacing and overall structure of their third full-length is radically different than that which has gone before. Portals into Futility paradoxically constricts and lets its music breathe, while also wearing their influences a little closer to the surface than on previous efforts.
Nowhere is this better showcased than on opener ‘Eidolons and the Increate’, where chanted, dream-like clean vocals emanate and ensnare, and a whole host of genres are showcased in the space of a few bars of music; veering from funeral doom, to sludge and even progressive metal. The changes of dynamic and pace in this one track seem to set the template for the rest of the album; clean and guttural vocals signalling reflective periods, be they sparse and atmospheric, or dense and all-encompassing, and the higher pitched screams creating a blackened edge to proceedings and somehow, necessarily, encouraging the tempo of the song to speed up. Usnea sound instinctual, a band that are letting the music dictate their direction, not the other way around. This is not to say that there is a paucity of thought going into their sound. Far from it. There is a greater depth on display on Portals into Futility than has been exhibited before, but it does feel like a piece of art that was waiting in the stone, to bastardise a Michelangelo quote.
This extraordinary opening sets a precedent for the remainder of the album. ‘Lathe of Heaven’, follows and is probably the most standard fare on the album, in that it could quite easily be sneaked onto Random Cosmic Violence. It’s a solid track that will make any Usnea fan happy, and will win over those who have not experienced them before. Probably, therefore, the perfect reason for it being made the ‘single’ from the album. While it is by no means a low point on the album, it is a track that one may soon associate with the sound of Usnea past. It is somewhat jarring therefore that the following track perhaps points to their future. ‘Demon Haunted World’ is an awful title is the most concise track Usnea have put to tape, bar their side of a 7-inch split with Ruins in 2014. Running at what the members of the band probably consider ‘pop’ (6:33), it drives with a determination that surprises the listener, propelling the band into a rarefied group of bands who should hold a special place in the heart of any extreme metal fan.
They double down on this new-found vim with the best track of their career. ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ is massive, lonesome and strangely beautiful. It coalesces all that made Usnea a promising act before, and the massive leaps and bounds made on the album beforehand, and melds them into a signature blended sound that is unmistakably theirs. The closest I can compare them to is a slightly more urgent Fórn. It feels odd to compare a band who are still early in their career with another that are even earlier in theirs, and perhaps this points to the fact that rather than Usnea being a group being an echo of a golden period, they are a band who will lead that sub-genre’s charge back into the limelight.
The album closes with the huge, incredible, awe-inspiring ‘A Crown of Desolation’. Huge in sound, in scope, and in length. Just shy of twenty minutes, the track is the longest Usnea have produced thus far, proving if the listener had any doubts, that Portals of Futility is an album of extremes. It is an album of great quality, too, but one feels after the closing seconds of ‘A Crown of Desolation’s majesty ring out, that Usnea have far more in the tank, and – just maybe – a stone cold classic hiding in their future. For now, this album is an incredible grouping of songs, but, but, but, that is all the more exciting (and frustrating) for already wanting to hear what this group will produce in the coming years.