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Usnea's Impossibly Heavy New Doom Metal Album Is a Sci-Fi Odyssey

Stream the Portland extreme doom outfit's politically-charged, Margaret Atwood-inspired new album for Relapse Records.
Photo by Orion Landau

Not many extreme metal records come with a specialized recommended reading list, but Usnea does just that in an effort to contextualize the lyrical ambiguities on their sci-fi-inspired, politically-charged new album. Portals Into Futility marks the Portland band's third full-length (their second for Relapse Records), and its astoundingly heavy, nuanced funeral doom compositions are matched by lyrical heft. Unlike so many other extreme doom recordings, there are no histrionic throwaway syllables here, no endless misery or self-loathing; intense emotion (specifically negative emotion) is obviously an important, intrinsic doom metal hallmark, but as Usnea shows, despair and grief take many forms. Some weep, some wallow… and some protest.


"Portals Into Futility was a journey for us to write, and hopefully a journey that also presents itself to the listener," the band told Noisey. "The record is a catharsis of a great deal of anxiety, pain and suffering, seeking to be both an escape from those realities and a meditation on them. From the anguish and barbarity of the torturer in "Eidolons and the Increate" throughout to the cold and barren desert planet atmosphere of "A Crown of Desolation", we hope the listener finds the peaks and valleys of our compositions to be a satisfying emotional reprieve from the sobering peaks and valleys of our own dark reality."

Here, Usnea draw from said reading list—which can be found in the liner notes to their new album, and features political and cultural sci-fi masterworks like Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer, Ursula K Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven, Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Philip K Dick's Valis, and Frank Herbert's Dune—to communicate their intent. Vocalist Justin Cory's hollow roar barrels between worlds, his subterranean exhortations hopping from mediations on reality, technology, and religion to more explicit targets, as in the piano-flecked, heavily Dune-inspired "A Crown of Desolation" and the lumbering menace of "Demon Haunted World," which rages against violent patriarchy: "Break the chains, kill all Gods / Toxic masculinity / The Terminus of misogyny / Eradication of domination / False binaries extinguished / Your dead God is no longer justification / For the tyranny of men."


Musically speaking, Portals Into Futility builds upon the progress they made with its predecessor, Random Cosmic Violence. "Funeral doom" has always been an ill-fitting mantle for the four of them—Cory, bassist and vocalist Joel Banishing Bass, drummer Zeke Optimo Rogers, and guitarist Johnny Lovingood—because, while their tuning is low and tempo is slow, they've never shied away from progression. Rather than floating motionless in amber, Usnea reaches out and absorbs outside energies, which then combust into psychedelic spirals, tormented shrieks, shining acoustic passages, hollow-voiced choruses, and flashy drumming (see "Lathe of Heaven" in particular). "Eidolons And The Increate" is deliciously tense; made eerie by a ghostly male choir, the song seems to purposefully withhold any sort of cathartic release until its captive audience has been good and pummeled. Here and there, (and especially on "A Crown of Desolation," which will absolutely have you head-bobbing at your desk), a little bit of burly rock 'n' roll swings on through.

Out September 8 via Relapse (who are running preorders here), Portals Into Futility is streaming in its imposing, multi-layered entirety below (and, just FYI, you can find Cory's "Satanic Feminist" shirt here).

USNEA on tour w/ Ufomammut:

9/30/2017 La Boule Noire – Paris, FR
10/01/2017 Le Ferrailleur – Nantes, FR
10/03/2017 Borderline – London, UK
10/04/2017 Magasin 4 – Brussels, BE
10/05/2017 Schlachthof – Wiesbaden, DE
10/06/2017 Up In Smoke Festival – Pratteln, CH
10/07/2017 Doornroosje @ Soulcrusher Festival – Nijmegen, NL
10/08/2017 Forum – Bielefeld, DE 10/10/2017 Blitz – Oslo, NO
10/11/2017 Klub Undergangen – Stockholm, SE
10/13/2017 Korjaamo @ Blowup Vol. 3 Festival – Helsinki, FI
10/14/2017 Olympia-Kortelli – Tampere, FI
10/16/2017 KB 18 – Copenhagen, DK
10/17/2017 Lido – Berlin, DE
10/18/2017 Markthalle – Hamburg, DE
10/19/2017 Werk 2 – Leipzig, DE
10/20/2017 Firley – Wroclaw, PL
10/21/2017 007 – Prague, CZ
10/22/2017 Keep It Doom Festival – Munich, DE

Kim Kelly is combining the fuck out of metal and politics on Twitter.