This has been an uncommonly healthy year for slow, debilitating doom metal, which seems rather fitting. Being confronted with an ever-flowing stream of woe, horror and absurdity every time we watch the news or glide through our Twitter feed rots both the soul and the spirit, and what better way to soundtrack humanity’s descent into moral, societal and environmental catastrophe than the existential torment of bands like The Body, Bismuth, Remote Viewing and Vile Creature?
Enter, then, Ursa, a California three-piece whose Abyss Between the Stars LP is a damn fine slab of epic doom metal that offers no philosophical musings, no lyrics carved out in razor marks and no grand insight into what it means to be a tiny fleck of humanity hurtling towards the unknowable void. Instead we get wizards, dragons and spider kings, the band meting out classic doom that merges high fantasy with a sense of atavistic classicism wassailing the glory days of Candlemass, Cirith Ungol and Pagan Altar. It's out November 2 via Blood Music, and we're streaming it in full below.
If it sounds that sounds strange, the prospect is even odder still when you consider that Ursa comprise three quarters of Cormorant—a cult favorite that has carved out a 10-year, proudly-DIY career delivering bleak, reflective, genre-flaying progressive black metal. Needless to say, Ursa is almost as big a change perceptually as it is sonically for its members.
“Ursa started in 2016, basically out of convenience,” explains vocalist/bassist Matt Solis. “Nick [Cohon, guitar], Brennan [Kunkel, drums] and I were all living in Petaluma, about five minutes away from our Cormorant studio. Nick said ‘I have these doom riffs and I don’t think they’d fit with Cormorant but I kinda want to play them…’ and so he and Brennan started jamming. They asked me if I wanted to sing, which turned into playing bass as well, and it got to the point that we were having so much fun playing these big stupid riffs between Cormorant practices that it morphed into its own thing.”
One listen to Abyss Between the Stars and it’s clear that Ursa is indeed “its own thing”—a clutch of sprawling songs steeped in high drama and even higher fantasy that deftly slip between melancholy and majesty. When considered side by side with, say, Cormorant’s 2017 opus Diaspora, the sheer apartness is even more pronounced—Cormorant, after all, is a band without parameters, an anything-goes entity that has made its name by challenging and confounding genre tropes. This, then, begs the question: is it confining—or perhaps even freeing—to spend time playing a style so rooted in ritual and tradition?
“I put myself in a different mindset,” says Solis. “It’s traditional, or how I picture traditional heavy metal to be—the Dio days. I get to pretend I’m on a mountaintop with my hair blowing in the wind. If anything, this band is easier to navigate than Cormorant because we’re trying to keep it simple, traditional, and crushing. With Cormorant, we always say it comes out the way it does because we all write what we want to hear ourselves. With Ursa, it’s very genre-oriented. I knew when they asked me if I wanted to play that we had to go all the way, with full-on ridiculous lyrics about wizards and dragons and shit—that’s what I want to do if I’m going to be in a doom band.”
If you’re used to Cormorant’s bleak, allusive narratives about humanity’s stumbling journey toward the tarpit, then Solis’ prose for Ursa serves as a marked contrast, tending as they do towards spider-things and wizards with beards of eyeballs. “If you talk about Ursa as being freeing, that part, as a writer, is extremely freeing,” says Solis. “Once I have a concept, I can just go all-out with the lyrics. For instance, with "Wizard's Path," my friend Jesse Swanson, who’s a tattoo artist and did the art for the album, has a really awesome painting of a wizard with a beard that’s full of eyeballs. I took that and put myself in this Tolkienesque fantasy area in my brain—one that’s always been there, even if it doesn’t come out in Cormorant or the writing I do professionally. To be able to play around like that is super fun.”
True enough, Solis' morbid tales fit the heavy, moody, headbang-worthy doom to a T, but the sense of fun he mentions may also set alarm bells ringing—after all, the charm of 80s forebears like Trouble, Cirith Ungol or Manilla Road lay in their playing their metal with a straight bat rather than a knowing wink.
“We were looking something fun that didn’t take itself super seriously with its presentation but did take itself seriously with the music,” says Solis when asked about the fine line between homage and parody. “I think anybody who’s going to listen to this kind of stuff already knows what’s going on. I feel that a lot of metal—especially black metal, which is mostly what we deal with in Cormorant—is super serious and very esoteric. Don’t get me wrong, I love that and appreciate that approach, but I feel like there’s another side to most heavy metal fans who just wants to lift their sword, listen to Dio, and sing about attacking dragons. I guess it’s just about believing what you’re presenting.”
When your heavy metal reference points include Candlemass, Tolkien and Conan the Barbarian, it seems fitting to talk about heavy metal as escapism, and whether Ursa fulfils any particular yearning to tune out the manifold horrors of modern reality. Solis isn't sold on the idea. “Anytime I play music, it’s like that,” he says. “Whether things are good or bad, it’s an outlet. I don’t think about it in terms of, ‘man, things suck, I’ve got to blow off some steam by singing about dragons’—it all comes from the same place for me with Cormorant, with Ursa or even if I’m just writing riffs in my room. It’s just the way I deal with things, personal or otherwise. Yes, America is completely fucked and it’s horrifying, but at the same time I have a roof over my head, so for me playing music is in itself the best way to deal with any of that other stuff.”
Talk turns from the philosophical to something more grounded, and a factor that may cause those who’ve been tracking Cormorant’s DIY trajectory to raise a quizzical eyebrow – Ursa’s signing with Finland’s Blood Music. While it might not be tantamount to Dylan going electric or Nirvana getting into bed with Geffen, it initially seems like an odd move for people who’ve steadfastly self-released their own material.
“We worked with Blood Music on the vinyl rerelease of three of our LPs, and we had a great relationship with them,” explains Solis of the shift. “We talked about doing that for the last Cormorant album and it just didn’t work out, so we ended up self-releasing it instead. Once we’d recorded the Ursa album, we thought we might as well try to sell this to a label, because we could get the word out about this new band without having to lay our own groundwork. It was just to try something different. It’s cool, because we could have reached out to some niche, doom-only label, but Blood Music doesn’t really do that. This is their first doom release, and their whole thing is variety, so it fits with their aesthetic.”
Does Solis think, though, that some fans—particularly those who’ve been with Cormorant for the long haul—might find it hard to reconcile members’ ultra-DIY approach with one band and their linking up with Blood Music for the other? “I don’t think so,” he says. “It probably helps that it’s a different band, even if it’s the same people. And, you know, I’ve always said that we’re not opposed to signing a deal—we’ve come close many times. It’s just that it never worked out to the point where we felt comfortable giving away what we’d have to give away. Maybe some people will be upset about it, but, hey, it’s not like I bought a car off the back of it.”
Alex Deller is doomed on Twitter.