The progressive end of funeral doom has been seeing an efflorescence in the past few years, Usnea being among its more notable acts. For quite a while, it was bands such as Thergothon and Evoken that ran the low-and-slow show. Dirges were kept simple if elongated; it was about the atmosphere more than the flourishes and that single-mindedness was partly what differentiated doom from thrash and its ilk as they fully split in the ’80s, so it made sense to hold true to those ideals as doom developed into ever-lower, ever-slower, ever more doomed territory. It was like the Pink Floyd versus Yes debate when it comes to prog rock and notes per minute: one translated, for at least a long while, to “feeling” more directly than the other.
Portals Into Futility isn’t a drastic shift in direction for Usnea in terms of songwriting, performance or even production. The wildest shift, compared to their earliest work, would be that there’s a song on this record below the seven-minute mark, making it effectively grindcore compared to their normal lengths. But their songwriting has always been momentous, by which I mean moment-oriented, flowing with the kind of abstract emotionally-oriented logic that good progressive music follows to achieve lengthy material. So a shorter tune doesn’t equal an incomplete one, or even necessitating a change in style. Instead, the point simply arrives quicker.
What’s most impressive about Usnea is their wide and competent genre vocabulary. They, like Inter Arma, show a command of metal genres as wide as sludge, doom, post-metal and black metal. While Inter Arma fills out their progressive approach to post-Neurosis heavy music with meat-and-potatoes metal, Usnea uses funeral doom as the glue. This makes discussing their music funny, tricky. The focus, moment to moment, section to section, can be on a death-doom crushing riff such as the center of “Lathe of Heaven” or it can be on rich and subtle atmospherics like much of the nearly 20-minute closer “A Crown of Desperation.” Discussing them as a doom band, especially specifying them as funeral doom, unfairly places a narrow window on their sound. This isn’t standard “genres are just limits by another name, man” kvetching, either; like Inter Arma and Rwake, their focus is too consistently beyond the narrow bounds of that world for it to feel like an honest critical assessment.
Their music here is strangely comforting. They are musically as heavy and dour as their peers, but the production gives a visceral sense of presence to the drums that is reminiscent of Neurosis or dual-kit era Kylesa albums, the guitars given a sense of dimension and space that feels more like the opening of a room than being properly crushed. This fits, strangely enough, with the subject matter and inspiration of these songs. Margaret Atwood and Carl Sagan and Ursula Le Guin may deal with difficult things, sometimes bleakly, but there is an underlying spirit of resistance, the sense that the thing which is crushed is a hoping, striving thing. Usnea maintains this feeling. Their music does not feel like a surrender as much as it is a struggling; this thought meets itself in their melodiousness, which is too present for the music to ever feel truly doomed. They do not wallow in glorious, painful angst as much as, saw, Pallbearer, but nor do they moulder in rotten despair like Lycus or wither in loss like Bell Witch. They persist; they resist; they are present.
Portals Into Futility is not a phenomenal record, and is not enough of a pivot or evolution from their previous work to easily imagine it will draw in waves of new fans. But it is a solid, worthwhile contribution to a growing space within doom metal, and the fact that they have not diminished in quality either over the past few records is indicative that they may likely have some staying power in them.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.