Friday, 12 December 2014

Usnea - Random Cosmic Violence (Album Review)

Album Type: Full-Length
Date Relased: 07/11/2014
Label: Relapse Records

‘Random Cosmic Violence’ CD/DD/LP track listing:

1). Lying in Ruin
2). Healing through Death
3). Random Cosmic Violence
4). Detritus


USNEA’s Relapse debut ‘Random Cosmic Violence’ is a 4 song masterpiece.  Blending the sounds of the doom forefathers like Disembowelment and My Dying Bride with the gritty sludge of High On Fire, USNEA have created a classic of the new millennium.  Pulsating with tribal intensity, ‘Random Cosmic Violence’ is one of those rare records that elevates itself above the boundaries that its genre typically self-imposes.  Yes, this is a mighty heavy piece of sludgey doom, but the musicality and songcraft exhibited throughout the entirety of ‘Random Cosmic Violence’ immediately place USNEA not just at the forefront of the blossoming American doom scene, but at the tops of heavy music altogether. 

Usnea is

Zeke Rogers | Drums
Joel Williams | Bass & Vocals
Johnny Lovingood | Guitar
Justin Cory | Guitar & Vocals


I’ve heard the name Usnea come up a few times, almost always followed by “you should check them out!” or variations on that sentiment. For whatever reason, I hadn’t got around to it until now; as I sit down to review their second full length album (though it bears mentioning that they did a split with Ruins earlier this year). Looking over the lyrics, the themes of the songs are interesting, and occasionally bring up thoughts I’ve sometimes had. As often seen in this genre, these Portlanders take a rather dim view of… everything, it seems.

Their new ‘Random Cosmic Violence’ release opens with the track “Lying in Ruin.” An ambient intro of string noise, delay and reverb is reminiscent of both desert hallucinations, and also some of the warbly clean guitar tones I’m more used to hearing in the works of Yob. What turns out to be the main riff is slowly, ominously introduced in the background by the bass, before the whole band kicks at once, including vocals, which shriek over the top and then growl along with a nice, heavy, slow riff. The guitars drop out to make room for morose clean vocals that remind me of the earliest singing in My Dying Bride’s old material. This sparse mix makes the re-entrance of the guitars all the more heavy. While the song would seem to speed up after about halfway through, this is in fact an illusion created by a busier subdivision of the beat in both the drums and the riffing, as the tempo actually stays more or less constant, setting up a dissonant sounding staccato which in turn heightens the contrast when the texture opens to legato guitar harmony. The drumming at the close of the song is particularly noteworthy in adding to the chaotic yet still brooding atmosphere at the piece’s close.

“Healing through Death” opens in startling and fairly unusual fashion for a metal song. I won’t spoil it here, but at the risk of sounding completely lame, I’ll admit it made me jump. This song is immediately ferocious despite its slow pace. Quite a few notes last long enough for the feedback of the guitars to provide almost an echo of the screaming vocals. But seemingly out of nowhere, the volume drops to a more introspective section, with vocals that sound as if they come from the depths of an almost interminably long cavern, as if more wind than human voice. The song’s dynamics shift yet again with a brutal pounding rhythm, the vocals reaching tortured heights. Only halfway through, as the song continues, the sound builds and builds until reaching a climax of sorts, though this proves to be a false ending.

The sounds of wind and mournful acoustic guitar begin the title track. The vocals enter with the bass, sounding almost like ritual chanting. This is so far perhaps the most atmospheric section on the record… and probably also the slowest in tempo. Once the overdriven guitars kick in, the vocals actually remind me quite a bit of those on the most recent Indian album. The overall mood, though, stays the same here: desolation, and about a third of the way through, the band kicks into what sounds like a fast waltzing tempo. After a somewhat uncomfortable pause (intentionally so, from the sounds of it), the band play what could actually be called fast, the style here somewhat akin to black metal, though the vocals are mostly death growls. This section suits the song title. A denouement sounding almost like the musical equivalent of the results of a crash, another uncomfortable pause, and drums begin another expansive outro section, similar in arrangement to the opening song, though this one really reminds me of Neurosis, in a really good way. It’s that same mixture of chaos and epic riffing. The last change at the end is unexpected.

Usnea concludes their record with the song “Detritus.” The atmosphere at the beginning is nicely creepy, and for me it evokes an atmosphere of emptiness and isolation. I’m not sure if fellow Oregonians Yob is an influence on this band, but the clean guitar tone and style here again sound similar. This is not a criticism, I would note (as Yob are my favorite band in the genre). Even as the guitar and bass get overdriven and the vocals come in, the overall texture remains fairly open for quite a while. It gets sludgy and heavy and more intense so gradually that until quite a long time has gone by, it’s hard to even notice it is happening. This is a long meandering track, and a fine way to conclude things, evoking a sense of endless, solitary wandering. I had to just sit for a moment after it ended; listening to the sounds of rain outside my window (it happens to be raining in the bay area, as I’m writing this).

There isn’t a whole lot to criticize on this record, to be honest. I prefer the higher of the two vocal styles, but that’s really more a reflection of my tastes than the vocal quality, as these sections are fairly similar in some ways to Ahab. The title track at times seems disjointed, but with a name like that, well, it should, shouldn’t it?

This record is depressing and exhausting… and I’m sure that’s deliberate. It is not easy listening, but a great, emotional work of art. Random Cosmic Violence is worth a listen if you’re into this genre. I especially recommend it for fans of Ahab, Indian, and Yob. I’d heard this band recommended quite a bit recently, and they do not disappoint.

Words by: Dan Brownson

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