Enlightened, or, glowing in aspic with some naturally euphoric light-diffusing distance kept from the tragedian, entropic reality of civilization in torrid decline there is a sense of fire-breathing self preservation upheld throughout this frustrated fourth full-length album from Portland, Oregon-based blackened death/doom metal quartet Usnea. ‘Bathed in Light‘ is perpetually sopping with the grinding gears of restless, despairing thoughts and the hindrance of vexation and feelings of uncertainty which never seem to pass. It is likewise a modest stretch into ulterior realms of expression as the band reflect on the struggle of the years in between, a slight yet nonetheless new twinge of their own brand of harsh and imposing extreme doom music which is tethered to misery but feeling it all differently alongside the passage of time.
Formed circa 2011 as a quartet which has held up unflinchingly since then, Usnea are the sort of band to blur the sub-genre lines between the atmospheric and psychedelic textures available to modern-yet-organic extreme doom metal, forging a sound which was well-received almost right from the get-go yet initially indistinguishable from the large number of Pacific northwest acts attempting to find their own niche in said space. Sitting with their still excellent self-titled debut (‘Usnea‘, 2013) today should transport folks back to an era when the general underground-curious extreme metal fandom had quite a bit more patience and concerted interest in sludge/doom metal groups marrying elements of sombre funeral doom (see: ‘Longing‘-era Bell Witch) and atmospheric death/doom metal with hissing, droning and atmo-sludged haze for coloration. While groups like Indian and Aldebaran might’ve caught moderate interest at the time the early 2010’s were more profoundly blanketed in Pallbearer‘s quickly notable influence, too, not to mention the fallout from records like ‘Atma‘ which felt like the ‘peak’ of Yob, at least at the time. This is more-or-less where a band like Usnea initially fit in and crossed borders with on their debut, a set of four ~15-20 minute songs acting as a timely fusion. Their style would lean most clearly into the death/doom influenced sludge metal arena but there was certainly more simmering beneath that beauteous swamp. Relapse took note of the already stunning double LP result and signed the band for their next two records, the first of which came within a year.
The not entirely futile task of pegging Usnea as a band of a certain era or a particular niche only becomes a struggle when one has to choose between the assigned yet admittedly incomplete “blackened” funeral doom tag or pick your own perceived level of prominence between their atmospheric sludge metal, funeral doom, and death/doom metal inspired characteristics and take into account how that glom evolved per album. The vocals that’d become the major driver for ‘Random Cosmic Violence‘ (2014) were lead by a pronounced sludge metal rasp which certainly did not equal a full sub-genre nod to black metal, and this is the limit of any black metal adjacency. Their compositions have been consistently in line with modern death/doom metal and from my perspective this is the great maw, the hungered mind palace which all other tentacles pull from. Because I find the distinction of what constitutes a secondary sub-genre tag important one of the main reasons I’d given Usnea‘s second album a closer listen back in the day was for the sake of clearing up the sub-genre fuss, at least to start. Their sound initially fit in closer to the realms of similarly inspired acts like Fórn and Jupiterian nearby, something like… atmospheric extreme doom metal from Neurosis fans, eh. I appreciated the production values, the interesting aesthetic of the group and the psychedelic, droning qualities that’d filled every moment rather than left it hanging, a heaviness-over-dreariness approach that’d become even bigger for their more considered third full-length (‘Portals Into Futility‘, 2017).
Back in September of 2017 no doubt I’d felt differently about that debut album basically calling it “death metal Minsk” as I’d found it less harried and hazed-over as their prior recording. Revisiting it today it was clear that my process was far more rushed in terms of reviewing (prior to starting this site) as that third album had built something bigger than the second while using the same pieces, every moment counted a bit more and hit deeper. Instead of going bigger, becoming more extroverted and progressive in scope (a la Ahab) instead we find ‘Bathed in Light‘ a truly introverted exploration of a head full of doom metal riffs, synthesizer-lain dread, and deeply bellowed vocals in miserable splendor. From the first breath taken steeped in this newly burnt atmosphere it might seem as if Usnea‘d taken a step back, choking on adversity into a bitter charcoaled pile. I’d instead found this album merely stared deeper into its own oil-slicked pool of reflection and mused over its own darkening worldview, processing the illness of human greed and ignorance with fantastically disturbed and eruptive depictions when all was said and done.
Alright, a bit poetic on my part but no doubt but the interesting part for the listener beyond the corroded emotional timbre of the album is that they’ve managed to keep ‘Bathed in Light‘ all the more engaging by pulling back into some of their more nuanced and lightly applied influences from gloom rock and post-music. This will take a couple of songs to begin to truly ring true in mind while Usnea remind us what they’ve always been great at: Huge and hissing doom metal riffs delivered with the wallop of death/doom metal and “The Compleated Sage” is the most brooding, bellowing loud grind in that sense, a flexion of their major muscle groups back out of atrophy. From that point Side A closer “To the Deathless” begins to change things up with the first outwardly-set hit of synthesizer on the album, foreshadowing the general hum of the main verse riff which casts a shadowy framework for the song ahead, this is the piece to impress from my point of view as its cavernous eruption beyond the ~4:15 minute mark reminds us of the grisly marrow they’ve always led with but stirs it into a funereal death/doom riff before the snarling, gasping and storming mull of the song reaches its powerline toppling level of sturm und drang depiction.
The moment of conscious disconnection from wrath is arguably “From Soot and Pyre“, probably the most clear example of deathrock and sludge glowering mode as the dual vocals growl out the first verse before clean yet distantly cast vocals groan beneath the weight of their statement. The sullen foundation of the album begins to shift its conversation from the personal daimonian struggle to the ills of their environs, serving as a major highlight and probably one of the easier to digest yet most decidedly out-there moments on the album. Psyche’d guitar runs, rippling effects, and the pensive circling build of this decidedly early 2000’s atmosludge dread spiral of a rhythm surprised me from the first listen as this was a pointed change of scenery and voice when stepping into Side B. In fact, maybe that’d be another key point to make here in the sense that this is the first non-double LP from the band to date as they finish their thought at ~47 minutes which all fits on one plate without feeling incomplete or under-served; The momentum is at its hottest leading into the final two pieces on the full listen with the signature feeling of Usnea‘s wrathful sludged mid-to-slow paced action nearly returning to the sound of their debut LP without needing the ~15-20 minute scope to communicate their idea, one which takes some satisfying detours into guitar feedback and monastic vocals as it plods along. The first three minutes of closer “Uncanny Valley” generally work as an oddly lounge-worthy depressive rock lead-in but they’d ultimately made the smart choice to go out with one of the heavier funeral death/doom feeling pieces on the record otherwise.
While the ride through Usnea‘s latest is initially captivating for the sake of being the welcome return of a well-liked group with a very strong sense of extreme sludge/doom metal riffcraft (all of which is given a very fine Earhammer Studios sized boost) this does ultimately emphasize the notion that this band largely impresses for their sound and style moreso than they do when it comes to songcraft, most of which still rests upon slightly abstracted sludge/doom metal rhythms which naturally resolve within the ~7-9 minute spaces they’ve reserved to develop potency within. In this sense I’m not sure their work stands out any more or less than it did back in the early 2010’s but I did ultimately enjoy the time I’d spent with ‘Bathed in Light‘ for its rich atmospheric presentation, the persistence of its moody shroud, and the ways in which they’d mixed things up in looking beyond (but not too far beyond) their previous releases. A moderately high recommendation.
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