Album Review: Usnea – Portals Into Futility

By Ryan Falla

Portland doom/sludge quartet, Usnea, bolsters the rosters of their discography with their third full-length release ‘Portals Into Futility’. This is a record that pushes doom/sludge metal to the extreme; heavy, yet slowly grinding guitar riffs and simplistic yet staggering percussion, taking it to just off the edge of extreme. ‘Portals Into Futility’ powers through its sixty minute runtime with six impressively crafted tracks that paint a conceptual picture of despair.

Yes, this is a concept album; not in the most direct sense, though. The lifeblood of the record stems from the social and historical commentary on mankind’s inability to truly prosper, as eventual hubris and egocentrism in our species draws us to a futile end. It’s a deep concept, one that’s backed by the history of man, how many civilizations have fallen because of this? Empires like Rome, Alexander the Great and Ancient Greece; they didn’t fall from external pressures, they collapsed under their own weight. Like the ancient tale of Nero playing his fiddle as Rome burned around him. That’s the kind of darkness this record is touching on, and my lord, is it on point.

The dark and bitter despair is intense; opening tracks ‘Eidolons and The Increate’ hits with wildly dark sludge. The concept of the record is ever present. After the opening track introduces a soft darkness that devolves into brutality, the second track ‘Lathe of Heaven’ brings it to a more personal level. That’s a vague way to describe it, yet in the grand concept of the record, the opening track has the feel of a wide-reaching statement introducing the various elements of the record’s concept. If the first track was the opening crawl, then the second one would be the first scene, the atmosphere condensing itself into a singular direction that creates the feeling of finding your footing in this musical landscape.

Because this is both an extreme doom/sludge album and a concept album, the tracks do run long, the shortest at 6 minutes and the longest at 19 minutes. That’s only a heads up because as any good track is only as long as it needs to be, these wide-spanning tracks of 19 minutes are of necessity. It is extreme doom/sludge, so it’s a part of the genre that’s to be expected. The album settles into a more brutalized groove midway through the record with ‘Pyrrhic Victory’, the vocals interchanging between the sludge screams and straight up guttural growls. It all fits in line with the music extremely well, the music being exactly where it needs to be at the right moment. It’s that kind of song-crafting that rockets this record into the stratosphere.

As ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ hits its tail end, the 19-minute closer ‘A Crown of Desolation’ kicks in with a soft introduction, bringing the extreme emotional output full circle with a sobering flow. That is before the reality of the concept hits back to the forefront, a slowly crawling doom output washing over with an uninhibited, sober darkness. The closer brings the album back down to the ground, the grand and explosive elements taking the backseat in favor of a grounded atmosphere.

Until the track comes near the halfway point and kicks into second gear. As the darkened reality settled does it begin to rise, the track following a natural emotional suit as the rise brings about a brimming sense of aggression that progresses naturally, There are no explosions, just a climax that inches forward inch by inch until the halfway point. After climaxing, the track brings not only itself, but the entire concept full circle with the evolved reproduction of the opening minutes of the track. The final energetic push brings about a few emotions tied to the concept. The despair over what was once but no longer is becomes imbued into your soul, and it’s just a trip that Usnea is able to nail such a specific emotion on the head. As a reviewer, sometimes you find yourself trying to understand the music so you can understand the context and overall direction and flow of the record. It’s not often a record comes along to take you for a ride, yet ‘Portals Into Futility’ is a record that does exactly that. It’s a ride through a landscape that is not only finely crafted, but also a sight to behold.

It’s not hard to enter the world created in ‘Portals Into Futility’ because Usnea does an incredible job of guiding you through its vast musical landscape. It’s a record that sticks with you as soon as it finishes playing and challenges you not to let it run again, the way the album goes full circle you wouldn’t notice the smooth transition from the end of the concept to the beginning because it’s so strongly written. Have fun with this one.

Rating: 9.5/10

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Record Label: Relapse
Release Date: September 8th 2017

Track Listing:
1. Eidolons and the Increate (11:57)
2. Lathe of Heaven (9:46)
3. Demon Haunted World (6:35)
4. Pyrrhic Victory (8:27)
5. A Crown of Desolation (19:04)

Total Duration: 55:49

Usnea links: website | facebook | instagram | bandcamp