Now more than ever, as we stand on the brink of too many proposed ends of the world to count, science fiction is of utmost importance. While mainstream culture might have forgotten science fiction’s most important role, a whole generation of writers awoke in the 70’s to the potential inherent in the genre. Social commentary, philosophy, economics, the very nature of human existence, are all reviewed, critcized and formalized in a host of texts, all using the future as a sharp knife, incising into the past and its assumptions. We’ve covered these intersections many times on the blog before; they tend to accompany technical death metal, stoner rock and, sometimes, hip hop. But now, a new player has emerged onto the field of the crossroads between metal and science fiction; Usnea.
The name should ring true; Usnea released Random Cosmic Violence in 2014, when our narrative of The Doom Revival™ was very much in full swing. Their unbelievable approach to how heavy doom metal could get immediately drew our attention; Random Cosmic Violence remains one of the most crushing albums around (if only for its incredible opening). Now, Usnea are back with Portals Into Futility, an album which sees them wholly embrace their flirtations with funeral doom while also diving head deep into the milieu of science fiction. The result is an immensely huge album, tackling the likes of Ahab and Thergothon, driven by an important vision; the relevance of science fiction to our day and age and the lessons we can extract from projecting our society into the future.
The roster selected by Usnea is nothing short of immaculate and includes some of the best science fiction works ever written. The compendium PDF we received with the promo recommended the following books: Gene Wolfe’s “Shadow of the Torturer” (which is the basis for the opening track to the album, “Eidolons and The Increase”), Ursula K Le Guin’s “Lathe of Heaven” (which is the basis for the second track, “Lathe of Heaven”), Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” (which is the basis for the third track, “Demon Haunted World”), Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Philip K Dick’s “Valis”, and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (all three of which don’t correspond directly to a track on the album although, hazarding a guess, we would pin the last, “Crown of Desolation”, on the Herbert). When we say these books are the basis of the tracks, we mean it.
Wolfe’s “Shadow of the Torturer” for example, (a part of the masterful series, “The Book of the New Sun”) is one of the densest and darkest science fiction books ever written. It’s hard to describe what reading “The Book of the New Sun” is like to those who haven’t; there really isn’t anything like it. However, perhaps listening to this track is a good place to start. The crushing atmosphere created by the many layered guitars speak of Wolfe’s oppressive world, where humanity lives in the squallor of the past, ruled by fear of an enemy which probably doesn’t exist. The shrieking, indecipherable at times vocals echo well Wolfe’s use or archaic language, multiple meaning and downright confusion in his books, leaving the reader flabbergasted as to the true meaning of events. The overall sense of being crushed is ultimately fitting, as “The Book of the New Sun” accords the reader little accord or comfort (and still manages to be this writer’s favorite science fiction book of all time).
“Lathe of Heaven”, while still maintaing the overall heaviness of Usnea’s sound, manages to be somehow sleeker, more conniving. That is only fitting in what was Le Guin’s tribue to Philip K. Dick, a startingly disturbing novel on the power of dreams, psychology and the risk of losing oneself to your ego. The track is a bit more expansive than the one which preceeded it, perhaps hinting at the more contemplative nature of the book. The heaviness is still there however, continuing to channel feedback and slow riffs to pummel the listener. The interesting thing is that the differences in the tracks, whether nascent in the differences between the books or not, is a much welcome fact. It breaks up the monotony which funeral doom is especially vulnerable to, presenting enough variance to keep us going into the thick of the album.
However, whether we guessed right at its origins in Herbert’s “Dune” or not, the true pinnalce of this album is the last track, clocking in at nineteen minutes. “Crown of Desolation” is a massive track, channeling the sound of the previous tracks around a hefty and dreary middle passage, coupled with incredible choir effects on the clean vocals (their religious nature is what leads us to place “Crown of Desolation” in Herbert’s embrace). Before the track is out, it comes around full circle and returns to the signature heaviness, much emboldened and embellished by this “cavernous” new sound; the drums ring deeper, the bass resounds farther and the overall sensation is of arms opening and folding you into the cold embrace of space.
The result is a track which is even bigger than those that preceed it, an echoing and cavernous experimentation with the basic Usnea sound that more than pays off. It is a perfect closer for an incredibely successful second, full length release; it shows that Usnea are not a band to be pegged down completely, even though they do revolve around a basic and easily recognizable sound. It is also an amazing tribute to an important literary genre and one which seems to grasp the message hidden at its core; the dystopian future is only a mirror and a tool to combat the dystopian present.