Monday, March 11, 2013

REVIEW: USNEA - S/T



For those of you unfamiliar with lichens and herbal medicine, usnea is an algae/fungus also known as “Old Man’s Beard” that grows on a vast number of trees in the Pacific northwest. It’s also a natural immune system tonic safe for pets and children. I can not say the same about Usnea’s music. This is savage music with enormous depth that would use pets and children as bear bait.

Usnea released their self-titled debut in Portland, OR on local DIY label Orca Wolf Records this past January. I’m convinced after a few listens that hearing it now, in the second week of March, is the perfect timing. This album, composed of four ten-plus minute tracks, feels like a bog thawing as winter passes, where the nights are still long and dark but the creeks start to gurgle beneath the snow. I hesitate to call this music “funeral doom” because to me it feels like something dangerous waking after hibernation, coming to life instead of crawling into a casket.

Opening song “Chaoskampf” offers a microcosm of Usnea’s dark, tangled world. From the chilling, plodding riffs clawing up the muck to the strikes of black metal lightning, there is a dense, deadly landscape that Usnea takes their time cultivating. “Brazen Bull of Phalaris” leads you down a different animal-tracked path through similar terrain. Whatever animal left the tracks is horned, bloodthirsty, can sense the fear in the tremors of every footstep, and probably sleeps beneath an Usnea band member’s porch. Beginning with hissing feedback and ending with fragile, clean guitar, the band’s stringed instruments explore every monstrous possibility in between. The vocals are similarly varied, from a somber bellow to a mid-range shriek that could split a sycamore in half.

While the introductory riff on “Monuments to Avarice” kept me engaged as it offered sunlight breaking through the clouds, even while Joel Williams’ howls and bass thunder in the background, the rest of the track did test my interest. My mind wandered a bit as the song started to feel its length, hoping for a few lighter brush strokes on the sable canvas. Usnea stole me back as soon as the mid-tempo (up-tempo, compared to the rest of the album) stomp of “Empirical Evidence of a Deranged God” splashed me with black pond scum head-to-toe and left me smiling through the grime. It’s a triumphant closing for a magnificently crushing debut album. Honestly, even mentioning it’s a debut album feels like a qualifying phrase. This is a  focused, grim, and truly great record, regardless of where it sits chronologically in a discography.

I will be following Usnea from this release forward, hoping for future gigs on the East Coast and guiding other musical marsh-dwellers into Usnea’s haunted swamp. If you play this album in an abandoned shack tucked in the belly of some secluded, wooded mudlands you can be sure the restless spirit of some old curse-casting hermit will be stirred. This music unlocked my macabre imagination and let it run wildly between the notes. While “Old Man’s Beard” is a name begging to be used somewhere in the metal world, Usnea is the name we should all remember (and learn how to pronounce) going forward.

Listen to Usnea’s album NOW, streaming for free and available for download for only $4 at:  http://usneadoom.bandcamp.com/

Or better yet, buy the beautiful vinyl LP for $10 over at Orca Wolf Records: www.orcawolf.com

And check out their Facebook page for more information at:  https://www.facebook.com/usneadoom

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