Relapse Records ostensibly allowed the young Portland, Oregon doom metal band Usnea to do something they’d previously been unable to afford: to release a double LP. In the slow, low and loud domain that Usnea entered in 2011, songs that take up complete sides of vinyl are de rigueur. Anything more than a two-track, two-side release can start to feel like a textbook—and cost the same, too.
When Orca Wolf, a small and excellent hometown label, issued Usnea’s self-titled debut early last year, that one-record treatment seemed to be the best they could offer. They put the marching-then-sprawling “Chaoskampf” on one side and the 17-minute grim gaze of “Brazen Bull of Phalaris” on the flip. That was only half of the story, however. Usnea included a download card that contained two “bonus tracks,” or the last 25 minutes of the proper record. Those alternately arching and thrashing tunes even bested what had been pressed to vinyl; taken together, the four tracks represented Usnea’s auspicious entrée in a teeming field. Their funereal lurch allowed both space and time for bits of black metal and death metal, plus psychedelic guitar solos that stretched and smeared into space rock. It was the sort of massive record you wanted to hold with both hands.
Usnea do not err on the side of cautious thrift for Random Cosmic Violence, their second LP and first for Relapse. This four-song, four-side set runs for one very loud hour, with blanketing distortion locked in perpetual battle against a rhythm section that rattles the room for attention. Guitarist Justin Cory and bassist Joel Williams volley vocals back and forth, the former’s serpent-tongue screams contrasting the latter’s bottom-feeder, doom-or-death bellow. The approach is, at times, invigorating. Cory’s historical tirade at the start of “Healing Through Death”—”Paracelsus, doused in blood on a night clear,” he shouts in a caustic tone—leads you like a magnet toward the crunch of drums and guitars that follow. Near its end, opener “Lying in Ruin” winds into a noisy comedown, sheets of mutated tones covering and then crawling beneath a militaristic beat. You might wish it stretched ahead forever. And after moving through a beautifully ominous prelude, closer “Detritus” rises into a graceful, glacial procession. The quartet gradually piles on the layers, lacing feedback around the distortion and letting the dual guitars drift through complementary pirouettes. Toward song’s end, Cory and Williams trade quick lines about despair and hell and endings. Topical considerations aside, it’s a triumphant moment, an apex where the two singers summon and funnel the band’s collective power, pulling from the bottom and pushing through the top. It’s as moving as YOB, as forceful and loaded as Evoken.
Unfortunately, it’s also the record’s lone vital stretch. Usnea’s small step toward heavy metal’s upper echelon seems to have cost the quartet more than recoupable pressing-plant expenses. As if frightened by Relapse’s legitimacy, Usnea have trimmed and codified their sound, cutting back on the excitability and adventurousness that made their debut so thrilling. Much of the motion from that first album seems to have shifted to the back-and-forth vocals, a pattern that eventually falls into a flatline. Sure, the title track initially routes post-punk through a doom worldview, much as Atriarch did on their own excellent Relapse debut. It then moves briefly into a black metal harangue and, later, an almost-silent comedown. But the net effect is of a long march that goes nowhere at all; the deviations seem somehow furtive now, as though Usnea are trying to hide their eccentricities from what is certain to be an expanded audience. This feeling presides through more than half of Random Cosmic Violence, a record that rarely twists or turns hard enough to climb from a pre-established stylistic rut.
On Usnea, the unexpected offered excitement, as the young quartet wedged strange ideas into the wide spaces of its long songs. But on Random Cosmic Violence, the expected starts to make you wish that this had been the two-side debut, not the four-side Relapse set that you can hold with two hands. Usnea’s leverage may have expanded, but on album two, their music has not.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uiWwEx