Album Review: Usnea — “Bathed in Light”

One of my favorite experiences with metal is how a band I enjoy vanishes from my radar screen, remains removed from my consciousness for years and then makes a roaring return with an album that transcends their previous achievements. It’s been six long years since Usnea released their previous album, the towering Portals into Futility, and Bathed in Light reveals that the absence has only hardened the band’s artistic resolve as calamitous global events and personal tragedies of the intervening time have whipped them into a creative frenzy.

It becomes clear, immediately and abundantly, that the material on Bathed in Light is both reflective of and made for the perpetual dystopian slow-motion end times that we, as a global civilization, seem to be living in and incapable of escaping through a collective course correction. Musically and lyrically, it oozes venom and fury that is aimed at the greed and avarice of thieves and charlatans of terminal stage capitalism and refuses to give up in the face of the firestorm of devastation caused by climate change and a global pandemic. Bathed in Light is tethered to the grim realities of our collective everyday life, instead of escapist fantasy or poetic abstraction.

And it is this renewed energy and creative force that propels Bathed in Light into ambitious and expansive musical territory. Rather than wallow in despondency and lethargy, elements that are simultaneously the musical and thematic cornerstones and pitfalls of funeral doom, Bathed in Light conveys determined forward-momentum to confront societal ills with rage and grace and crush any fears of artistic stagnation, achieved through a successful deployment of dynamic atmospheric sludge that is laced with gloom and psychedelia. A palpable sense of vigor and velocity propels the music, and the increased importance and use of texture, synthesizers and epic lead guitar melodies provide depth and embellishment that elevate Bathed in Light high above Usnea’s previous albums. 

Indicative of the band members growth and skills as songwriters, every song feels shorter than their actual runtime and never outstay their welcome, thanks to an abundance of dynamic twists and how every moment and development serves a grand purpose. Even the seemingly dragged-out slow-burn outro of “Premeditatio Malorum” feels justified ultimately, as a reminder of the band’s musical and stylistic roots and as an escape valve for venting out all the built-up pressure. The mournful tragedy and simmering anger of “To the Deathless” keeps on intensifying and building toward its elegiac conclusion. The personal favorite of mine, “From Soot and Pyre”, bursts through the gates, like juggernaut hell-bent on swiping the slate clean with a blackened edge, as colossal riffs and towering tom rolls pan across the apocalyptic horizon. “Uncanny Valley” serves as a monstrous closer that starts with an eerie, country-like twang and rugged crooning that echo in the vastness of a grim vista that would gain the approval of Cormac McCarthy himself, before filling that void with a lunge of cosmic proportions that revisits the extraordinary might of “From Soot and Pyre” with an even greater strength and impact that leaves the devastated landscape smoldering.

Band photo by Amyrose Ahlstrom

Like their fellow heavyweights Ahab, Usnea is transcending its funeral doom origins and migrating to adventurous territories with a remarkable ability for memorable hooks, steamrolling momentum and expressive depths and variety in a genre that is not particularly known for those qualities. Bathed in Light is a triumphant return and an essential display and embodiment of righteous rage on the right side of history, because there is no doubt that Usnea is winning.


Bathed in Light will be available May 26 on Translation Loss Records. For more information on Usnea, visit their Facebook page.

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