Attempting to reach transcendence in an irredeemable world, San Diego’s own Duuns deliver mighty psychedelic riffs and heady, introspective lyrics on their new album U.S.S. Death Express.
Blasting in with a classic rock-and-roll riff that lingers like a repeated mantra, opener “Oh Shit! The Ship is Sinking” makes it plainly clear that the band is ready to deliver a strong thematic statement. What follows is a visceral, socially conscious, and musically adventurous album with the genesis of the far future in mind. Death, identity, politics, and the trivialities of life all factor heavily into the lyrics as part of this sprawling psych-rock opus, which is particularly impressive given that the group self-produced the entire album, exchanging instrumental roles on nearly every song. Track two, “The Wound,” features some lovely vocal harmonies and a world-wearied lyrical take on the survival of the soul in the postmodern age. “Save me from myself,” drones lead singer Luke Cottrell over woozy, de-tuned synths and languid chord changes, instrumentation that creates a mood of astral exhaustion.
“Saturated” powers forth through thick layers of guitar, painted in washy delay and reverb, hoping to break free of its own dreary, self-imposed headspace. As the tracklist deepens, the band’s experimental tendencies dutifully take over as they struggle to find real and lasting connection in a society walled-off by intrapersonal conflict. The band pushes the limits of the stereo field on “The Ride,” a washy, guitar-driven suite that showcases their tonal appreciation of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Tumbling layers of electric guitar and vocals awash in aural effects convulse over pulsating drums and bass in classic ‘60s-revivalist fashion on the album’s middle suite. “The Ride” gives us one last chance to hop off the ship before the album fully transforms into a shape-shifting wall of noise. I can only think of Wild Wild Wets as another San Diego psych band with the boldness to fully indulge a Krautrock influence in their sound, indulging droning repetition as a way to create hypnotic atmospheres in their songs. The feeling that one is isolated from society at large is clearly felt throughout this section of the album, and by the time “Escape: AWOL” morphs into the heady “49 Cigars,” one feels lost in a cavernous, unforgiving desert of guitar-driven experimentation. Rest assured, it’s a ride worth taking, but one that encourages patience and lateral thinking.
Though vocals are all but abandoned in the middle section of the record, the haunting title track brings them back to beautifully ease us into its conclusion, with a lovingly captured beach performance constituting an empathetic plea for understanding amidst this caustic political climate. In its lyricism, U.S.S. Death Express achieves an admirable level of universal appeal, asking probing hypothetical questions that persist well beyond the album’s thirty-eight-minute runtime: Where do I feel safe? Who can I trust? How can I express my most deeply-held convictions without judgment? And most importantly of all, Who will fix our problems if not us? With every screaming vocal hook, warbling guitar part, and bouncing bassline, U.S.S. Death Express conveys Duuns’ wish to promote free artistic expression and a loving exchange of ideas, directly capturing the zeitgeist of the times. Approaching their music with an individualistic spirit has no doubt helped the band hone in on a strong sense of themselves, striking a healthy balance between “anything goes” artistic flourish and some more refined songwriting choices. My hope for Duuns is that they keep expanding on these topics and eventually connect with the wider audience they surely deserve, bringing back more and more gaudy psychedelic jams from the brink of utter destruction.