Y’all like wizards and shit?
You’re in good company. I too like wizards and shit, as do the band of focus for today’s Weekly Featured Artist, going as far as to say as much in their Influences section on their Facebook page. Don’t believe me? It’s fine – all will become more apparent, as we dip into the history and existence of URSA, Petaluma’s premiere epic doom metal band.
URSA have been on my radar pretty heavily since they released their debut album in 2018, which I loved. Their second album only dropped a couple weeks ago on 4/20 cheekily enough, which I loved even more. But to tell the story proper of the band, we’re not gonna start there – we’re going back, before they were even established, to when the trio was part of another heavy-hitting Cali metal band. Courtesy of Matt Solis, bass and vocals for URSA, let’s delve into their storied history starting with their tenure in Cormorant.
‘Cormorant started in 2007 as a trio, with Nick [Cohon], Brennan [Kunkel] and our original bassist/vocalist Arthur [von Nagel]. I joined the band in 2008 when they were looking to add another guitarist. We hit it off pretty much immediately and started writing songs for what would become Metazoa, our first LP.’
Along with Metazoa, guitarists Matt and Nick, drummer Brennan, and bassist/lead singer Arthur also released a follow-up LP in 2011, Dwellings, as Cormorant. Their sound was a mighty amalgamation of many of metal’s gnashing tendrils, but chiefly among them was a varied progressive black metal sound, rough and rugged with scant production – so fans say is the best way to enjoy such a sound. After this, Arthur would depart from the band, to be replaced by Marcus Luscombe to ride out the rest of Cormorant‘s journey, before splitting up, mostly consisting of their last two albums, 2014’s Earth Diver and 2017’s Diaspora, both excellent.
‘URSA started with Nick—he was messing around with some downtuned doom riffs that didn’t necessarily fit with the Cormorant aesthetic, but he really wanted to play them with a band, so he asked Brennan to jam on some tunes at our Cormorant rehearsal studio. It was extremely convenient because we were already going there for Cormorant practice, plus it was like five minutes away from our house. After they put together a few songs, they asked me if I wanted to sing, which eventually turned into me playing bass as well. So we added a day or two to our weekly Cormorant practice schedule and just started banging out tunes for fun.‘
To me, ‘fun’ is the operative word. If you’ve read either of my reviews of URSA‘s albums, you’ll know I refer to their sound as such. Everything URSA have done thus far has felt bred from the start for pure entertainment, without stunting any one member’s immense skill from playing their respective parts for years prior. Nothing sacrificed, everything gained. In Matt’s words, ‘by the time we started URSA in 2016, Nick, Brennan and I had been playing music together for basically a decade, which gives us a certain shorthand when it comes to writing together. We know each other’s strengths and understand how to create music that reflects our shared sensibilities.‘
One of the biggest questions revolving around the Cormorant-to-URSA switch was why? Why doom metal? Why the slight tonal shift? Quite simple, really – they’re all fans of it.
‘The entire purpose for URSA’s existence is to pay tribute to a genre we all love: doom metal. With Cormorant, we had an ‘anything goes’ mentality when it came to our sound—we spent a lot of time on transitions and making sure everything flowed smoothly, but we never limited ourselves to a particular musical style. Death metal, black metal, post-metal, thrash, hardcore… it all fit with Cormorant because we worked hard to make it fit.‘
Hard work that paid off, but URSA‘s goal was singular and direct: ‘pure doom, in the epic traditional style of Candlemass, Solitude Aeturnus, etc.‘ If this trio produced great music, while being pulled in different directions, imagine what they could do unified, surgically working to achieve one thing. ‘We’re used to going with the creative flow and letting our various influences lead us down strange paths, so it’s a fun and rewarding exercise to narrow that path in one particular direction.‘
This eventually led to a more involved working relationship with the fabled label, Blood Music. I say ‘more involved’ because it just so happens that Cormorant‘s first three albums were printed through them in 2014 and 2015, so they had familiarity with and affection for each other.
‘For whatever reason it just never worked out to sign with them as Cormorant, but with the URSA project, we figured it might be a good opportunity to do something a bit different than what we’re used to, so I reached out to see if [Blood Music founder/manager] J had any interest. He dug the tunes and we put together a deal. Some people were confused because they didn’t have any doom bands signed at that point, but it made perfect sense to us. Blood Music has always been about diversity and eclecticism, so the fact that they were now putting out this traditional doom record seemed pretty on brand.‘
Not going to lie, I was actually one of those slightly confused people, but the label could hardly do any wrong, always sweeping up the great underground acts and establishing themselves as a premier purveyor of interesting and heavy music. Plus, all it took was one listen to their single “Wizard’s Path” to sell me.
The first releases under the URSA name were independent, embryonic even – a couple live albums and raw demos, whose material would eventually be heavily polished and tweaked to form much of their first two LPs. The first, Abyss Between the Stars with Blood Music, I’ve probably talked enough about in my time with Everything Is Noise, suffice it to say it was a wonderful album, showing a nearly effortless shift to this new style of music – relevant to Cormorant anyway – and doing so with infectious riffs, awesomely imitable vocals, and a powerful pace that ensured no one was left behind. For a debut, it was stunning, showing great promise of where the trio could go down the “Wizard’s Path” of doom.
So, what does one do after releasing an acclaimed debut? Follow it up, of course. If anyone had the magic in their sack to top themselves, it was URSA. Still, their goals were simple: ‘If we can get people’s heads banging, that’s good enough for us. It goes back to why we started this band in the first place—sometimes, heavy metal can just be fun. Being serious and esoteric is cool too, but there will always be a place for big, dumb, filthy riffs.‘ This is precisely what they delivered with Mother Bear, Father Toad, released on April 20 this year, independently since Blood Music is phasing out their involvement with music.
Again, at this point I’ve likely said enough on the matter, but Mother Bear, Father Toad was just real impressive, capitalizing on URSA‘s hype and the sheer scale the commanded in their debut while finding neat, new ways to up the ante. Namely, the damn title track and album opener is a creation tale, half of which is campfire story spoken word greatness. Matt details some of the influence and thought that went into it:
‘I’ve always been fascinated with Native American creation stories, going back to when I was a kid. I just love the creativity that goes into explaining natural phenomena like stars and mountains—it’s very vivid storytelling that fits really well with certain types of music. I knew I wanted to do a creation myth type of song at some point, and when we started writing “Mother Bear, Father Toad” and expanding that opening clean section, I knew it was the perfect opportunity. Lyrically, it tells the story of the origin of Ur, which is the mythical realm I created in my head where all these URSA songs take place. Once I had the two animal characters in mind, the entire thing unfolded pretty naturally. I just put myself into children’s storyteller mode and went nuts.‘
Although the title track was the only sizable outlier with the other tracks being more straightforwardly massive doom fare, it still set an unreal tone and mood for the album. URSA were back, and they were digging into their lore and sound more than ever, and having fun with it!
So, how do they do it? What influences a doom powerhouse like URSA? Other doom powerhouses apparently. Matt names Candlemass, Solitude Aeturnus, Trouble, Solistice, Cirith Ungol, even epic doom newcomers (doomcomers?) Crypt Sermon. ‘Candlemass is the blueprint we always come back to—they are just the masters at writing simple yet intricately arranged and massively heavy songs,’ Matt states. ‘Obviously all of those bands I just mentioned wouldn’t exist without Black Sabbath, so they are a huge influence as well, but we also take cues from stoner bands like Sleep and traditional heavy metal bands like Dio, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest.‘
Like most good bands, even ones entrenched in one particular style, they do find influence elsewhere as well. Matt says ‘damn near everything‘ influences them, pointing to one example with Nick and his love for old-time country and bluegrass. That influence can be heard in the banjo inclusion on “Cave of the Spider King” and their cover of Steve Earle‘s “The Mountain”, both from Abyss Between the Stars. Matt also says, in the wildest of dreams, he’d loved to collaborate with two musical legends:
‘Well, if he was still alive, I’d love to write some tunes with Ronnie James Dio. He’s my favorite metal singer of all time and there will never be anyone like him ever again. But since that ain’t possible without a copy of the Necronomicon, I’ll say Neil Young. We could do a doom cover of “There’s a World” and drive around in one of his old-timely cars.’
Speaking of covers, it’s an established tradition at this point for URSA to end their albums with a kick-ass cover of a song you may not expect to get the epic doom treatment, yet work so well. Abyss had “The Mountain”, and Mother Bear had “Runnin’ Down a Dream” by the late, great Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I had to ask, what other ones would the band like to potentially cover?
‘We’ve done a few other covers live already—we did “Mailman” by Soundgarden, which turned out really awesome. I’ve always wanted to do “Believer” by Ozzy… I love the bass in that song. We were toying with “Demon’s Gate” by Candlemass for a minute, but that song needs synth to really work. I think we could do some more doomed up country tunes, maybe something by Townes van Zandt or Lefty Frizzell.‘
Well, now you’re just making me want a doom-country album (no, not you, Me and That Man). Although URSA are doing just fine with their current setup, I did wonder if they had anything they’d like to incorporate instrumentally in future work, to which Matt thinks ‘some synth could work in the right context.’ He did play some Hammond organ on both albums, but, in his words, ‘I barely know what I’m doing.’ He also says that Nick plays a lot of stringed instruments, so who knows – maybe we’ll be hearing something new and unexpected on the next album as well.
As my questions wound down, I did unearth some sad news when I asked Matt about the future of URSA, but it is not without its own glimmer of hope:
‘URSA is in the same situation as Cormorant, actually. All three of us are in different states now, so it’s just not feasible to do either band full-time at the moment. That isn’t to say we’ll never be heard from again, but for now, we’ve come to terms with putting Cormorant and URSA to rest until the time is right. I love those dudes and we’ll always have a strong friendship and musical connection, so if the stars align, we’ll definitely get back to it at some point.‘
If anything can stand the test of time and bring people together, it’s the power of friendship.
That’s just about it for this installment of Weekly Featured Artist, but I’d love to send a grateful, appreciative thanks to Matt Solis for answering my questions during this hell time on this hell planet, and a doomed, riff-encrusted thanks to URSA as a whole for existing. Here’s hoping y’all can reconnect and create some great new art if the time is right! Here’s Matt with the final word and shoutouts:
‘Thanks for the interview and for checking out our music, we really appreciate it! Shout out to Tim Green for his awesome production and overwhelming Simpsons knowledge, he really made URSA sound as big as we envisioned. Shout out to our good pal Jesse Swanson for always giving us such amazing artwork. Check out his band Lord Mountain, too, they rule. As for me, I’m currently playing in Eight Bells and we’re getting ready to record a new album (whenever this virus fucks off), so look out for that!‘