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Last Saturday, I witnessed Ulcerate's calamitous onslaught first-hand as they decimated Public Assembly in Brooklyn with a live set so tremendously capable and powerful that it rendered all objections mute. I can brook no argument with this band and the tectonic plate shifting they engage in. They are shaping and transmuting death metal in a manner that is quite opaque but also readily apparent. You either go with it or you don't. I'm no fool. I've seen the polarized reactions this band draws but I've also seen them deliver live music that ought to (for all intents and purposes) fall apart live. But Ulcerate are no mere studio dazzlers, no instrumental wunderkinds making up in technicality what they lack in passion. Absolutely not. Masters of their instruments, yes. Engaging in new forms, thoughts, and structures, absolutely. But unafraid to convey emotion or lace their tracks with barbed hooks to sink into any listener willing to progress beyond all staid convention.
Ulcerate don't just flaunt the rules of extreme music, they act as if those rules don't exist. And that is precisely what any forward-thinking band should do: take the basic inherent structures of any given genre of music and turn them inside out. Ulcerate do this primarily though the removal of the riff. There are very few traditional guitar riffs or parts on this record. Brutality here is measured in atmosphere and progression heads south, away from the cosmic noodlings that have become the cliche, and toward that dark ominous spot where the Earth's crust gives way to a molten core. Rhythm accented by atmospheric tension drives the augur towards the abyss. Like an explosive volcano, Ulcerate's rhythm section pushes through the chaos, centering the record in a violent whirlpool of deep tidal undertow around which the guitars swirl in vortexes of hideous darkness. The vocals alone help you hang on: intoning dark odes of humankind's inevitable extinction, they are the driftwood one clings to in order to avoid going under the waves.
Everything Is Fire comes from a disturbed place deep within. It has that pulsating radiant afterlife that glows in the mind more intensely with each listen. That without any of the usual songwriting help-alongs: no choruses or refrains, no catchy riffs or solos. It relies on itself, the completeness of its vision. Few bands create works as darkly manifest as this and I imagine a future wherein Ulcerate assume the throne through sheer dint of their musical effort and imagination.
Well, fuck what I said earlier! As time passes by and this album slowly reveals itself more and more, I am beginning to enjoy this music more, in addition to continuing to further appreciate the approach these Kiwis are taking on this album. It is quite an album, indeed, and one of the only true 'growers' of the last five years, in my opinion. As you've probably heard before, this sound that Ulcerate conjure is quite dense and miasma-like, and this album represents a provoking and unusually-compelling artistic take on the abrasiveness of the death metal aesthetic in this century. At first, this album almost sounded self-indulgent and unorthodox to a point of incoherency, though still (thankfully) in a way far-removed from any sort of the generic scale-masturbating found in all the dubious tech deathers rearing their heads everywhere amongst the scene. It was rather in a completely introverted rendering of the technical dexterity boasted by death metal for years, and perhaps a far-removed logical successor to Gorguts' defining advant-garde masterwork Obscura. But still, you can pretty much call a metal band special if they manage to create something rather unique with that jarring instability and amorphous guitar twisting as heard on Obscura. But in all actuality, EiF is less 'mechanical' than the album it's being compared to, and, due to the production and guitar tone, manages to evoke a rich, almost cosmic atmosphere. Here's an album steeped as much in atmosphere as it is in technicality; and Ulcerate's delicate but overwhelming balance of the two elements makes for a most laudable amalgamation of artistic security.
I think what may initially throw listeners for a loop here, however, is obviously the guitar work. And I'm not simply talking about the arcane rhythms and linear songwriting (though that would undeniably be an equal factor) but the sound of this album itself. To these ears, the guitar tone and instrumental mixing is far closer to that of some form of spacey post-rock. Now, Ulcerate are a death metal band after all, but to me, it's only Paul Kelland's gutteral vocals that keep them confined, at least partially, in that genre. As others have noted, the guitar work hardly resembles that of 'regular' death metal at all. Ulcerate's take on intensity takes a starkly original approach: focusing more on disorienting and dissonant melodic vagaries, occasionally beefed up by lower-chords, and in the process creating a force more like the pulse of a quasar than the hit of a sledgehammer, so to speak. And the moderately-layered sound, coupled with the very nature of Ulcerate's frenetic note choice cements this sound's strength. And perhaps in a fashion almost similar to Vehemence on God Was Created, Ulcerate create something undeniably aggressive, but equally relaxed and soothing. Only difference is, Ulcerate's melody is transmogrified through unsettling dissonance and alternative picking; creating vistas of sound that are more than simply heavy; they verge on haunting. But I don't use that word in a pastiche, 'funeral' sound way, as these eight songs seem to seep the listeners mind into the fabric of another dimension, hell, in almost a Lovecraftian manner, in fact. To be frank; there's a lot to absorb with this album, giving it an uncanny musical depth, though one that is almost a challenge to survive in. Much like space, which this album reminds me of, if that wasn't already obvious.
To me the one thing that keeps this from ranking as a more-or-less advant-garde classic is simply a matter of consistency. Whilst the album is enjoyable as a whole, if not a bit tiresome, it's "Drown Within", the title track and especially "Soullessness Embraced" where this album REALLY shines. I simply find the flurries of discordant harmonic work to be more engaging compositionally there, and those songs to have a songwriting direction more compelling and complete-of-identity than the other five tracks. The title track even almost takes a cue from Immolation's tradition of the 'epic closer'; being an enthralling masterpiece that creates a level of epic tension to end the album on a heightened note. Moments like the swelling dissonant harmonies at 4:47 in that song, or the first few minutes of "Soullessness Embraced" remind me just why I cannot possibly claim to not enjoy this album. They're almost like alien paeans to the disintegration of Earth! Something quite special indeed. But I cannot deny the other tracks of their compelling nature, as they certainly have their moments, but they just don't paint quite as much of a picture as the other tracks. The somber/visceral contrast in "Tyranny" makes it an interesting track, even if not especially well-organized. "We Are Nil" is another compelling one, featuring some of the more 'normal' 'riffing' on the album, but with Ulcerate's unmistakable twist. Many of the guitar parts sound rather similar and are subtly differentiated through alternate picking and tonal experimentation. In much of this album's duration, this is properly blended with the songwriting, but at other times it makes things feel incoherent and unfinished, However, the good-bad ratio luckily favors the former, and only minorly detriments Ulcerate's beautifully-irrupt compositions.
And to round it all up, Jamie's drum performance is definitely one of the most steadfast and intense performances on a metal album. The guy knows how to use speed tastefully, and, much like the guitars, subtly accentuates both the primal speed of itself (as well as the guitars themselves) with classy crashes/cymbal work and snare hits. It's a solid, impermeable foundation to this massive sound, and is one of the few times where the speed is absolutely necessary, and not simply to show off. Here it's done with taste, and not shameless self-indulgence. All around, everything here comes together in spacey package of equal parts brutality and cerebral atmosphere. It's immensely refreshing to hear death metal intricacy played through a different plane of creation. Here's what happens when you have musicians with solid and true musical integrity; weaving a unique and far-removed sound with atmosphere and intrinsic personality, as well as eschewing the disparate musical competition that plagues ninety percent of technical metal these days. Ulcerate don't dubiously aim to be more brutal than anyone, nor more technical and/or progressive than the last, like so many expendable bands nowadays. Rather, they make true progression by creating something that falls well outside of the fundamentals of their initial influence, into a pantheon for truly elite objective creativity; an artistic phenomenon that doesn't seem to care exactly about being musical, but rather seeing what can happen with music.
Looks like the 'brutal death metal' [my least favorite redundancy] genre is finally starting to grow up... in fits and starts, anyway. A couple of years ago, Defeated sanity put out Psalms of the Moribund, an album that was single-mindedly pummelling, with slam riffs aplenty, but also surprisingly cerebral, with plenty of subtlety and lots of fresh ideas included. Now we get this, the second full-length from New Zealand's most famous non-hobbit residents, Ulcerate. A much more refined effort than their debut Of Fracture & Failure , Everything Is Fire represents what could potentially be a major wake-up call to the band's peers in the 'BruTech' community - a rather vociferous suggestion that maybe Gorguts were on to something when they violated all the long-held traditions of death metal with Obscura a decade ago.
Indeed, Everything is Fire features ample Gorguts-isms, along with influences from a variety of other forward-thinking extreme metal pioneers, such as Immolation, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord. The riffing on this record centers largely around a variety of alternate-picked harmonics, frequently shifting back and forth between consonant and dissonant chord voicings, and using an expansive tonal range. There's very little on this album that would resemble traditional death metal riffage - no power chord chugging, no Bolt Thrower style harmony leads, no galloping palm-muted straight-8th-note runs, and no solos whatsoever. Despite all this, the record is remarkably brutal and, in many places, genuinely unsettling. But it's obviously not the ham-fisted 'I'm gonna bash this bitch's head in, then gut her and rape her emptied corpse' style of brutality that so many Suffocation wannabes have polluted our ears with over the years... more of a 'the world is slowly crumbling around me, and I'm powerless to stop it' type of brutality. Don't be mistaken, there's still plenty of thick bottom string attacking, but it's almost exclusively coupled with fluttery upper-string chord play and ringing arpeggios. Everything is Fire is, at its core, a dense flurry of sound that demands the listener's undivided attention before it can give itself over and be fully absorbed.
The songs on this record are arranged in a linear, refrain-free style that's becoming increasingly popular in extreme metal. Much in the same way as Deathspell Omega's recent efforts, each of these eight compositions treks through multiple movements of varying tempos and moods which, if you follow the lyrics [a bit tough since the vocals are buried in the mix], do a pretty impressive job of reflecting the shifting tenors between Paul Kelland's verses. The esoteric structuring, coupled with the heavily layered riffs [most of which are differently accented through each repetition, either with tonal augmentation or amorphous time signatures] make this an album with a very steep 'learning curve'. It would require a superhuman effort to absorb everything that Ulcerate throws at the listener in one sitting. As of the writing of this review, I've listened to this album probably 30-35 times and I'm still picking up on various nuances. This is even true of those post-rock-tinged 'mellow' passages, where the band seems to take cues from the likes of Neurosis, inserting furtive melodic panaches into the wall of sound - elements that make me wish a 5.1 or 7.1 mix of this album existed. It's impressive enough on record... but if these guys can pull it off in a live setting, it would be an accomplishment worthy of Guinness [if not the record book, then at least a round of brews]. Half of the bands to whom Ulcerate can draw a direct comparison don't play live at all, and the other half are limited in the number of songs from their catalog they can pull off in a live setting without stripping them down significantly. But there's not a single song on Everything is Fire which can effectively be minimized in such a way.
There's still room for improvement here, make no mistake about it. In their ambition to create a uniquely dense and challenging record, Ulcerate do at times make missteps when it comes to arrangement. This can be witnessed a little under 3 minutes into the opener "Drown Within", where there's a remarkably sloppy transition between two very different riffs, as though several seconds worth of music was mistakenly cut from the song. This occurs a handful of times throughout the album's 50-minute duration, hampering what is typically a very fluid collection of songs. It's still a massive improvement over the band's debut Of Fracture & Failure, which contained all kinds of slipshod arrangements. Here's to hoping that Ulcerate can fully ace this test in time for their next album. Because if they do, we may have to rewrite the death metal history books to accommodate a new standard-bearer for excellence in the genre.
Originally written for Diabolical Conquest 'Zine
To me, presentation is everything. I can instantly take a great interest in a band simply from looking at a cover, or the titles, or simply from the general feel of a band. If a band has a crap album cover, or a stupid name or album title, I can instantly take a disliking to them. If you want to grab me, you need to have worked at developing an aesthetic of your own, with something which will strike my line of vision. You know how people say "Don't judge a book by it's cover"? Well I do. That said, it's not mutually exclusive. First impressions may not be everything, but you do only get to make one first impression, and it tends to stick. So when Ulcerate's new album came along, it had an awesome cover and an awesome title, this looked very promising. Then I read a review of it which talked about how the band injected atmosphere into their technical brutality. "Back of the net!", I thought because one thing that has always bugged me about Technical Death Metal is the lack of atmosphere. The sheer speed and precision means there is little left for atmosphere, everything feels cold and sterile. Aborted went a good way on Strychnine 213 in trying to inject their frenzied gorefest with some darkness and, as a consequence, some warmth too, but it only seems like the start of something, and is yet to mature.
From the outset, Ulcerate seem intent on expanding the depths, and taking the idea of Atmosphere to it's limits. Opener "Drown Within" isn't very technical at all, compared to bands such as Kataklysm and Necrophagist, they look positively pathetic. The guitars seem fairly simplistic, yet unlike anything seen before in this realm of brutality. I'm fairly certain that most guitarists with a competence for Death Metal could play these riffs, but none of them would. Most guitarists seem to be lost in an eternal race to reach the finish line of brutality, however, in this marathon, Ulcerate have taken a wrong turn and went up a whole different alley. Titles like "Caecus" and "We are Nil" tell us that this isn't going to be any ordinary ride. This isn't your ordinary Blood-and-Guts slasher-flick fare, this is more thought-out and profound.
The Ulcerate formula is a hard one to pin, but several major influences come to the fore-front. Erik Rutan is a key reference point, through his work in Hate Eternal and (especially) Morbid Angel. However, Ulcerate tend to take more from the period of MA which came AFTER Rutan, from Formulas to Heretic. There is little of the Vincent-era ouput, except maybe one or two leanings towards Domination. It's very refreshing to hear a band take note from a period which is often met by derision by most fans, as it is a very underrated time in the band's history. Another key reference point would be of Akercocke. The whole thing tends to sound like an experimental Akercocke song, or what we can expect from them in the next few years (If they don't turn into Status Quo, that is). Another astonishing thing about this band is that they class themselves as "Brutal Death Metal" and, when they get around to blasting away, they do sound Brutal, but they do it WELL. Like the aforementioned Aborted, Ulcerate take a genre which I do not like one bit, brutal death metal and make it palatable (Dare I say more palatable than Aborted do?). They've got rid of the slam elements which plague most "br00thul" bands, there is no hardcore influences, and the band don't seem intent on playing faster and heavier than every other band. They take the "br00thul" model, mix it with the blackened death metal of bands like Behemoth and Vader (But not Black Metal directly, apart from maybe 30 seconds on the title-track) and then top it off with the greatest ingredient of this album, the atmosphere.
It's hard to find a band to reference when I talk about the atmospheric parts. I really can't think of another band which does something like this in death metal or even a band who does this sort of thing without the DM elements. For some reason, I always seem to think of Tool, but it sounds absolutely nothing like Tool. You could maybe say it's like a technical death metal version of Machine Head, or Sepultura, but some might say it isn't. It really is quite unique. Once again, Aborted springs straight to mind. It's a bit like the intro to Strychnine 213 ("Carrion") if it was stretched out for a whole album. The other comparison which springs to mind is Akercocke, who seem to be the closest thing to these guys in terms of style. It's slow, but it isn't doom metal, and it certainly isn't groove. It's atmospheric, but not the cheesy type of atmospheric. There is no keyboards whatsoever, bar a sample in "The Earth At It's Knees". This album was pretty much done wholly by three guys with only a guitar, bass and drums, and the fact they've been able to conduct this type of atmosphere with just basic, standard equipment is mesmerising. There are bands with banks and banks of technology who would KILL to have this kind of atmosphere, without it sounding cheesy.
In summary, then? This is completely refreshing. Most technical DM bands bore the shite out of me. The drums pound along and the guitars shred, but it's all soulless. But THIS is unbelievable. Yes, the drums do blast a LOT, but they don't really detract much from the whole album. It's obvious that this drummer has a lot of skill, from the several Jazz-esque interludes on the album to the fills the guy reels off when blasting. The guitarists do NOT shred a lot, but it's not because they can't. I believe these guys could do wanking solos ala Cryptopsy and Necrophagist if they wanted to, but the fact they don't is fantastic to me. A bit of modesty goes a long way and, on this, it goes MILES.
If you thought Morbid Angel's Heretic would've been an absolute classic if it weren't for the bloody production, well, your prayers have been answered with this album. The vocalist is a mixture of David Vincent and Steve Tucker, with Erik Rutan on backing vocals. If you can't wait for the next Akercocke album, this is your solution. If you love new Aborted and want some more, here is something to tide you over while they go all Phileas bloody Fogg and tour the world 19 million times.
This is a must for anyone who loves technical death metal, and certainly worth a listen for anyone who finds shred-and-wankery a bit boring and just wants some original, yet heavy, music to listen to. The fact that these guys not only have the ability to play some mind-blowingly fast stuff but also have the ability to reign it in is of a great appeal to me, and will be to you too. Hopefully, with a bit of refinement, the band will continue to grow with each album and continue to get better and better with each release without descending into farce, and that these guys can get themselves together and bring their arses over for a European tour sometime, as I'd love to see them live.