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Stravinskyist Death Metal - 95%

HowDisgusting, June 12th, 2009

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 [2006], 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