The genre of death metal has defied all odds, aging gracefully as acts continue to push the boundaries of extremity, technicality, and the genre’s sonic palette into many different subsets. Starting with the almighty Death, you could trace the evolutionary branches into any of the myriad of styles that exist today in any direction. For instance, one of the more interesting fringe developments is atmospheric death metal; in direct lineage of Death’s technical and progressive style, Gorguts incorporated a nuanced intensity with avant garde musicianship and a muddy Lovecraftian atmosphere that paved the way for the likes of Mitochondrion, Portal, and New Zealand’s rising stars Ulcerate.
Unfortunately there’s only so much one can do within this niche and remain interesting beyond the novelty of chaos. Deathspell Omega (who descended from black metal, but share a very similar musical makeup) dropped song length and approached the realm of mathcore on Drought. Gorguts took cues from classical music and write a half hour single-track opus, Pleiades’ Dust. As a cautionary tale, Plebeian Grandstand plateaued on the recent False Highs, True Lows when they relied a little too heavy on murk chords and blastbeats with little regard to dynamic and tempo variation. Despite its brilliance, the writing was on the wall by the time Ulcerate’s third full-length (and Relapse debut) Vermis roared to a close in 2013; there are only so many memorable songs to be written in this style, and the group need to adapt and broaden their palette in order to continue with success.
While their latest offering Shrines of Paralysis offers few surprises and lacks an immediately noticeable evolution, Ulcerate continue to refine their strengths and use them to their advantage to create yet another monstrous album of crushing post-death musicianship. The band has a notoriously tight command of rhythm; lead by the incredible Jaime Saint Merat, these tracks writhe and pulsate from break-neck tempos to suffocating doom lulls with intricate restraint and thoughtful use of space. Each facet of the band’s sound feels heavier because of this dynamic interplay, and is a major aspect of the Ulcerate playbook that got them where they are today.
Michael Hoggard’s unorthodox approach to riffing is another defining element to the band that is consistent on Shrines, but feels updated and relevant. Each track is defined by moments where Hoggard breaks the creeping dissonant drones to drop a truly outstanding riff (or rarely, something resembling a melody with some immediacy). For instance, opener “Abrogation” features a grooving riff with some start/stop interplay, and “There Are No Saviors” sports a proggy bridge with some angular riffing following some interesting guitar harmonies during the song’s instrumental mid-section.
The group bolsters their sound with subtle production tricks to give the record a fresh feel, most noticeably in the added use of reverb and delay on frontman Paul Kelland’s voice to blend growls into the atmosphere in an effort to create a more ominous presence and smoother mix. With such a dense soundscape present, the three members share space in the spectrum without much fuss; it’s all too easy for bass or more nuanced drumming to be lost in the chaos, but the group truly feels like a unit with all their pieces in order with maximum visibility.
So it can be argued that Shrines is more of a perfection of a band’s established set of rules, but with each passing record, the avant garde nature of Ulcerate’s music becomes less apparent due to desensitization; what was once shocking and new becomes the expected and anticipated. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially when Ulcerate have proven time and time again that they are unwavering in their musical and technical prowess, but one can’t help but yearn for some elaboration. Ulcerate hints at this with the interlude track “Bow To Spite,” which borrows from dark ambient, features little guitar, and is a frightening respite from potential fatigue.
Criticisms aside, Shrines is a truly remarkable record that furthers the modern death-metal-as-art school of thought. Though it is nearly impenetrable on initial listens, finer details breaking up the tracks into standout songs — and even Shrines in itself a unique experience from previous efforts — begin to slowly materialize with each passing spin. The listener’s ear becomes trained to pick out chord progressions and the band’s understated use of melody becomes more clear; the crunchy presence of bass guitar as its own separate entity is appreciated; the ebb and flow of longer and more dynamic tracks begin to show some structure. As is the case with much of Ulcerate’s body of work, Shrines of Paralysis is an effort, but it’s worth every bit of that effort. It’s an emotionally draining exercise in nihilism and hopelessness, but it’s captivating, and in the right frame of mind, strangely moving.
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Ulcerate’s Shrines of Paralysis will be available October 28, 2016 through Relapse Records. Visit Relapse Records’ online shop for a myriad of bundles and formats.