Six albums deep into their discography, with nary a dud in the bunch, New Zealand’s Ulcerate hardly requires introduction. The extreme metal three-piece carries an unlikely musical lineage from both Neurosis and Gorguts, specializing in technical and brutal post-death that has pushed Ulcerate into the cutting edge of extreme metal that we’ve only just begun to see the influence of in the genre’s continued evolution (see: last year’s debut from Ceremony of Silence). The band’s distinctive sound pairs an incredibly technical and intricate rhythm section with swarming, chaotic guitars that lend well to both suffocating walls of sound and passages of contemplative post-metal, often within the context of a single track. It’s a formula that the band have been perfecting since their 2007 debut Of Fracture and Failure and seemingly mastering by their watershed third album. 2011’s Destroyers of All.
In the years since the defining Destroyers, the band have continued to branch out from the creeping and writhing string work, focusing on songwriting and playing with dynamics. Fracture, for instance, had an average song length of just over 5 minutes each. By Destroyers, the average song is well over seven minutes in length, which continues through 2016’s Shrines of Paralysis. Of course, longer songs doesn’t mean better songs, but this is evidence of the band’s shifted focus from explosive and blistering chaos to evoking a truly expressive atmosphere, where the space between the notes can mean as much as the notes themselves.
This isn’t to say that Ulcerate have been sitting still since 2011. The razor-wire guitars have rounded out some, often shrouded in reverb and becoming a vehicle for hooks and riffs, moments of something tangible in the midst of overwhelming cacophony. Ulcerate have explored more of their post-metal, black metal, and doom influences, particularly in the lumbering riffs throughout Shrines of Paralysis. Perhaps more importantly, the band have toyed with ways to incorporate more traditionally melodic songwriting into the chaos, which leads us to Stare Into Death and Become Still.
To be sure, Stare Into Death isn’t a huge departure for Ulcerate, and is another example of the incrementalism the band have been practicing in straying from the foundations of Destroyers. Yet this is far and away the group’s most traditionally melodic (and perhaps even accessible, comparatively, if one could even use that word) record to date. The skeletal structure remains the same: Jamie Saint Merat is still one of the best drummers in the world regardless of genre, and delivers an absolutely incredible performance of Stare into Death, as always. Vocalist and bassist Paul Kelland’s roars are as commanding and powerful as ever. Guitarist Michael Hoggard somehow takes up the space of three guitarists with his mystifying use of guitar through a toolkit of controlled chaos and riffing.
However, Stare Into Death feels more immediately arresting through its use of haunting chord progressions and greater frequency of hooks and melodies. Tracks like “The Lifeless Advance” and “Inversion” see Hoggard’s moaning guitars take the shape of legato melodies by the end of the tracks’ destruction. “Exhale the Ash” is an early highlight in the album that feels grandiose in its opening moments of blasts and arpeggiated chords, exuding a powerful swagger as grooves begin to arrive.
“Dissolved Orders” is another track that emphasizes groove, with the mass of sound coalescing into palm-muted riffs in uniform during moments of transition. The album’s title track revels in a pensive atmospheric buzz, with the push and pull of Saint Merat’s drumming staggering under a hefty dirge of a riff, locked in place by Kelland’s crushing bass while Hoggard’s wild embellishments breathe life into the piece.
The band takes time to further explore their post-metal and sludge influences with this newly explored sense of melodicism. The kaleidoscopic “Drawn into the Next Void” and “There Is No Horizon” prominently feature moments of quiet reflection as centerpieces, the latter track particularly hypnotic in its cycling of shimmering chord progressions, with Saint Merat’s snare rolls keeping the track anchored to its forward momentum. The band leans into their more stark and atmospheric side in the first two minutes of “Visceral Ends,” and features an explosive finale with soaring guitar harmonies, the likes of which the band has rarely done before at this level.
Stare Into Death and Be Still is an extravagant and expressive death metal record that furthers Ulcerate’s position as leaders in the genre. The way that these three musicians are able to create such a massive sound that is as enveloping and oppressive as this, yet highly engaging and listenable is a testament to their songwriting and technical mastery. Stare Into Death and Be Still is another landmark album for not only Ulcerate, but as an example of the evolution and development of extreme metal at large. It’s certain to be one of the mandatory spins of 2020, and perhaps just as Destroyers was, the decade to come.
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Ulcerate’s Stare Into Death And Be Still is out April 24th through Debemur Morti Productions. Pre-orders are available from the label and from Bandcamp.