The past few years have seen a glut of new death metal bands emerge on the scene at a seemingly exponential clip. Even for someone who listens to hundreds of new records in the genre per year it can be tough to keep up. Every new trip ‘round the sun sees me backtracking to find great releases that I either skimmed or completely missed the year prior, and Ulthar certainly fall into the former category. The band’s thoroughly solid debut, Cosmovore, was a record I listened to once, thought sounded great, then proceeded to forget about as the year lurched onward. This was a mistake on my part, as subsequent listens have shown Cosmovore to be a thoroughly engaging record that only gets better with increased exposure. With this in mind, I approached the band’s sophomore record, Providence, with a hefty amount of anticipation mixed with a dash of patience. Both of which paid off, as it stands every bit as tall as its predecessor and, thankfully, a bit taller.
Anyone unfamiliar with Ulthar or the sound they deploy need only listen to, well, about a dozen other bands in the old school death metal revival to get a taste of their approach. Fans of Vastum (from which the band shares members), Outer Heaven, Necrot, Cerebral Rot, and a host of other recent old school aficionados will find plenty to love in Ulthar’s cavernous, chaotic approach to death metal. But there’s a level of technicality here that steers closer to the work of Tomb Mold or Cosmic Putrefaction, championing the riff above all other elements to make for music that feels thoroughly consistent yet never less than compelling and complex. Throw in a helping of murky atmosphere and some black metal chops and you find a band that dwells beyond the typical old school caveman aesthetic and plays out beautifully in their sophomore record. Providence builds on the sounds and concepts laid out in their debut through more aggressive instrumentation, mixed with better production and a whole lot of nuance. It’s a step-up in every regard.
Opener “Churn” proves the above in focused and resounding fashion, sending listeners directly into a wormhole of riffs and cavernous howls that should assuage any concerns that their debut was a one-hit wonder. Shelby Lermo’s guitar work is top-notch here, pulsing with diabolical energy and technical chops that stand easily with the best the genre has to offer. The band’s overall instrumental skill is unquestionable throughout, with bassist/vocalist Steve Peacock and drummer Justin Ennis turning in equally energetic and impassioned performances. But the songwriting is what takes Providence to the next level. “Undying Spear”’s creepy atmospherics, swirling acoustic introduction, and black metal-inspired vocals and riffs meld the band’s various influences into a cohesive, nightmarishly effective whole, while “Through Downward Dynasties” and “Cudgel” also add a pinch of atmospheric, doomy flavor that brings an interesting dynamic to the band’s overall blackened death metal vibe. Track after track, Providence finds Ulthar pushing themselves and their sound into new and engaging territory, culminating in a thoroughly captivating collection of tracks that stand as a shining example of the band’s growth as songwriters as well as musicians.
But it’s hard to commend all of the above in a record if it sounds like trash. As is unfortunately not always customary with old school death metal revivalists, production plays heavily into Ulthar’s favor on Providence. Balancing chaos with clarity, the instruments here are all easily parsed and identified in the mix, while also sounding appropriately robust for music this intense. This production dynamic helps amplify the record’s more atmospheric bits, which pop up regularly and to great effect. If you’re going to write something this good, it helps for it to sound equally great, and Providence most certainly achieves that oft-neglected combination.
If you enjoyed Cosmovore, Providence will delight you in just about every way imaginable. A definitive step in the right direction for the band, Ulthar are beginning to carve out a sound that is fundamentally entrenched in the old school while sounding distinctly and increasingly their own. If you’ve yet to give the band’s technically sound, deliciously blackened style of death metal a spin, there’s no better time than the present. A thoroughly enjoyable and impressive release from a band that is fast becoming a mainstay within the old school death metal revival.
Providence drops June 12 via 20 Buck Spin.