Thursday 30 April 2020

Ulcerate - Stare into Death and Be Still (2020)

Country: New Zealand
Style: Technical Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

Most of my recommendations come from bands themselves, or their labels, as a part of their promotional push. Here's one from a reader, so thanks, Jo from Castelldefels, which suddenly makes me miss all the glorious food I devoured while in Barcelona way too long ago now. This is a fantastic album from down under, the first Kiwi death metal I've reviewed since Fall of Them just over a year ago. Jo calls it his album of the year and I do expect it to show up

It's a highly immersive album that's impossible to ignore. Listening is like being dragged into the underground by some eldritch creature that's allergic to light so that it can force its art upon us for an hour before letting us go, slithering away into the darkness while we wonder what just happened but remain somehow nostalgic for the surreal experience and hope for the rest of our lives that it'll happen again.

Amazingly, Ulcerate are only a trio because they generate quite a versatile soundscape with so few instruments. Paul Kelland is the man on double duty, his bass a dangerous texture lurking under whatever else is going on and his vocal arguably the lead instrument.

That bass sets a tone that I'd call dank if that hadn't been appropriated by stoners and rendered into meaningless cool. I think of it as a texture that engages multiple senses, like slime dripping off the walls of an underground cavern. It makes this feel dangerous. The vocals are deep and emotional, as if Kelland is that ageless creature railing against its confinement. He's a musical equivalent to Swamp Thing, looming and lost but ever magnetic.

Surprisingly, Kelland isn't the founder of Ulcerate. In fact, he's the new fish, having taken over from Phil Kusabs on bass in 2005 and Ben Read at the mike in 2008. Both his bandmates were there in the beginning in 2002, when a band of theirs called Bloodwreath renamed and set a new era into motion.

The guitarist is Michael Hoggard and he's wildly unusual. This isn't music built from riffs, let alone hooks. There are points where he crunches along in a complex riff but mostly he flits around above the music like a will o' the wisp, hurling out notes and melodic line almost with a hope that they'll have an effect, which of course they do. We might not recognise what he has in mind but he knows exactly what he's doing and that effect is massive.

And that leaves Jamie Saint Merat on drums, who must be a demon octopus. His contribution is just as unusual because he refuses to just keep the beat; he plays the drums like a lead instrument much of the time, generating melodies out of his fills and runs. I can't reconcile how accessible this seems given that it's so complex that we struggle to realise any semblance of structure. However many times I listen to this, I'm always stuck in the moment while it all washes over me.

I certainly couldn't pull out a favourite track. This album plays to me like a single hour long slab of art, an experience as much as a recording. Sure, its core is in death metal but it's often much slower than I expected it to be, not merely flirting with sludge and doom because atmosphere is king here and both those words are applicable as words as well as genres. It speeds up too, creating a wall of sound remiscent of black metal, even if the drums do not comply with that genre's standards. It's that dense.

Just in case it felt the need to elicit more praise, it's a generous slab of virtual vinyl. There are eight boulders of music here, the shortest of which is almost six minutes and the longest three over eight. It can't be easy to play live, given how long these pieces are, how untraditionally they are in structure and how complex every component part of the music is. However, the studio recording captures it all magnificently. It's raw emotion in extreme metal form. What an experience!

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