ULCERATE – The Destroyers of All
Ulcerate’s last album "Everything Is Fire" did not only earn 6/6 points from me but I declared it the greatest Death Metal album of all time. It seemed to me, at the time, that there is no way in Valhalla or Scheol that "EIS" can be beat, even by Ulcerate themselves. It turns out I was right. While the new album is very good, it cannot, unfortunately hold a candle to its predecessor. I will go in great detail as to why, shortly.
Whereas "Everything…" was a PERFECT marriage of extreme melody, brutality, speed and complexity, it was not very catchy. That is to say, it did not contain any truly memorable parts. It was best swallowed as a whole. I dissected it to understand it, but the pieces alone were not as exciting. Only together they formed a masterpiece. In other words, "EIS" was an incarnation of the maxim that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. "TDOA" is the exact opposite of it. Perhaps on purpose?
First off, the new album is a lot more accessible (for a Death Metal fan, not Maroon 5 enthusiasts), slower and more climatic. Possibly even more depressing than the last one. It is also a lot more memorable and more melodic. The parts can, and do, stand on their own. Instead of relentlessly pummeling you into oblivion with inhuman heaviness, savagery and speed of "Everything…", the instruments appear more calculated, more subtle, with greater emphasis on building structure rather than shocking extremes of tonality.
Previously, Ulcerate’s sound lay somewhere between "Chaos A.D."-Sepultura, Immolation and Morbid Angel, with those wailing Machine Head guitars, if you INSIST on comparison. Now, add Process of Guilt "Erosion" to the table for some truly DOOMY experience. Indeed, the number one concern of the musicians seem to be CLIMATE. It is no longer the Apocalypse, it is what happens THEREAFTER that is evoked here. The misery and hopelessness of eradicated mankind’s remains cries out for mercy, but there’s none forthcoming. "The Destroyers…" is simply extremely fucking sad. It is the sadness that can only be the offspring of one’s encounter with unadulterated pure evil. For Ulcerate’s music is still evil, only now this evil permeates you MORE FULLY.
1. "Burning Skies"
The silence of the opening couple seconds slowly ushers drone-like sound, like a prelude to something horrifying. Every time I listen to it I get that same creepy feeling of immediate danger ahead. The sound intensifies, but before it can reach maximum volume level it erupts into brutal Death Metal crescendo of hungry, writhing guitars. After you have picked up your brains from the wall from the impact of a monster truck, it’s time for a first surprise: a very distinct, brutal yet catchy melodic ACTUAL VERSE.
It’s hard enough to write metal “songs”, even harder to write compositions defying typical song structure. But it takes a special talent to write compositions that create AN ILLUSION of a song. In other words, it takes a special talent to write music like Beethoven did. Ulcerate appears to not only be able to pull this off, they seem to do it with finesse and passion only comparable to the classical master himself. That ONE track could be enough to prove that.
Ulcerate, then, create here a multi-verse, multi-chorus ILLUSION of a song. Before it gets out of hand they abruptly cut it for some ambient bass and drum interplay. At some point a gentle guitar plays a subtle melody, as turns out later, a taste of what’s to come. Suddenly, a heavy, mournful DOOMY, Neurosis-meets-latter-day-Max Sepultura melodic riff cuts the ambient subtlety. Beautiful stuff. Whoever thought one could describe the music of an essentially Brutal Death Metal band as beautiful?!
Presently, two additional catchy riffs followed by an altered version of the opening riff close the “song”(?) accompanied by a delicate melody in the background, which sounds like bagpipes-meet-harmonica. Again, Ulcerate push limits of what an electric guitar can sound like. The song suddenly ends leaving my jaw firmly planted on the floor. And this is merely the first out of 7 songs.
2. "Dead Oceans"
Starts of mid-paced like "Everything is Fire" and then suddenly speeds up for some brutal riffing. Again, illusion of a song. There’s a leading melody throughout but it’s INTERWOVEN with other minor melodies. The guitars are doing wonders: now wailing Machine Head style, now barking out heavy, slow, chunky riffs, like it’s 1997 and "The More Things Change" all over again. Yet, it must be said that there’s absolutely no talking of plagiarism here. The funny thing is that the same can be said of MH thrash metal albums, for, as we know, they have some less-than-thrash-metal ones where they sound a tad derivative of the trends of the day. But I digress.
I mentioned Machine Head and for a good reason. I’m convinced that band’s Thrash Metal sound was a HUGE influence on the New Zealanders. By this I mean the Bay Area thrasher’s first and second album only, where they defined their sound. That slow-as-hell, crawling, majestic riff around 2:45 mark, for example, is pure MH, a case in point. I think Ulcerate have taken the MH patented sound and incorporated it seamlessly into their style, actually doing better things with it than Rob Flynn & Co. ever did while also notably mixing it with sulphur and melodic sensibility of one of, in this reviewer’s humble estimation, the most brilliant brutal Death Metal stalwarts, America’s own, Immolation.
The track continues at a slow pace w/ ebbs and flows to conclude with a squeal fade of a single string that usually ends so many metal songs, but before it has a chance to fully subside, the third track brutally cuts in.
3. "Cold Becoming"
A reviewer’s favorite and for a damn good reason: it is the fastest, most brutal track on "TDOA"…, except when it isn’t. Then it turns that very catchy MH-style wailing melody now reminiscent more of Meshuggah, another great influence. The difference is that Meshuggah, with a notable exception of a phenomenal "Destroy Erase Improve", seems to be math metal for the sake of originality, whereby memorability and catchiness, those gages of metalhead’s headbanging orgasm, seem lost or forgotten in the process. Not so with Ulcerate.
Claims have been made, with both positive and negative overtones, that the authors of what I still consider the greatest Death Metal album of all time, "EIF", with "TDOA" have taken a huge step toward accessibility, to which I can only say that it works great way more often than not. The material IS a little simpler, a bit less challenging than the predecessor. But it’s like comparing the super complicated and astonishing "Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk" (if you don’t know by whom WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING ON THIS SITE?!) with a little less challenging but still awesome in its own right predecessor, "IX Equilibrium". And we’re talking one of my all time favorites here, so I’m not talking shit here. Needless to say, Ulcerate’s Math/Death Metal is memorable, catchy and still totally engrossing. It is simply a different experience. And good, cause I personally don’t want "Everything is Fire" Part II, as great as it was.
This stuff is still technical as all get out. The EXTREMELY complex passage at 1:32 mark would make Cryptopsy (no, not the god-awful "Unspoken King"), Neuraxis and Obscura (goddamn "Omnivium" is awesome, btw.) break their instruments in jealousy, and start playing metalcore. Oh wait, Cryptopsy already did on "UK", never mind. It sounds so fucking difficult to pull off, but they do it so effortlessly, with one finger up the ass, as we Polacks say, in mere 3 seconds. You really have to pay attention or you will surely miss it.
And then we are treated to a Doom/Death morose epicness around 3:41 mark rivaling the best of the genre. It reminds me of the last Process of Guilt "Erosion", so dark, evil and sad. The manner in which Ulcerate seamlessly swims from heavy slow to heavy brutal to breakneck fast makes me rethink the whole of metal as a genre, including my own preferences and understanding of melody, skill, heaviness, or generally what a metal album CAN be but so often fails. The problem is, some would say that shit’s getting too melodic, too catchy. But I say that’s a good thing. These aspects are what draws me to music, period, be it metal or rock or pop. It’s why my CD collection is some 1000 albums, most of it metal.
But that is where the commonality of metal with different genres ends. For metal MUST be, not just should be, MUST be EXTREME. It ought to remain permanently on your mom’s and grandma’s black list. They ought to continue to think there is something seriously fucked up about you for listening to this shit, no matter how catchy, melodic or memorable it is. Metal was not written or played for our parents, All That Remains, Avenged Sevenfold and Killswitch Engage, among many others. Metal is meant for US, who understand that it is a mirror to this fucked up world where religion and politics dictate our very lives whether or not we allow it to.
This world, where the soap-boxers of right and left preach “values” to us while simultaneously turning a blind eye or supporting, mass theft and mass murder of the innocent and helpless is what metal ought to be against, a ceaseless rebellion with a clear beginning but no end in sight. It should not be about how “she left me and I’m gonna fucking dump a can of gasoline on me and set myself on fire to kill the pain” or similar shit like that. That ain’t metal, that’s POP, pure and simple. Play it, cash in on it all you want, but don’t call it metal for fuck’s sake! I’m not saying that bands ought to play metal while working at Wal-Mart to make ends meet. No, you are a musician, and music is your profession, you should make a living off of it. But never forget what style of music you are playing and for what audience. There’s consistently less and less extremity, brutality, viciousness and pure good old fashioned evil that drove masterpieces like "Reign in Blood", "Rust in Peace", "Altars of Madness" or "Master of Puppets", which still retained their catchiness, melody and memorability despite their furious power. But, shit, I digress again.
Anyway, "Cold Unbecoming" is both catchy and brutal, with varying degrees of extremity, played at different speeds. Always seamless, always fitting, always mindbending. The ending is slow, Morbid Angel-lish, EPIC monster riff accompanied by a mindfuck of mastery drumming. Jamie Saint Merat can easily rival Gene Hoglan, Pete Sandoval or even, I shit you not, Flo Mournier (Cryptopsy) in both technicality, variety, execution, stomach grinding “feet” and pissed-off-ness!
…what? For them to use just that single, vague qualifier of a title sounds mysterious and spooky. After all, simplicity is the ultimate complexity, said Ben Franklin. This is a relatively (does contain a fast part) slow composition in comparing to other songs on "The Destroyers Of All". It’s also probably the most Mahcine Head sounding. It reminds me of the excellent “Violate” off "TMTC", MH second album. It’s as if, for a while, brutality was not as pressing a matter as before, or maybe they were aiming for balance, a breath before another onslaught. Instead of brutality we get a climatic mystery of a slowly unfolding steamroller. Very melodic, trance-like stuff.
No doubt this must be one of those songs that invoked the negative “accessibility” comments. Yet, Morbid Angel, for example, had an album full of those, namely, "Gateways to Annihilation", an excellent piece of Death Metal all the same. Interestingly, the riffs are very simple, even lazy. The music fits the title, that’s for sure. But just so you don’t feel depraved they speed up significantly if gradually at the conclusion. As the song fades, another brutal opening shatters the speakers.
5. "The Hollow Idols"
My favorite track on the album. It owes a great deal to the legacy of Chuck Schuldiner and Death’s brilliant final opus, "Sound of Perseverance", and the song "The Flesh and the Power It Holds", though MH is still alive in this one, as well. Where "THI" is different is the fast, Death Metal chorus gives way to a slow down of the same riff and another departure into the world of Doom. This is emphasized by a background effect that sounds like a…choir, a sad one, or, perhaps, it is another instance of a guitar sounding unusually unguitarish? The outcome is oppressive and hope-killing. It feels as though every ounce of hope, faith, love and light gets sucked out by it from the room where you’re enjoying the latest Ulcerate offering. Ebbs and flows and another Machine Head-like ending. I can listen to this on repeat endlessly and it never gets old.
Let it be said: Ulcerate does not make bad tracks. All the same, this one feels a little underwhelming. It is probably the only reason why I didn’t give "The Destroyers Of All" the perfect score, as was the case with their predecessor. It’s relatively short, slow, Nile-meets-Process of Guilt riffiage though greatly executed and catchy, frankly brings nothing new to the table, as far as "Destroyers…" is concerned. Not a skip by any stretch of imagination, but it’s best listened to as part of a whole. Or perhaps it’s blotted out by the sheer awesomeness of "The Hollow Idols"? I’m not sure. The ending is, too familiar, very similar of the 4th track, much like the whole song. My only gripe though, because here come the…
7. "The Destroyers Of All"
The opening riff is clearly according to the Omen’s ending, but the final and the longest, title track redeems any misgivings I may have had about the previous one. It reminds me why I spent some 10+ bux on this motherfucker. This song has everything you can possibly want in a metal track and more. There’s speed, brutality, doom, epicness, great melodies chasing one another and even one brief passage of, uh, HOPE (2:09) properly followed by even more brutality for a good contrast, Still very slow and crawling, slowly unfolding, with the interplay of Machine Head melody, but it all is eclipsed by the simple, but ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC epic riff followed by a complex melody, again, very MH. The guitars wail in search of completion or end to torment, or at least that’s how I feel when listening to the closer. This awesome part is repeated twice. Yes, repetition, it must be said, is often the difference between a good and great song.
More brutality, reaching its absolute extreme plateau, very "EIF"-like as the listener is grounded to a obedient pile of powder, and then…the guitars go ambient and subtle. The destroyers have, indeed annihilated it all and they are the only thing left, as you can hear in Paul Kelland’s growls. Ulcerate and "The Destroyers Of All" is winding down, as Justin Bean brilliantly put in Metalreview “in striking counterpoint, they patiently and tastefully (and quietly) close out the album”. It is as though the band slowly but inevitably freezes to death. A macabre rendition, but it truly reflects my perception.
Did they record something better than "Everything Is Fire"? "EIF" is matchless. "…Destroyers…" is neither greater nor worse, but something won’t let me give it a full score, perhaps the repetitive nature of Omen, as I previously mentioned. Ulcerate has not surpassed the spectacular follow-up to "Of Fracture and Failure". I’m not saying they won’t on the next album. But they progressed significantly, which makes for a more memorable experience. I would not dare, therefore, give it less than 5.5/6. I was incredibly struggling with that decision, though. This band continues to change, challenge and shame the too often so comfortable face of Death Metal. Along with Obscura these guys assure me that great, true metal will never die.
"TDOA" is nearly perfect. For some my rating may feel too high, to you I say fuck you. To others it may seem too low, and that I understand. However, I believe that a great reviewer will not hesitate to pinpoint flaws even in the work of his or hers most cherished artists. I did not hesitate to give (mentally) Dark Tranquillity’s latest offering a lower-than usual score (4.5/6), though I thoroughly enjoy "We Are the Void", all the same. Indeed, the similarity of approach for DT and Ulcerate is striking. It seems that both have found their “niche” in metal and churn out very good follow-ups, while much like Immolation, another favorite of mine, delivering essentially more of the same, not so drastically off from their past accomplishments.
However, Ulcerate’s consistent ability to create insightful, multi-level, multi-paced compositions does place them in the top tier of Death Metal’s elite in my book. It’s like, you know that you wanted Megadeth to do something different than "Rust" but after what they churned out for late 90s and early 2000s you thanked the metal gods for the triumphant return of “your Megadeth” with "Endgame", right? And that it doesn’t hit me as hard as "EIF"? My fellow headbanger, if I TRULY wanted more of the same I’d grab the next Amon Amarth, "Surtur Rising" a great album, by the way.
While Ulcerate have certainly delivered on the promise made by "Everything is Fire", I do think that their 4th album will be their magnum opus, their absolute unsurpassable masterpiece. As with Dark Tranquillity,their best is still to come.