Ulcerate


(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Of Fracture and Failure (2007), 7/10
Everything Is Fire (2009), 6.5/10
The Destroyers of All (2011), 7/10
Vermis (2013), 6/10
Shrines of Paralysis (2016), 6.5/10
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New Zealand's Ulcerate revitalized technical death-metal with Of Fracture and Failure (2007). Songs such as Praise and Negation are crushing, intricate, hysterical and labyrinthine. Ben Read's vocals are malleable enough to adapt to anything that guitarist Michael Hoggard and drummer Jamie Saint-Merat come up with, and what they come up with is a kaleidoscope of tactics. One of the most terrifying accelerations takes place in Ad Nauseam, but the principle is not just "faster and faster"; and some of the most sensational shrieks surface in The Coming of Genocide, but the goal is not mere mayhem. The shredding guitar and the twitching drums of The Mask of the Satyr create a disordered cacophony with multidimensional detours. The seven-minute Martyr of the Soil is a musical calvary, because of the nerve-wracking instrumental overture, of the chronically unstable rhythm, of the "pandemic" riffs, and so forth, except to land on an anthemic melody just when the guitar finds the most dissonant of poses. The nine-minute closer, Defaeco, is less manic but even more horrific, with a minute of insistent staccato guitar in the middle and a second part in which the guitar is almost bluesy and melodic. The album boasts some of the most creative drumming in death-metal ever. Compared with other "technical" metal bands of the era, Ulcerate's sound, far more sterile, is pretty visceral.

Everything Is Fire (2009) switched bassist Paul Kelland to vocals, and his darker lower guttural tone becomes the limitation of the album. However, the general picture remains the same: songs that are fractals because contain innumerable variations and detours, songs within songs within songs, each song drowning into a tidal wave of guitar techniques and drumming irregularities, each song meticulously sculpted to feel like the opposite of a sculpture. The seven-minute Drown Within, that opens with an epic gallop, is emblematic thanks to its frequent releases of tension that counterbalance the overwhelming storm of guitar moves. Caecus basically stages a crescendo of crescendoes. At the same time, a sense of structure is beginning to emerge. The pathos of We Are Nil peaks with melody and panzer rhythm as opposed to chaotic fury. The Earth at Its Knees is even more streamlined, and the guitar gets as close as possible to a romantic solo. Soulessness Embraced relies on a hiccupping dynamic that never derails but instead focuses the dramatic tension towards the stoical finale. The eight-minute Everything Is Fire begins in that "structured" mode with a relatively straightforward song but then ventures into a jungle of clashing sounds and tempos. Nonetheless even this tormented composition finds a narrative coherence and ends with a sort of apotheosis (albeit a negative one, a dirty drone).

The songs of The Destroyers of All (Willowtip, 2011) are longer than ever. More importantly, the songs have become vanity shows of the guitar. There is little left in the guitarwork that one can reconcile with death-metal, or heavy metal in general. Michael Hoggard's instrument is neither a melodic lead nor a melodic counterpoint, and doesn't even have a sense of rhythm. It is mostly a torrent of free-form sound, an abstract tapestry that, at best, avoids colliding with the vocals and the drums. The word "soundscape", that was usually reserved for spartan scores, can now be used for brutal, fast and discordant music too. It is still the drumming, though, that inflates Burning Skies to epic proportions: the blastbeats and the syncopation seem capable of levitating a song that is a simple litany. Towards the end the chaotic drumming fights a cosmic battle with the hypnotic guitar anti-riffs. Surprisingly, out of all the contrasts and oppositions the trio pulls together a narrative. For example, the glorious finale of Dead Oceans is the mathematical consequence of the musical paralysis of mid section.
The most solemn, heaviest and slowest pieces, namely Beneath and Cold Becoming, are catastrophes of harmony and consonance. A mountain of guitar drones undoes The Hollow Idols, slowly but methodically. The eight-minute Omens is a free-form cacophonous concerto of guitar forms disguised as a death-metal piece (only because of the blastbeats and the growling vocals); and the ten-minute The Destroyers of All accumulates dramatic overtones by letting guitar drones and riffs climb to superhuman proportions above epileptic drumming until it almost feels like a wall of noise; and then it gently fades into two minutes of oneiric languor.

To reinforce the idea that Ulcerate's sound has become a pure abstraction, Vermis (2013) opens with just atmosphere, Odium; but then it delivers one of Ulcerate's most conventional and melodic songs, Vermis. The slower section of Clutching Revulsion seems to target a broader audience too (their version of a "power ballad"?) And later Weight Of Emptiness invest so much in its grandeur that it almost sounds like King Crimson with a weird singer (nonetheless the effect is mesmerizing). The tough pieces, on the other hand, seem to go simply for maximum confusion and loudness, namely Confronting Entropy and The Imperious Weak. Also disappointing is the finale, which is rather uneventful and faceless, Await Rescission. There is no juggernaut in this album but there are five songs over seven minutes long.

Ulcerate did not let down on Shrines of Paralysis (2016). Abrogation (5:50) is a summary of what they do best: a beastly growl as bass as it can get, guitar riffs like death tolls, a dense abrasive ugly wall of noise, and pause with the gothic atmosphere of sludgy doom-metal. The obsessive miasma of Chasm Of Fire (8:07) finds an effective compromise between gothic march and thundering noise (until it slows down too much three minutes from the end). They are obviously trying to expand their horizons, but some things they just don't do as well as death-metal. Yield To Naught (7:44) matches a disjointed rhythm, evoking a clumsy robot, with melodic mid-tempo guitar loops. There Are No Saviours (8:04) opens with surreal drones and the guitar intones magniloquent riffs worthy of early King Crimson leading the piece into melodramatic prog-rock territory. The tempo is even slower in the longest piece, Shrines Of Paralysis (9:25), and the instrumental chaos here is so intricate and flexible to be more reminiscent of jazz music than of heavy metal. There's nothing wrong with these ideas, but the implementation is still a bit clunky. The ritual gets darker and darker, gloomier and gloomier, as we approach the martial Extinguished Light (8:43) and the funereal End The Hope (7:52), where doom-metal and death-metal collide. The latter is positively melodic despite all the clangor, and much closer to King Crimson's pathos than to death-metal's nihilism. What is impressive, even when it fails, is their long-term project to coin a new language of space out of one of the narrowest, most claustrophobic of all musical genres, death-metal.

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