Review Summary: In combining the finest elements of its previous works, Ulcerate reaches terrifying new heights.
There may not be a more convincingly apocalyptic band than Ulcerate. Death metal groups constantly promote themselves as “brutal” or “heavy” or “crushing,” but this New Zealand trio has mastered the art of soul-withering songwriting by honing its craft on a deeper level. Fitting together layers of dissonance in a way that makes sense is a difficult task, since it often goes against established musical paradigms, but it’s what Ulcerate thrives on. Due to the fact that every line on Vermis
builds off this foundation, the album is fundamentally saturated with intense emotions of utter dread and bitterness towards a crumbling world. Welcome to Ulcerate’s perfect musical hell.
Ulcerate is the brainchild of drummer Jamie Saint-Merat and guitarist Michael Hoggard, who have played together since high school. The duo formed Bloodwreath in 2000 before rebranding as Ulcerate three years later (a moniker they admit seemed like a better idea at the time). After the band’s 2007 debut Of Fracture and Failure
, bassist Paul Kelland took up vocals and the band released its breakthrough effort Everything is Fire
two years later. With Kelland as the frontman, grindcore shrieks gave way to guttural roars, there came an increased emphasis on complex and unpredictable song structures, and the band’s trademark sound began to crystallize. 2010’s The Destroyers of All
was another change of pace, as the album introduced post-metal stylings; each lengthy song contained moments of unbridled fury, but also more restrained sections of sparkling cymbals and sparse, resonant guitars in equal measure.
falls somewhere between the unrelenting fury of Everything is Fire
and the smoldering coals of Destroyers
. “Clutching Revulsion” harbors some of its most memorable guitar work, threatening like a storm front for six minutes via unresolved chord changes before finally bursting into a sweeping diminished riff over Saint-Merat’s stupid-fast single-hand snare rolls. It’s fairly safe to say that Jamie is one of the few stickmen capable of marrying such delicate and eloquent cymbal work with precision blast beats. He often fills with light snare rolls and ghost-note cymbals, trading speed for dexterity and lending the subtler moments a more human touch. On top of the music are Kelland’s mouth-of-hell vocals, which are generally more percussive than lyrical. Even if many of the lyrics are indecipherable, enough can be gleaned to give a window into Ulcerate’s thematic vision; take the ending of “Confronting Entropy,” in which Kelland declares that, “What is ignored in the present / Will be resurrected / The forsaken confront entropy / Alone, helpless, wandering toward demise.” Pretty bleak by any standard, but such ideas fit in with the band’s overall canon, particularly The Destroyers of All
, in which the titular destroyer is mankind itself. In the words of Saint-Merat, “the heart of all our themes is really the insignificance of man in the greater scheme of things.”
Of course, Ulcerate isn’t the first band to base their music in intricate disharmony. As Saint-Merat points out, “Immolation and Gorguts really opened our eyes to what can be done with a guitar in a death metal context,” and there are indeed moments that bring to mind the works of those legendary outfits. The crawling call-and-response guitars of “Confronting Entropy” have a foot in Demilich’s otherworldly backyard, while closer “Await Rescission” picks up where Close to a World Below
left off thirteen years ago. There are times when the band trades adrenaline for introspection – see the extended lulls during “Weight of Emptiness” – but Ulcerate generally keeps you on your toes with almost-countable time signatures and soaring harmonic riffs. The title track, which happens to be the shortest full song here, has two tiers of guitar going at all times: a rhythm line that compliments the manic drumming and a higher register that slashes through the chaos an octave above. This approach allows for both claustrophobic hammering and eminently recognizable licks to coexist (though ‘peacefully’ is out of the question).
With regards to its back catalogue, Ulcerate hasn’t really changed the game plan so much as ironed out the kinks and come away with its most cohesive album to date. Vermis
avoids the overwhelming nature of Everything is Fire
, generally considered the band’s magnum opus, while still having more than enough horsepower to satisfy the most brutal death metal mongers. If they’re going to carve out a real legacy, then Hoggard, Kelland, and Saint-Merat will inevitably have to change things up as all the greats do. For now, however, Ulcerate has something special going and is running away from the pack with their third phenomenal effort in a row. We may all be only dust in the wind, but for just under an hour, Ulcerate are giving us something with which to rejoice in that wondrous desolation.