Review Summary: Opaque perfection
Every once in a while, an album comes along that totally erases preconceptions of what can be done within a certain genre. The saturation of aural brutality and morbid themes within death metal have desensitised us to what was once considered shocking and depraved, thus it’s no mean feat for a band to effectively create a score of the end of the world as we know it. Ulcerate’s musical output is often likened to catastrophic events of cosmic magnitude; stars going supernova, vortexes consuming worlds in their entirety, the very fabric of space-time shattering and totality of existence coming to an end. Such is Ulcerate’s proficiency that it’s difficult to put into perspective just how monolithic they really sound, and their sophomore album exemplifies this better than anything else they’ve done. To say Everything is Fire
’s aural bedlam justifies its lofty title is a colossal understatement. This is the quintessential death metal album of its era, and the yardstick by which lesser efforts should be compared to.
From the opening coalescence of “Drown Within”, the eerie cacophony that is “Withered and Obsolete”, to the gargantuan climax of the title track, Everything is Fire
is one of the most remorseless listens you will ever experience. Uncanny technicality delivered with a complete lack of ostentation lays the musical foundation, while interplay within the tritone-laden guitar work produces a shape shifting aural environment, striking the perfect balance between atmosphere and brutality. Rather than modal riffs comprised of constant tremolo picking, Michael Hoggard prefers a frenetic mix of exotic chords and unorthodox progressions. When isolated like in “We Are Nil”, “Tyranny” and “The Earth At Its Knees”, the individual guitar lines feel fragmented and discordant, as if they lack the tonal foundations required support themselves. However, as the lines are woven together, consonance arises from the individually dissonant components in an otherworldly wall of sound. This approach means that even in the presence of colossal dynamic shifts, there are seldom any calming moments, incrementally building tension as one track succeeds another.
Jamie Saint-Merat’s drumming is not only stellar in terms of speed and stamina, but superlative in technique. He makes a conscious effort – in spite of the music’s complexity – to avoid triggering all but his bass drum, so as the sense of speed is preserved along with the expressive power of the rest of the kit. You would be hard pressed to tell either way, however. The mixing on the drums is crisp but very natural and dynamic. The cymbal work ranges anywhere from subtle ticks and hisses to huge crashes that can stand over the rest of the instruments at times, while the surgical precision of the blasts and tom fills remains audible at all times. Frequent tempo shifts and time signature changes are handled effortlessly, and while such a compliment is common in a genre where technical proficiency is a prerequisite, Jamie’s dexterity is truly staggering by any
standard. But for all the aggression he brings, his technique is no less impressive during the breaks, providing an off-kilter rhythmic backdrop for Michael’s dissonant axe-work. Repetition is scarce and improvisation is plentiful, as Jamie works in the moment to create a frame that is ostensibly formless but also resilient enough to support the accompanying instrumentation.
The brief hushes scattered throughout the album serve as both release mechanisms and atmospheric building blocks. This forms a congruent and unbroken journey throughout, with the musical intensity subsiding only when absolutely necessary. Everything is Fire
virtually epitomises “density” in a musical context; compositions are intricate, the instrumentation is unyielding, and the sound engineering is exceptionally loud. As such, it is incredibly easy to mistake the album’s almost impenetrable nature for senselessness. Listeners will not be able to absorb the intricacies within two, five or maybe even ten listens, because it’s in the detail where Everything is Fire’s
quality is most apparent. It’s a little bit of a shame that perhaps the album’s supposed disarray may be considered a detriment, due to its minutiae being lost on uncommitted ears. Seemingly disconnected chords reveal their worth over entire arrangements as opposed to between verses, and sparse feedback tones and textural nuances echo that – even in light of the virtuosity of the musicians – you’re experiencing a very human body of work. The album succeeds not just through instrumental and compositional mayhem, but also though its communicability. Beneath the hellish aesthetic is a repertoire of emotion and sentiment, touching upon the more sullen regions of the human condition.
”Reject the innate
And no solace will prevail
Our bloodless tower over all
With their eyes full of god
They are blind to our dawn”
“With the coldest shoulder
The balance is broken
So with disdain you may burn me forever
In anti-human desperation
This is the horror that binds us all”
“Stand on the edge of abandon
And stare into the searing sun
For nothing we know
Everything is Fire”
Paul Kelland’s lyrics, delivered via ferocious gutturals, are decidedly abstract, and explicit subject matter is difficult but not impossible to pinpoint. Although lyrics in death metal are equally renowned for their inaudibility as they are for their extreme violence, Everything is Fire
is unusually poetic. There is a genuine sincerity to Kelland’s wordplay, with overriding themes such as the end of mankind, the inconsequence our existence and the resumption of a natural order free of humanity’s tyranny, greed and bloodlust. Indeed, every facet of the album has been meticulously crafted to instil as bleak a mental picture as possible, yet the execution feels natural and uncalculated. The attention to detail that Ulcerate dedicated the album is something the genre hadn’t seen since Gorguts’ From Wisdom to Hate
at the turn of the millennium. While unfailingly technical, the band went above and beyond with regards to timbral fine-tuning and the gradual development of even the minutest ideas. Upon repeated listens, no two bars will sound quite
the same, as the music is in a constant state of both micro and macroevolution.
Everything is Fire
is an anomaly; oddly charismatic and introspective, even in light of the band’s rather violent approach towards self-expression. As a technical achievement, it is in the company of some of some truly exceptional works, yet it is so much more than that. Everything is Fire
has the ability to summon some of humanity’s most morose and final reflections, but is entirely open to interpretation. A modern classic, and a genuine expansion upon the scope of death metal and metal at large, Everything is Fire
is not only among the finest albums to grace us in the twenty-first century, but one of the finest of all time.