Review Summary: Opaque perfection
Every once in a while, an album comes along that annihilates preconceptions of what can be done within certain stylistic confines. Death metal’s complete saturation of aural brutality and morbid themes have left us desensitised what was once considered shocking and depraved. For a band to genuinely fulfil their ambition and create sonic imagery that is suitably decadent is no mean feat, let alone one being able to effectively create a score 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. What is truly remarkable is that these analogies, though obviously hyperbolic in nature, are an appropriate means of describing Ulcerate’s sound. To say the aural bedlam of Everything is Fire
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 instrumental coalescence of the opening sequence in “Drown Within”, the cacophonous and yet strangely harmonious chaos that permeates “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 coupled with a complete absence of ostentation lays the foundation of the musical insanity. The interplay found within the polytonal guitar work produces a shape shifting aural environment, striking the perfect balance between uncompromising brutality and atmospheric purgatory. Rather than riffs heavily centred on constant tremolo picking and scales, 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 come across as fragmented and dissonant, building tension without sacrificing the otherworldly vibes. When the lines are woven together, the result is incredibly rich and harmonic, flirting with atonality but remaining grounded at the same time.
Jamie Saint-Merat’s drumming is not only stellar in terms of speed and agility, but superlative in technique, his elegant work somehow merging with the musical chaos that encompasses it. Jamie makes a conscious effort – in spite of the music’s density – 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 clear but incredibly natural and dynamic. The cymbal work ranges anywhere from subtle hissing to huge crashes that can stand over the rest of the instruments at times, while the snare and toms enjoy a similar level of dynamic range. Frequent tempo shifts and time signature changes are handled pretty much effortlessly – even those who are not particularly appreciative of the drumming in extreme metal must concede that Jamie’s dexterity is absolutely staggering. Rarely will he repeat patterns for more than a handful of bars, giving off an improvisational vibe at times. But for all the relentlessness that he brings, he shines even in the softer sections, providing an off-kilter rhythmic backdrop for Hoggard’s dissonant axe-work.
The brief hushes scattered throughout Everything is Fire
serve as both release mechanisms and atmospheric building blocks. This forms a perfectly 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 unyielding, and the sound engineering is exceptionally loud. As such, it is incredibly easy to mistake its almost impenetrable nature for senselessness. Listeners will not be able to absorb the intricacies within one, two, three, five, perhaps even ten listens, because it’s in the detail where Everything is Fire
truly shines. It’s a little bit of a shame that perhaps the album’s ostensible disarray may be considered a hindrance, 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 ringing guitars reiterate 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 its eerie 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. There is a genuine sincerity to his wordplay, with an overriding theme being the end of man and the inconsequence our existence. Lyrics are rarely a factor in a genre like death metal simply because of their natural inaudibility, but there are instances in which they can enhance the experience substantially – this is one of them. The maliciousness of Kelland’s lyrics is complimentary to the brutality of the music, while the sheer bleakness he manages to portray is essential to the overall atmosphere. 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 from a musical standpoint, the band went above and beyond with regards to textural nuancing and the gradual development of even the minutest ideas. No two bars sound quite
the same, with the music being in constant evolution, as molten layers of discordant ideas are locked in a perpetual tug of war.
Everything is Fire
is an anomaly, strangely 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 death metal’s artistic scope, Everything is Fire
is not only among the finest metal albums to grace us in the twenty-first century, but one of the finest of all time.
5/5 - Perfect