Review Summary: Perfection.
Every once in a while, an album comes along that erases preconceptions of what can be done within a certain genre. With death metal being saturated in morbid themes and imagery, it’s no mean feat for a band in the 21st century to create a convincing soundtrack to 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 auditory bedlam justifies its lofty title is an understatement. This is the quintessential death metal album of its era, and the yardstick by which future efforts should be compared.
From the opening coalescence of “Drown Within”, to the eerie cacophony that is “Withered and Obsolete”, to the hair-raising climax of the title track, Everything is Fire
is one of the most remorseless listens you will ever experience. Technical riffs delivered without ostentation lay the groundwork, while the scrupulous interplay between each guitar line produces a shape shifting aural environment. 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 foundations required support themselves. However, as the lines are woven together, consonance arises from chaos to form a 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 also superlative in technique. Contrary to modern trends, he prefers to leave his drum set untriggered with the exception of his bass drum, so as the sense of speed is preserved along with the expressive power of the rest of the kit. However, you would be hard pressed to tell either way. 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, while the hellfire blasts and tom fills remain audible at all times. Frequent tempo shifts and time signature changes are handled effortlessly, and although such a compliment is common in a genre where technical proficiency is a prerequisite, Jamie’s dexterity is 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.
Everything is Fire
epitomises “density” in a musical context; compositions are perplexing, the instrumentation is unyielding, and the sound engineering is loud. As such, it’s very easy to mistake the album’s almost impenetrable nature for senselessness. Listeners will not be able to absorb the intricacies within three, five or maybe even ten listens, because it’s in the detail where Everything is Fire’s
quality is most apparent. Although some may
enjoy the album on the basis of its sheer brutality, at the same time they will selling it short. Indeed, you would be forgiven for describing a song like “Withered and Obsolete” as unbridled mayhem, assuming you had just listened to it on a superficial level. Successive listens, while they can be difficult, reveal a plethora of depth and variation that that can so easily be overlooked in the wake of the music’s aggression. Beneath the album’s hellish aesthetic is a repertoire of emotional connectivity, touching upon the more sullen regions of the human condition in a way that few death metal albums can manage with a sense of authenticity.
”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 tortured gutturals, are rather 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 content, 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 insignificance of our existence and the resumption of a natural order, free of humanity’s tyranny, greed and bloodlust. Ulcerate leave no stone unturned in their mission to disorient the listener, as well as in conveying as bleak a mood as possible, and yet, their execution feels natural and uncalculated. This is most apparent during songs like “Caecus” and “Soullessness Embraced”, initially appearing as uncompromised chaos, before descending into unnerving bridges that allow for auditory relief in anticipation of each song’s climax. The band’s ability to shift from jarring riff barrages to liquid ceasefires and back is one of their most invaluable assets as songwriters, thanks in no small part to their meticulous calibration of aesthetics.
The attention to detail that Ulcerate dedicated to the album is something the genre hadn’t seen since Gorguts’ From Wisdom to Hate
at the turn of the millennium. While a lot of bands that centre on technicality seem to overlook the less tangible elements that constitute a truly captivating piece of work, this Kiwi trio went above-and-beyond in terms of developing even the smallest ideas. No two sequential bars sound quite
the same, as the music is in a constant state of both micro and macro evolution. Even at their most leisurely and repetitious – two words that I use fleetingly in context with Ulcerate – Jamie and Michael still splice in a myriad of subtle nuances that tweak the ear and pique your interest. Although being virtuosos, at no point do they give off the impression of a robotic performance. Sparse glints of feedback, ringing open strings, dynamic drum rolls and even additional guitar lines lend the album a palpable and human touch, albeit one of a very merciless persuasion. Ulcerate’s proficiency as both musicians and composers – though warranting the utmost praise – doesn’t dominate their focus, and has been utilised in equal measure with every other element to create one of metal’s most enthralling and multifaceted albums.
Everything is Fire
is an anomaly; methodical, introspective and compelling, regardless of the band’s rather violent means of self-expression. As a technical achievement, it is in the company of some exceptional works, yet it is so much more than that. Superfluous gimmicks are nowhere to be found, and every constituent is as purposeful as the next. With the ability to summon your most pessimistic and final reflections, Everything is Fire
merits nothing less than the status of a classic. Expanding upon the scope of death metal and metal at large, Ulcerate’s sophomore release is not only among the finest albums to grace us in the twenty-first century, but one of the finest of all time.