Review Summary: Ulcerate set new standards as they usher in the new decade.
As if its title wasn’t beseeching enough, Stare Into Death and Be Still
depicts a world in which the usefulness of hope itself has been exhausted. Even in the midst of a world-ending cataclysm, hope once represented a final source of impetus to prolong ones life against seemingly impossible odds, now all but depleted. If Shrines of Paralysis
was the score to the end of the world as we knew it, then Stare Into Death
portrays the immediate aftermath, in which the calamity is still fresh in the minds of those (un)lucky enough to remain. Scorched wastelands now extend as far as the eye can see, littered with the charred remnants of human endeavour throughout the millennia, come to nought and bathed in a muted orange hue. The revelation is that one can no longer fool themselves into believing humanity may recover, and whether one embraces their death, or attempts to thwart it is irrelevant.
This isn’t to say the violence of Ulcerate’s art has vanished, just that it’s been repurposed. Stare Into Death
doesn’t so much conjure images of voracious quasars as it does manic, warring diasporas, fuelled in equal parts by fear of a desolate new world and wanton bloodlust. Relative slow-burners like the title-track and “Dissolved Orders” are the lulls amid a chain of intensifying storms, existing as omens rather than reprieves. The uncomfortable truth of humanity’s finite existence is spelt out by Michael Hoggard’s palm-muted down-strokes, seeming to tick like an ominous pendulum clock. It’s no coincidence that these songs were chosen to presage the album’s release, as they beautifully compound the effect once everything resumes at full-tilt.
It’s when we come to the midpoint of Stare Into Death
that we feel the unfettered brunt of Ulcerate’s new direction. As exhibited by “There is No Horizon” and “Inversion”, the greater presence of melody hasn’t quashed the intensity of their music one iota, flaunting some of the most frenetic yet self-aware musicianship we’ve heard from them yet. While these two tracks are among Ulcerate’s more direct, at least in terms of structure, it’s the interplay between Hoggard’s guitar lines that elevates them – bolstered further still by Jamie Saint Merat’s virtuosic drumming, as well as the evermore present bass and vocal work of Paul Kelland. Their newfound sense of melody is now in perfect tandem with the dissonance that once characterised Ulcerate’s music more than anything else. One can’t really describe the motifs on Stare Into Death
as being wholly either; instead the riffs and leads constantly play off one another, loitering on the edges of tonality and rhythm in a harrowing yet graceful, symbiotic display.
“Exhale The Ash” is like a microcosm of the album at large: infectious yet deceptively technical refrains, building upon all things prior; ever-present counterpoint that may go unnoticed, but the effect of which is always felt; and changes of pace that are as fluid as they are vast, bound together by a superbly balanced though visceral sound palette. At one point, Merat even settles into an unassuming kick-snare groove, as if to offer a morsel of comfort before denying it to you and snickering at your exhaustion. Though a minor detail, this reflects the painstaking process that Stare Into Death
was borne from, so as not to waste the potential of even a solitary note. From the disorientation of “The Lifeless Advance” that opens this behemoth, to the solemn anti-climax of the aforesaid closer, “Dissolved Orders”, Ulcerate have eclipsed every one of their past endeavours in terms of their signature, veiled poignancy.
Granted, all of Ulcerate’s works have an “apocalyptic” vibe to them, but until now seemed to revel in the ruination of the worlds they depict, as opposed to dwelling upon it. Stare Into Death
is their only album as yet in which the theme is the futility of one’s valour, placing front-and-centre the emotional disarray that comes with such a realisation. If this latest effort cements one thing, it’s that we will never hear an album quite like Everything Is Fire
from Ulcerate again. Perhaps that’s for the best, given their evolution from the chaos of their ‘09 masterpiece, to a more harmonically rich style is, at last, complete and something to behold. Hearkening to albums past would be too steep a regression now, as the bit-by-bit progress made in melodic complexity is too fundamental to be undone. Were Ulcerate to revert back to their roles as the impersonal, unflinching narrators of doom – with a soundtrack to match – the soul-stirring nuance that imbues Stare Into Death
couldn’t be fully-realised.
Though bleak and misanthropic as ever, there is an odd sense of catharsis to Ulcerate’s latest and perhaps greatest body of work yet. As Stare Into Death
approaches the twilight of its run-time, the tempest we’ve come to expect doesn’t materialise, and the proverbial sun sets on mankind and its journey. People unknown clutch at items of sentimental value, clad in ash and soot, and bearing the faces of people unknowable. It dawns upon all that they will not survive, nor will they be survived, and so the mantra goes, “Stare Into Death and Be Still”