Review Summary: This abyss did more than gaze back into me. It spoke...
There comes a time in a man's life where he has to ask himself; what does death metal really mean to me?
Are the raging riffs and vicious double-kicks speaking to my soul, or do they merely serve as entertaining but fleeting jolts? Am I truly enraptured by the hurricanes of controlled chaos, the furious guttural roars, or are they simply backdrops to my own personal stresses and frustrations? Is it admirable artistry, or just an angry aural assault, cathartic in the moment, yet devoid of any true, enduring significance?
My answers to all of those questions have been the latter. Although I’ve experienced strong emotional reactions and permanent, meaningful connections to many albums from a plethora of metal sub-genres (black, prog, post, doom), nothing from death metal had ever managed to grab a seat at my soul-searching table. A handful came close; they were eventually relegated to sporadic spins that drew little more than fond remembrances of that time a death metal album almost got to me but didn’t. Until now.
I should take a moment here to let you know, if you haven’t figured it out already, that being a fan of Ulcerate is a new thing for me, and certainly not for lack of trying. For years I have randomly wandered back to their catalog, desperately searching for whatever it was that so many others seemed to grasp but always eluded me. Time and again I listened, eagerly anticipating some epiphany that would allow everything this band does to click and fall into place; every time, such a revelation failed to materialize.
What Ulcerate have done with Stare Into Death and Be Still, 6 full-length albums into their 17-year career, is nothing short of incredible. Adapting and evolving as a band in such a calculated and thoughtful manner while retaining and even expanding the core of their sound, requires a level of passion and dedication that is seldom found and rarely sustained. Melding the best elements of their signature dissonant chaos with some of the most placid soundscapes and pristine lulls they’ve ever attempted, Ulcerate have concocted a sinuous sonic synergy the likes of which I imagine the vast majority of their fans never dreamed of. More than that, I believe no one could have guessed the direction Ulcerate would take their sound in, where exactly it would lead the listener to, and what the end result would feel like.
That is part the mastery on display here; this journey is winding and unpredictable. Each step toward the bleak and inevitable conclusion shrouded beneath plumes of thick, roiling riffs and bubbling, brooding baselines. Cavernous, enveloping vocals that would just as soon sheer your face off as blend into the swirl of instrumentation. And the drums. Oh the drums.
Laying down some of the most complex, erratic patterns and fills I’ve ever had the confused pleasure of experiencing, a balance is struck between the off-time blasts and rapid bass kicks, and the nuanced snare and cymbal taps and catchy tom rolls that sound like boulders tumbling down a mountainside. Put it all together and you have a sweeping, crashing, thunderous, and yet sometimes calming cavalcade of emotion that I didn’t think was possible to pull out of a drum kit.
That’s not to say that the other instruments are overshadowed. I read a handful of comments before my first listen talking about how a more melodic approach was taken here, and that this made it more “accessible”. And I thought, “Ulcerate? Accessible? Yeah ok…”
But they were right. I immediately found most of the riff patterns to be alluringly fluid (some almost, dare I say, groove). Tinged with melody but still destructive, the drums and bass guitar switch between contrasting and complimenting the long lines the riffs trace. This allowed me to be effortlessly carried along the entire progression of the constantly mutating song structures that run clean through the entire length of this near hour-long endeavor. Everything ebbs and flows and rumbles forward into the next movement so seamlessly that if I wasn’t looking, save for one or two exceptions, I wouldn’t know where one track ends and the next one begins.
The closer seems to bring everything together at once, almost as if there’s a piece of every song that came before it, ripped off and fused together to form a singular, colossal monstrosity. The frigid grasp of the atmosphere, the achromatic tinge of the vibrating riffs, the slinking, surging, seething sense of pressure, building upon itself until it lunges for your last gasp of air too late for you to do anything about it. Whereas the besieging storm Ulcerate laid into you with was flagrant before, here they sit you down in the eye to watch from within until you realize, only after it’s all over, that there was never an eye to begin with.
Stare Into Death and Be Still taught me something about death metal, and about myself. Much like what makes this album so incredible to me, exactly what it is I learned is difficult to pin down and put into words. However, today I find myself asking something different than all those questions I had before. I’m wondering…did I finally find a path to the dark heart of death metal myself, or did Ulcerate create one just for me?