Last year a group of European labels released the debut album of a German black metal band named Ultha, bearing the title Pain Cleanses Every Doubt. I somehow managed to miss it, even after seeing a comment about Ultha on a post I wrote last August about the final recording of the tremendous German band Planks — a comment which disclosed that Planks‘ Ralph Schmidt was a member of Ultha. That was a stupid error on my part, but thankfully one I’ve had a chance to rectify.
What put Ultha on my radar screen after that previous oversight was the news that the excellent U.S. label Translation Loss will be re-releasing Pain Cleanses Every Doubt on April 29, which I suspect will give Ultha the attention they deserve among North American listeners who might have missed their remarkable debut last year, as I did.
There are some interesting stories behind the origins and music of Ultha, as I learned when I reached out to the band with a series of e-mailed interview questions. One of those interesting stories concerns the reasons why Ultha chose the musical path reflected in this album — because it sounds almost nothing like what you would think of as German black metal (or even, more broadly, traditional Northern European black metal). While many North American black metal bands continue to reach east across the Atlantic for their inspiration, Ultha have gone in the other direction, resisting the stagnation they sense in much of the black metal coming out of their homeland and drawing inspiration from such U.S. innovators as Leviathan, Xasthur, Ash Borer, Fell Voices, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Weakling/Dispirit.
Pain Cleanses Every Doubt consists of three long songs, in the 10 – 11-minute range, and one comparatively shorter one (at 6 1/2 minutes). The songs are built from repeating melodic motifs that are ingeniously conceived and emotionally penetrating. There’s a sense of deep despair and anguish in this atmospheric music — as well as fury. At times it’s slow and dreamlike, with panoramic keyboard ambience shimmering like the chill of a winter night sky. At other times it’s harrowing and urgent, with a massive, doom-drenched low end and high, piercing guitar melodies that seize your attention like a vice-grip on the throat. And the vocals are as intense as the music — most of the time they sound like the agony of a man turning himself inside out.
You’ll get a good sense of the wrenching emotional power and changing dynamics of the album from the song we’re streaming below. It’s the album’s opening track, “Crystalline Pyre”. Once you hear the galvanizing central riff that ties together the movements of this powerful song, you may have a hard time dislodging it from your head. And I think you’ll find the interview that follows the stream interesting as well — it includes the very welcome news that Ultha are far along in the work on their second album
If all of this kindles your interest — and it damned well should — you can follow Ultha on Facebook here and pre-order Pain Cleanses Every Doubt from Translation Loss at this location:
Because this interview may be the first introduction that some readers have to Ultha, especially here in the U.S., could you tell us something about the band’s origins — how and when you came together, and what motivated you to form this new group?
Ultha consists of five members, but started out as a four-piece in early 2014. By that time most of us had a main band and were unsatisfied by the workload it took to keep those bands alive. Distances and lack of time made keeping those bands alive a hard task. We wanted a band in the classic way: A band in your town where you can meet up during the week, in the evening, just jamming and playing together for fun. It turned into something a bit more than we thought it would.
J. (guitar) and I had been friends for a longer while and wanted to start about seven different bands playing different kinds of music. But our main focus had always been starting a proper black metal band. When M. (drums) moved to Cologne, we asked him straight away if he would be down to start such a project. He’s a one-of-a-kind drummer who can really pull off playing 15 minutes of blast beats and still crush it. We had to have him. He agreed and we asked our friend C. (bass/vocals) if he’d be down to join. Another mutual friend A. (electronics) is a recording engineer and took on our first album. He immediately clicked with us and so we asked him to join, as I always wanted to have keys/electronics in a black metal band, seeing as Emperor for me is the most important of those early Norwegian bands I got into when I was 12-13 years old.
What does the name Ultha mean or represent?
Ulthar (with an R) is a city in a story by H.P.Lovecraft. I’m a huge Lovecraft fan, but Ultha is in no way a Lovecraftian band, which is again really popular in extreme metal right now. Finding a band name is always dreadful. We chose the name as it isn’t a proper English word but accessible and it offered a lot of symmetry for a potential logo. The only way Lovecraft has an impact on our music is that the gloomy, melancholic atmosphere his stories are engulfed in also seems like a feeling in our music.
You have released one album so far — Pain Cleanses Every Doubt — which was released last year by the German label Eccocentric Records, but I understand that you have now entered into a relationship with Translation Loss Records, based here in the U.S., for a re-issue of your first album. How did that happen?
I have to correct you on this: The record was released by a variety of labels so far. Eccocentric Records released the Euro CD version together with Wolfbiker Records. Both Matt and Arif are friends of the band and offered to help out. The vinyl sees the light of day through Vendetta Records and the tape was released by Tartarus Records. All four labels are people we have known a long time and have been friends with. When we released our demo songs they contacted us and offered their help if we wanted to release something as a full-length, and that’s what happened.
The album was very well-received and made its way through all sorts of social media channels. This way Translation Loss found out about us. We’ve been familiar with the label for a long time and some US bands I’m friends with already worked together with them. One day we received an e-mail from Translation Loss, asking if we’d be interested in them releasing our record on CD in the States. We were thrilled and thought to work with an established, long-running label like them would be fantastic. Also they just started working with our friends in Sun Worship. We’re really happy that all these cool labels approached us and offered their help – it’s not something that happens a lot to newer bands.
The four of you who recorded Pain Cleanses Every Doubt come from a variety of musical backgrounds — including former members of Planks and Goldust and the drummer of a death/grind band named Atka. Ultha’s music is different from these other bands — how did the four of you decide to follow the musical path that’s reflected on the first album?
We’re all in our mid/end thirties and grew up listening to metal. All of us have been mainly impressed by black metal ever since the churches burned in Norway in the early ‘90s. I for my part have been listening to black metal ever since 1993 and lost my heart to this musical approach back then and know up to this day why it is the most important music in my life. The others feel in a mostly similar way about this. Over the years we all came in contact with the political hardcore and punk scene in Europe and played in hardcore(ish), crust, and grind bands. We never lost touch with black metal though. When you listen to the afore-mentioned bands we used to be in, you can certainly find the influence of black metal there. So no, were not one of these many bands who decided to play black metal because it’s very hip and end up playing this dreadful thing called “blackened hardcore”. We love this music to death and will always do.
To expand on that last question further, Ultha is a black metal band, but the music is quite unlike much of the black metal that has come out of Germany and other countries in northern Europe. The songs are quite long, and the music seems to have more kinship with U.S. black metal bands, and in particular west coast bands like Ash Borer, early Wolves in the Throne Room, and Xasthur. Why did you decide to part ways with the style of black metal that is best known in your area?
Because 95% of black metal from Germany is atrocious. So the first sentences of your questions is probably the biggest compliment you could give us. Thanks for that.
German black metal over the years was about as innovative as our government works its politics: Stagnation and tradition seem like their big key to success. Horrible. This ongoing struggle in European black metal (and probably worldwide) is still who is the truest or who can fulfill the most stereotypes. There is hardly any room for musical progress. The music that came out in ‘92-‘93 was revolutionary, but to play it exactly like they did more than 20 years later brings me back to the stagnation aspect. I mean, you don’t have to innovate like Oranssi Pazuzu or Krallice, but at least give it a bit of fresh wind. There are a few (newer) bands from in and around Europe who take this traditional approach and make something interesting from it. Bands like Mispyrming, Ascension, Blut Aus Nord, and Possession (as different as they may sound) use trademarks and turn them into something interesting, something fresh.
There are a handful of newer German bands who really think outside of the box. Most of these bands, like Sun Worship, Unru, or Fyrnask, are good friends and create truly unique music from a traditional recipe.
A lot of USBM bands always tried to stretch boundaries. Of course you find the ‘90s-copycats as well, but you have true innovators such as Leviathan, Xasthur, Ash Borer, Fell Voices, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Weakling/Dispirit. If you listen to the records they do and did, you find mere gems. The records are mostly one big entity, dark and moody. The songs are hypnotic and captivating – that’s the sound I feel most related to. It needs room and atmosphere. That’s why my riffs and our songs are the way they sound.
The music on Pain Cleanses Every Doubt is emotionally very powerful, very intense, but the overarching atmosphere of the music often seems anguished and grief-stricken. I’m not sure I would call it “depressive”, but it certainly seems to represent a bleak world view — yet it’s extremely passionate at the same time, kind of like the passion caused by pain. Would you say that this is something like a defining sound for Ultha, and if it is, what inspired you to make this kind of dark, heavy, despairing kind of music?
Touché! Again you are pretty on point. I’m responsible for the lyrics and most of the songs. Even though I have been struggling with depression for many years I don’t want to let this manifest in my music too much. We’re certianly not a “depressive black metal”-band. But a feeling of melancholy, gloom, overwhelming doubt and pain is certainly my handwriting in music. If you look at the music I created in the eight years with my old band Planks you can find the same fingerprints. The world is a horrible place with only a few things worth fighting for. I see everything through heavy-hearted eyes and create music correspondingly. This may be only my point of view in the band, but I’m the one bringing the riffs to the practice space. The others can relate and like the direction it’s taking and together we make it Ultha. Even though this interview might sound like a one-man show, Ultha is an entity of individuals who make this vehicle thrive.
I’ve read on Ultha’s Facebook page that you are far along in the work on a second album. What is the state of your progress on that album, and will that one also be released by Translation Loss?
The record is actually quite far along. It will have five songs and be longer than P.C.E.D. We intend to start recording in May.
Label-wise, we have a bunch of great offers, including Translation Loss. We have no clue yet with whom we want to work and to what extent. We’re blessed that so many people would love to work with us (again), but we want to finish the record first and see how it feels/sounds once completed. We will then make up our minds which label fits the best. There is no rush for us.
Can you tell us anything about the way that your new music compares to what we hear on Pain Cleanses Every Doubt?
The songs are longer and a bit more reduced. This means, more hypnotic but still accessible. We always try to keep songs captivating, even after 14 minutes into a song.
It seems that the Ultha line-up that recorded Pain Cleanses Every Doubt included four of you, but that a second guitarist was later added so that Ultha could perform its arrangements live — and I’ve read on Ultha’s Facebook page just in the last few days that this second guitarist has had to leave the band for personal reasons. I suppose I should ask you how this unexpected development affects your plans?
Again I have to correct you: We started out with two guitars, bass and drums. After the recording we added keys/electronics to the line-up. Now J. (guitar) had to leave the band immediately due to several reasons beyond his and our control. It came as a very unpleasant surprise, as he is more than just a guitar player that can be easily replaced. But that’s what we have to do now: Find a guitarist who can play the stuff in the vein and intensity as J. did and is halfway compatible to our very own chemistry within the band.
We still intend to start recording soon. Maybe J. will play his part in the studio, maybe I will. We don’t know yet. But recording for us is always a time-consuming procedure with a lot of experimenting. We don’t just enter a studio and after a week we’re done. So we will have time to figure everything out.
Apart from the U.S. release of Pain Cleanses Every Doubt and your work on the second album, what does 2016 hold in store for Ultha?
Hopefully we’ll find a guitarist soon, so we don’t have to cancel more live shows. We intend to play all shows booked after June and take time until then to record. There are talks about a tour in October. We wanted to come to the States but this plan is off the table for 2016. Maybe early 2017.
Music-wise, we recorded two songs for a split with Paramnesia from France as well as a cover of a true BM classic for a CVLT Nation compilation, due out this spring. All songs are ready and are waiting to be released.
Thanks very much for answering these questions — all the best to you and Ultha.