We’re so spoiled, those of us with a taste for the bitter, biting salts and the boiling acidity of black metal. We lift the old vintages to our lips, and the new ones; we feel the sting of sulphur in our nostrils and see the pale beckoning hands or the charging cavalries of death in our minds; we might feel transported to nether dimensions that seem poised to swallow and sever us without a backward glance of regret. Satiety can lead to cynicism for some, and even for the never-sated but not easily impressed among the rest of us, we do tend to greet new black metal with the same demand that became the motto of Missouri: Forget the rhetoric, you’ve got to show me.
The PR rhetoric around Ulven’s new album was that it would be “based on the worship of death and reaching beyond the shadows of the deep abyss”, and that as compared to Ulven’s first album, the sounds of this new one — Death Rites Upon A Winged Crusade — “have shifted and morphed to become an entirely new and unholy creature.” Okay, I thought, show me. And Ulven did.
And now we’ll show you, too. There’s a full stream of the album at the end of this post; the album will be released on August 24th by Fólkvangr Records on tape and CD, with a vinyl edition coming from Death Kvlt Productions.
Ulven is the creation of Ohio musician/vocalist Sean Deth, who is also a participant in Burial Oath, Witchhelm, and Osi and the Jupiter, among other involvements. And so he’s not an un-proven unknown, but of course whether the new Ulven album will convince the ever-present skeptics depends on the sounds. It has certainly convinced this writer.
We have a regular Sunday column at this site devoted mainly to black metal, the name of which is Shades of Black, a name I chose as a way of reflecting the fact that over the passing decades since its origins, black metal has become increasingly diverse. This new Ulven album could have been sub-titled Shades of Black, or perhaps Shades of Darkness — because with few exceptions (though there are a few), it’s unremittingly dark, but the music manifests darkness in changing ways.
In one manifestation, the music assaults the senses in cold, cruel frenzies. Over torrential, blasting drums and low-end thundering that sounds like a stormfront, Ulven creates walls of abrasive noise through rising and falling riffs corroded by the grit of lo-fi distortion. The boiling whine and whir of the guitar leads are often bleak, just as the savagery of the riffs often comes across as tremendously oppressive, like torrents of suffering intertwined with murderous turmoil.
On the other end of the scale are moments when Ulven practices a kind of musical hypnosis. The first taste of that comes in the opening track, “Ninth Psalm Under Moons of Decay”, in which shimmering ambient music is combined with the slow, solemn toll of a bell, and eventually the rumble of a building storm. Ulven chooses other moments to diminish the sound and change the mood by introducing slowly picked and softly strummed acoustic guitar melodies, which are nevertheless still dark — haunting and bereaved. “When It’s Cold” is an interlude in which Ulven combines ambient music and acoustic guitar in a gloomy, mesmerizing revery. But other songs include interstitials or finales of their own in which these softer sounds take over.
But these two extremes don’t exhaust the shades of darkness explored during the album. Sean Deth picks his moments to slow the pace to the gait of a beleaguered march or a funereal stomp, transforming the leads into the plaguelike groaning and moaning sounds of ineradicable doom, or quivering wails of terrible sorrow. And “Necrolust” is a cold blast of hard rocking and punk-like scampering that reaches a peak of wild ecstasy that somehow still seems ominous and shadowed by death.
The drums sound programmed, but their sound isn’t a distraction. In fact, you realize how well the sharp crack of the snare is used to vary the rhythms of the song, sometimes providing the compulsive beat that keeps your head moving in the midst of the music’s most cyclonic episodes, where the aroma of vampiric cruelty and demonic lunacy is heavy in the air, and sometimes providing the sole pulse of life when the music has become a channel of hopelessness and agony. Bursts of rumbling timpani and thunderous double-bass augment the music’s percussive arsenal.
There’s one aspect of the music that’s shaded in a much narrower range: The vocals are downright horrifying, and never less than horrifying, even though the array of vicious snarls, harrowing distorted roars, and strangled gagging sounds might seem raging when set against a scathing riff or grotesquely tortured when surrounded by grievously desolate chords.
Only one track on the album might seem to provide a lifting of the darkness that cloaks everything else, and it turns out to be perhaps the most addictive and most memorable one — the album closer, “Where Light Barely Penetrates”. The song includes a flute-like melody that sounds bright and even hopeful; when slow acoustic chords come in, the bass line seems lilting; when instrumental storms surge in crescendos of invigorating tumult, the music becomes… glorious.
The album proves itself to be one that’s very engrossing, a strong combination of moods and energies that really holds you in its cold black grip all the way to that glorious end.
Fólkvangr Records will release Death Rites Upon A Winged Crusade on black cassette with crimson ink in a crystal-clear case with a hand-numbered, double-sided, 3-panel sleeve (limited to 50 copies), and in a full-color printed and hand-numbered 6-panel digipak CD edition limited to 100 copies, which comes with an 11×17″ poster. Download codes will accompany both of these physical formats.
Vinyl and t-shirts are available for pre-order via Death Kvlt Productions. Pre-order links for everything can be found below.