(In this review Andy Synn lavishes great (and well-deserved) praise on the new album by New Zealand’s Ulcerate, which will be released by Debemur Morti Productions on April 24th.)
Let me ask you a question… what does it take to earn a place in the Death Metal hall of fame?
Obviously seminal acts like Death, Dismember, Morbid Angel and their ilk (to name but a few) all belong there, as without them we wouldn’t even have a Death Metal genre… at least, not in the same way we know it now.
But as things have evolved, as new styles have come into being and splintered off to form their own distinct sub-species, it’s become harder and harder to form a consensus about what bands are big enough, bold enough, bombastic and badass enough, to be considered true hall-of-famers.
But if there was ever any doubt about Ulcerate’s worthiness, the release of Stare Into Death and Be Still should finally, and firmly, put that to rest.
Let me be clear, the New Zealand three-piece already have at least one legendary album to their name – 2011’s stunning Destroyers of All – and this pretty much qualifies them for a place among the pantheon of the immortals all on its own, at least in my opinion anyway.
But while arguments could be made that 2009’s Everything Is Fire and/or 2016’s Shrines of Paralysis are just as equally deserving of praise, it’s this record, above all the others, which will go down in history as the moment when the band finally attained true immortality.
What really makes this album stand out, not just from the band’s peers but from the rest of their own immensely impressive (and impressively immense) back-catalogue, is the way in which it takes the group’s instantly recognisable brand of dark, discordant extremity and melds it with a newfound (or, at least, newly-invigorated) sense of atmosphere and, dare I say, melody.
That doesn’t mean that the terrible trio have gone soft by any means. Paul Kelland’s vocals are still as colossal and commanding as ever, Michael Hoggard is still a unique, fret-warping wizard, and drummer Jamie Saint Merat is, as always, a one-man percussive whirlwind. It’s more that they’ve found new ways to expand their sound without sacrificing their core, unquenchable, heaviness.
Take opener “The Lifeless Advance”, whose deluge of dissonance-drenched atmospherics and tumultuous technicality is laced with slivers of razor-keen melody which cut through all the sound and fury with devastating clarity, or the bleak, blackened beauty and blistering brutality of “Exhale the Ash”, both of which epitomise what makes this album so great – namely its near-perfect balance of calculated chaos, dizzying complexity, and intense, immersive atmosphere.
One thing which definitely helps Stare Into Death… pull off this almost-impossible balancing act is the production, which gives the band what is easily the richest, most well-rounded, sound they’ve ever had.
Whereas previously the group’s insistence on pushing everything up past 11 would have resulted in an oppressive, ear-crushingly compressed album (2013’s Vermis being particularly guilty in this regard) here there’s an openness and expansiveness to the record which allows moments like the desolate, doom-laden second half of “Stare Into Death and Be Still”, or the sombre, slow-burn intro and moody, ambient mid-section of “There Is No Horizon”, to breathe to their fullest.
Not only does the more expansive production enhance the ominous, post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the music, it also makes the trio sound even bigger and more imposing than ever, and when you combine this with their increasingly dynamic songwriting – showcasing a willingness to embrace both the calm and the storm (“Visceral Ends”) as well as a frankly awe-inspiring ability to craft cunningly cerebral hooks out of swirling dissonance (“Drawn Into the Next Void”) – you’re left with a recipe for stunning success which makes Stare Into Death and Be Still a true classic in the making and a(nother) watershed moment in the band’s career.