(Today we arrive at Part 4 of the 5-part countdown for DGR’s 2020 year-end list, with the albums he ranked 20-11.)
So, here’s the thing about day four of my personal list (not the site’s list, of which there’s no such thing): This is one of those days where there are some gigantic albums. Not big in brand name, but big in terms of musical stature. This was a year where I was drawn to the ambition of certain groups. If they were making music that seemed much further-reaching than their lineup would suggest, then I was probably there with bells on for a bit.
I think thematically in this installment you have some of the most cerebral and refined acts that I listened to this year. I could also imagine that for a lot of you this segment of my list might resemble a good chunk of your own top tens. I understand that completely because these are albums I was absolutely impressed by, ones I felt proud to have heard and ones I often had to prepare to listen to. There are multiple hour-plus releases in this section, and if you like your ‘variations on a theme’ style of death metal, then except for a couple of oddballs this section of the list makes a grand tour through those styles.
We do go to warp speed for a bit, and I actually had a few black metal releases land with me here, which was a pleasant surprise given how most of the time I feel like I include two or three total in my year-end lists. Number eleven – I think – will feel like a given to a lot of people, but I really do think they earned it.
As I have every day during the rollout of this personal archive, I highly recommend you take the time and give all of these a listen if you get the chance. I’m sure you’ll find something to love here.
20) Rannoch – Reflections Upon Darkness
I feel like any discussion of Rannoch will always wind up with us commending them for being willing to swing for the fences any time they’re up at bat. No matter which release, they have a pattern of crafting music that plays to the cerebral and intellectual and then having the instrumentation sound as huge as the subject matter itself. I don’t think we can ever give the group short marks for sheer ambition: If somebody pulled you aside and asked you to listen to a progressive death metal disc that is an hour and ten minutes long, I’m sure your eyebrow would be cocked so high you’d have to get some sort of corrective surgery on your face muscles.
However, this was an expected quantity on my end, not a deterrent, because I’ve been enjoying the group since being pointed to them around their Between Two Worlds album. So the question was not whether Rannoch were going to aim high on their newest release, Reflections Upon Darkness, but just how high they were going to shoot. The answer is fairly simple: Rannoch were going to record as much music as they could, because there’s nary a moment on this disc that could be considered restful. The band are always up to some sort of hefty death metal groove or humongous and epic-sounding passage, especially as they’ve worked some minor orchestration into the mix. Considering that three of the four opening songs on Reflections Upon Darkness clear eight minutes in length, you should have a pretty good idea of just how far-reaching Rannoch aimed this time around.
If you’re looking for a more nuanced take than my usual asshattery masquarading as criticism, we do have a a fuller review here. As I had noted though, I was expecting Reflections Upon Darkness to be a huge album, but clocking in at the time it does still put me back a little bit. As a stats nerd, seeing the wildly varied song lengths was amusing, but actually trying to rationalize sitting down for the journey took a little more work. But, then again, that opening segment of “De Heptarchia Mystica” and the half a million directions it seems to shoot off in was more than enough to hook me for the rest.
There could be a million arguments about whether or not Rannoch need to rein it in a bit, but I don’t think there’s any point to that debate. It wouldn’t be them if the album weren’t a gigantic and hugely ambitious piece of work. By not erecting a barrier to entry so thick that radiation couldn’t pass through it, then it wouldn’t be the style of music that Rannoch make. The fact that it’s just three dudes writing a large part of this is hilarious, because they write gigantic music and then still decide to add even more to it, creating a massive cross-section of genre styles and influences.
Part of the fun of Reflections Upon Darkness isn’t so much that I can pretend to be an incredibly intelligent person sipping brandy beside my way-too-large fireplace appreciating the record, but instead discovering how many twists and turns they can jam into each song. The sort of ‘there’s a ton to discover buried here’ style of album always holds a huge amount of fascination for me . Since its late-May release I still can’t even begin to tell you everything that happens within the seventy minutes of music here, but I can attest to enjoying a tremendous amount of it.
19) The Infernal Sea – Negotium Crucis
Now let’s ratchet up the high screams for a little bit, shall we?
I can’t claim to have jumped onto The Infernal Sea‘s bus right at the beginning. Instead I wound up joining the legion ‘long about the time of the release of The Great Mortality, back when they were just dudes in hoodies obscuring their faces. In the five years since I’ve watched the band evolve from a fiery and blast-worshipping black metal group into a robed and veiled band, whose tastes embraced some black ‘n’ roll riffage to go alongside their already immensely heavy music. One EP later, in 2017’s Agents Of Satan, and the band would be fully transformed, but considering how different that was from The Great Mortality, the prospect of a following full-length was especially interesting.
I expected and was partially proven right that the group’s 2020 full length Negotium Crucis would follow more in the footsteps of their Agents Of Satan EP, meaning the music would not be as overtly blastbeat-driven as much of The Great Mortality was, but it leaned surprisingly traditional in its treading of the black metal world, while still maintaining some of the rock ‘n’ roll guitar parts that are meant to keep people moving.
It’s a delicate dance to move between the two, and for the most part on Negotium Crucis I felt like the band did a pretty good job of that. There were a few times where it was a little frustrating because I would love to have heard some of the ideas expanded upon, but at other times it was just glorious. For instance: I guarantee you do not see the guitar solo coming at the end of “Befallen Order” – especially given the intoned ritual nature of “Destruction Of Shum” before it – but I love that thing, and hearing The Infernal Sea just fucking go for it is goddamned great.
I still found myself drawn to the more vicious wailers that songs like “Fields Of The Burned”, “Devoid Of Fear” and “Unholy Crusade” turned out to be, but even then, “Unholy Crusade” still has a massive rhythm section driving it that I also adored.
It’s fun to see this specific branch of the black metal tree getting a little more spotlight in a lot of bands recently. I’ve never been able to speak to the genre as a whole, but on Negotium Crucis it seems like The Infernal Sea are doing a fantastic job hewing to a lot of the traditional blueprints while also getting the occasional cocksure middle finger stuck up in the air anyway, even as the band scream at me about all of the ills infecting the Middle Ages.
I even thought it was cool to see them add a version of one of their older songs to the end of Negotium Crucis if you picked up a digital edition. Hearing a newer take on “Into The Unknown” done in the style of how they currently sound really exposes just how much a slow groover that song was. It doesn’t quite slot in with the rest of Negotium Crucis, but I am never one to shoot down more from this band – I like to get as much James Burker behind the kit and Dean Lettice yelling at me as I possibly can.
If you’re looking for more on it as well as a view of other groups, Andy included a take on Negotium Crucis as part of his best of British series right around the time of the album’s release.
18) Nero Di Marte – Immoto
Without The Infernal Sea breaking up the pattern I would’ve been more than happy calling this little subsection of my list the ‘pretentious progressive death metal block’. As it stands though, having one start this whole shebang off, then a breather by the loosest definition, and then two more might be good enough. Especially when you consider the dissonant prog-death of the Italians in Nero Di Marte and their January 24 release of Immoto. — an album from the before times!
It is an hour and seven minutes of atmospheric death that spends just as much time being quiet and introspective as it does destroying the walls and pillars around it so that the roof falls in on the band. Seriously, seven songs and an hour and seven minutes looks intimidating at first but that’s because every song on Immoto is a journey all its own, with most soaring well past the seven-minute mark. Opener “Sisyphos” is eleven-and-a-half minutes long and there’s two other tracks within those confines that sail well the fuck past twelve minutes.
Every song is a maelstrom of sound and the only way I can explain the sort of auditory madness happening within some of them is that you have to really be prepared and ready to appreciate some impressively angular takes on the genre. “Sisyphos” is like an eleven-minute tour through controlled chaos once they really let the rhythm section get going – you’ll hear it ‘long about the first time the bass guitar comes rumbling into the mix – and it does a lot of what we credit groups like Oranssi Pazuzu with -whose own release this year was also really fuckin good – which is sound like the whole band are in the midst of a death metal freakout session. Between this and his work with Hideous Divinity, Giulio Galati deserves a medal.
The way it sounds like the strings are getting tortured as the band rumble through “L’Arca” is something that needs to be heard. I found that vocalist/guitarist Sean Worrel’s approach was something that grew on me more and more, as he sounds just as demented and twisted as the music rumbling behind him. I couldn’t help but listen constantly to Immoto either, because this is one of those albums that seemed to just fascinate me. I had to hear where the Nero Di Marte crew were going to travel next, I wanted to hear – no matter how much anguish it involved – which twisted pathways the band would fling themselves down during the other twelve-minute songs on Immoto.
The fact that there’s nothing here resembling a single just means that this is a disc built to be impenetrable. You bounce off of it again and again as the group hurl themselves through one noise-filled movement after another. It had to all be penned out like a scientific formula but the approach is so chaotic that Nero Di Marte sound like they’re just whipping up storm after storm. You’ll pass through the eye during one moment and then get thrown into turbulence for the next six minutes because the band deal in that sort of chaos.
Immoto is a journey well worth taking if you haven’t gotten the chance to travel its tortured pathways yet. Just be ready with a head pad and some ice because you will be sore from the different attack angles on it by the time they close out with the now blissfully short four minutes of “La Fuga”.
17) Svart Crown – Wolves Among The Ashes
Considering that Svart Crown and Wolves Among The Ashes already made an appearance in Andy’s list of discs that disappointed him this year, I feel like the combination of placing it here and ranking it one above Nero Di Marte based upon how much I listened to it is the authorial equivalent of me sneaking up behind him with a steel chair in the midst of him giving a promo speech. Yet, as often as I joke about how the “Most Disappointing” list tends to be a small preview of what I consider my top albums of the year, here we are with Wolves Among The Ashes. Buckle up, motherfuckers, we’re about to go for a ride.
Now hear me out: Yes, I get that Wolves Among The Ashes is a different album for Svart Crown, as it basically makes its trade in wholesale brutality. But in order to understand why this one makes it as high as it does, I need to know how in check you are with a few things. I need to know just how long you’ve been hanging around this site and I need to know just how wholly bought into this site’s bullshit you are. Because this is an album that nearly requires you to be wholly bought into this site’s bullshit to understand why it’s at No. 17 here.
Why, you ask? Because if you’ve been with us for a while then you might’ve crossed paths with our deep love of an album called We Had It Coming by the Polish death metal band Dormant Ordeal. It was a heavily groove-infused album that just seemed to take the perfect turn every chance it could, making for excellent and beefy death metal tracks that you could not help but be drawn into. This is important because I think Svart Crown might’ve accidentally tapped a similar vein for the music on Wolves Among The Ashes and, as a result, might’ve unintentionally made a sequel/alternate universe take on We Had It Coming. It has grown on me like a fungus ever since.
Now, does loving something because it sounds a whole lot like something else make me inauthentic? Probably. Do I give a shit? Nope, not one bit. Wolves Among The Ashes kicks a whole lot of ass as it whips its way through its branch of the death metal tree. There’s a few bizarre twists and turns where I can claim to be smarter than most for understanding it, but otherwise this release is a forty-minute series of hammering grooves and hefty guitar work that I found myself enjoying more and more over time.
I think it opens incredibly strong, which is a little bit of a wall because I constantly kept wanting to go back to those first few songs, but once you hit the slow and sludge-infused groove of “Blessed Be The Fools” you’re kind of locked in with the album as a whole. Just letting the disk and its skeleton cube artwork whirl its way past you is an event, and you have to admit, any album where a slow-moving and mostly clean-sung song like “Down To Nowhere” serves as a breather is a record that has earned its heavy stripes many times over.
So. while I can understand why people may be a little off-put by the sort of all-over-the-place nature of this album and its track times, I couldn’t not love the heavy grooves and sheer brutality that Svart Crown were getting up to on Wolves Among The Ashes.
16) Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment
This year’s Anaal Nathrakh vintage was an especially good one. Their latest issuance of Endarkenment in the latter half of the year is one that is well worth seeking out. It’s odd too, given that Anaal Nathrakh has year after year ranked increasingly high with me, to have Endarkenment camped out in the top twenty this go ’round. And to be fair, I don’t think that position is fully reflective of the quality of the disc. I just think 2020 was a hell of a year for music, and that any of the bands who made this list should be a consequence of whether or not you should listen to it.
I do think it’s amusing to see how many people seem to be falling in love with Endarkenment, whereas I get to be the crossed-arms douchebag who just happens to think it’s a pretty good Anaal Nathrakh release. Perhaps it’s because they really love the dick-eyed pig cover art; perhaps it’s because they enjoy the multiple clean-sung vocal lines this time; or perhaps it’s because Endarkenment may in fact be the bluntest and most on-the-nose album Anaal Nathrakh have kicked out in some time.
Anaal Nathrakh had a few points to get across this time, and the fact they actually put out some lyrics for this disc should’ve tipped people off to that. Endarkenment has traded what little manner of subtlety and mystery cloaked whatever Dave Hunt was screaming about in favor of a sledgehammer with the word symbolism painted on the side, and now they’re going to cave people’s skulls in with it.
I remarked the last time that I put Anaal Nathrakh on a year-end list with A New Kind of Horror that I love their brand of extremity, but it seemed like they were a little lost in comparison to earlier discs, not really sure where to apply their sound and searching for a cause. With Endarkenment, it seems like Anaal Nathrakh have found a purpose and cause again, or at least something to focus their bile on for a moment, and let me be forthright: Anaal Nathrakh with a specific target for its hatred is fucking lethal.
While the disc is about as subtle as a brick to the face, Endarkenment makes good on a lot of the Anaal Nathrakh trademarks while also being one of the most melodic discs they’ve ever put out. I’d argue that the first few songs are practically ‘catchy’ in a traditional sense, and that it isn’t until you get to “Beyond Words” that things really take a turn for the ugly. Then again, the 2020 musical moment-of-the-year will probably have to go to Dave Hunt‘s exasperated yell of “FUCK” at the minute-and-thirty-five second mark of “Beyond Words”. You want a good summation about how I felt for most of this year? Just spin that song over and over again until your ears bleed.
I love the sort of wild roller-coaster ride that songs like “Create Art, Though The World May Perish” and “Feeding The Death Machine” offer, as they fit well into the ‘schoolbus on fire rolling downhill’ aesthetic that Anaal Nathrakh have conveyed from time to time, and I can see why a lot of people are drawn to “Singularity” as well. It’s fun to see that the back half of an Anaal Nathrakh album proves to be this sort of wild party in comparison to its power-chorus front half, although once again it’s in the face of a whole lot of ferocity being spewed forth that these songs even exist. It’s even great to see an absolute ass-kicker like “Punish Them” lying in wait, ready to ambush you as you get ready for Endarkenment to start petering out in its closing acts.
It’s also been great that Anaal Nathrakh have stuck to a pretty rigid every-two-years schedule for a while now, even as the albums have started to become variations on an overall theme. The sort of high-speed death metal end-of-the-world threnody that these songs become still holds a lot of power, regardless of what albums they’re on. I’ll wholly admit that I’m a sucker for what Mick Kenney and Dave Hunt get up to with this project, and really, I’m already chomping at the bit to see what sort of acidic commentary they have to offer up next.
15) Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
So why not go from the acid-dripping fangs of a group like Anaal Nathrakh to the cathartic, emotionally charged, and dreamy punk of a band like Svalbard? That makes sense for the sort of massive mood swings that 2020 went through doesn’t it?
It’s fun to imagine the sort of neck-snapping whiplash that would result from letting an album like Anaal Nathrakh’s Endarkenment wrap up and then immediately scrolling one below and pressing play and getting hit with the near-100% all heart and passion music of a band like Svalbard crashing head on with the echoing atmospheres and drifting soundscapes that a band like Astronoid have been calling home in When I Die, Will I Get Better‘s opening song “Open Wound”.
Svalbard’s previous release It’s Hard To Have Hope ranked tremendously high with me, and while the shock of first exposure can only happen once, I can say that the group’s followup – and continued trend of fantastically depressing album titles – was also a highlight of 2020. When I Die, Will I Get Better? saw release in the back half of September and initially I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to land with me, as Svalbard stick pretty close to the core of what got them to where they are.
It’s a particular equation that I’ve grown tremendously fond of. Initially the album was in known-quantity territory – it was something that I would go to when I wanted to hear this band. If I’m going to listen to some of the material, then damnit I was going to listen to all of it. If anything, it had sort of evolved into an immediate follow-on to Its Hard To Have Hope, so that mentally I had begun treating them like a double-album.
It wasn’t until I really dove deep into Svalbard’s latest and started breaking specific songs out that I found myself really enjoying When I Die, Will I Get Better? on its own. A song like “Click Bait” had initially blown past me as part of the wider-reaching explosion that these discs are, but going back to it I found that I really enjoyed the incredibly fast and biting take from Svalbard on that one, and how it stood in contrast to their opener’s more ambitious shoegazing qualities while that song morphed from its opening moments into something more recognizably them.
Svalbard become even more up-front with their stated goals than before, using their multi-pronged vocal attack to reinforce songs like “What Was She Wearing?”, “Silent Restraint”, and “The Currency Of Beauty” in order to hammer home that everything this band does is incredibly important, that the issues they are singing about are things that reach far beyond just their music, and that they are going to wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. It’s that sort of musical integrity about where they stand that won me over to Svalbard my first time around with the band, and it’s something that I still can’t help but admire. Music like this, that is all passion but often set to a solid circle-pit riff and a two-step, is hard to deny. So I find myself once again giving the Svalbard team a nod as the year closes out.
14) Kunstzone – Exit Babylon
Kunstzone’s brand of industrial death metal – Anaal Nathrakh in an all-out brawl with Fear Factory – continues to be a personal favorite, and this year the hybrid project which unites the multi-instrumentalist pair of Khaozone’s Andy and Tyrant Of Death/Psychotic Pulse‘s Alex Rise returned from the world of overdosing on internet nihilism to once again gift us with a new album, entitled Exit Babylon. This exceedingly rare style continues to ring favorably with me and I had a lot of fun dissecting Exit Babylon during my review. So an appearance here shouldn’t be shocking.
Exit Babylon is an interesting turn after a group of releases that seemed to be favoring the increasing firepower and constant flame-throwing that a simple cranking up of the tempo and a leaning on the heaviness meter would give them. Rather than follow the traditional path of going ‘even heavier, even faster, even louder’ until the group becomes a music hellstorm, Kunstzone actually reined it in a bit and brought Exit Babylon back in line with their first album, Eschaton Discipline.
For those who’ve favored the Fear Factory side of the group’s Venn diagram, Exit Babylon‘s return to the suffocating world of technology and industrialization was likely welcome after they left us in ashes through Solarborn and The Art Of Making The Earth Uninhabitable. Exit Babylon may be the most “lost in the internet/ghost in the machine” release that Kunstzone have in their collection yet.
I noted it in my review, but the trip that Exit Babylon goes down is one of industrial decay. The album simply fades out as if it is finally being overtaken by the white noise that is winding its way through every song, like the last gasp of an entity reaching out from its screen-prison before it finally drowns beneath waves of static. If you think I’m joking, compare the album’s opening few songs and just how hard and violent they attack versus Exit Babylon‘s closer, and then note how things just suddenly seem to change along about the mid-point of the release.
You open with the bone-breaking bounce of a song like “Right Of Retaliation” where the repetition of the line “You just like to watch…” and the following groove ensures that it will bore its way into your skull, and then somehow they manage to make the eleven or so minutes of “Blood Cry” and “The Desire Apparition” feel like no time has passed at all. It isn’t until “Core Amnesia” and the very ‘lost in a wave of sound’ stylings of “Merciless” that it feels like the machine is winning out. But from that point on, the industrial side of their death metal descriptor starts to prevail. The music remains crushingly heavy, but if you really like some almost drum-machine-like loops working their way throughout a song then the rattle of “Towards Zion High” is another one that will imprint itself upon you by the time it wraps up.
Exit Babylon is not the album I would’ve expected Kunstzone to tackle, but it is one that’s perfectly fitting for them and their gleeful embrace of a ruined future. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, I expected them to continue down the path of ever-increasing sonic warfare, and hearing them pull back a bit in favor of the way that Exit Babylon reaches backwards for influence has made for multiple repeat listening sessions. No one else really makes music like this these days.
13) Syslosis – Cycle Of Suffering/Worship Decay single
I have gone over my love affair with Sylosis time over time here. The group inhabit a very specific place on a metal Venn diagram, melding thrash, melodeath, and metalcore into one unholy beast that seems almost perfectly built for me. Even as they grew in stature up until going quiet a few years back, I’d argue that the band were somewhat – and likely still are – underrated.
I’ll be honest here – I had not expected Sylosis to return to the musical fray. After a few EPs and singles, four albums, and a closing single, I figured that the band would be one of those metal projects that had just reached a natural conclusion while its members moved on to other, bigger things. That Josh Middleton had kept himself busy with an instrumental project under his own name, a slower, groovier act in Passages, and found his way into Architects – who’ve somehow gone on to be one of the biggest bands out there since my days of thinking they had a pretty good cover of “Officer Down” by Stampin’ Ground – just seemed further evidence that I needed to resign myself to the “Well, at least I got a really good amount of material I enjoy from them” stage of grief.
Thus you’d better believe that the early part of the year then furnished a marked bit of excitement, as we had a new Sylosis disc – which seemed to appear out of nowhere with the sudden release of “I Sever” – titled Cycle Of Suffering, released in early February. The five years between releases did the band good, too, because Cycle of Suffering is filled with songs that could be described as some of their fastest, meanest, and thrashiest to date.
Cycle Of Suffering caught my ears with “I Sever”, which I had expected to be an early-album show-stopper based off how infectious it was upon first hearing it. But many of Cycle Of Suffering‘s early songs turned out to be just as strong and in some cases even meaner than the initial martial stomp of “I Sever”. I partially credit the enthusiasm to how good it felt to have this band back, but that opening guitar lead that defines “I Sever” made it so that song has been constantly stuck in my head since it saw release.
Having it surrounded by “Empty Prophets” and the titular “Cycle Of Suffering” makes for a real fucking punchy opening to this album. In fact, it isn’t until “Calcified” – which is one of the few I’m not all-in-on – that the album slows down a bit. Then it picks right back up again in its back half and includes the vicious-as-hell gem of “Apex Of Disdain”, which is easily one of Cycle Of Suffering‘s highlights. In fact, just about the only time I really check out on Cycle Of Suffering is during its closing song “Abandon”, but that’s because I’ve never really gelled with Sylosis as slowed-down, moody balladiers when you’ve got such crushing and biting songs in the rest of the discography.
It helps, then, that before the year closed Sylosis managed to sneak out another stomper of a song in “Worship Decay“. Added to the already beefy Cycle Of Suffering material, you wind up with a hefty fifty-five minutes or so of music from this band. It’s been a hell of a return and one that I’ve been thrilled to see.
12) Gaerea – Limbo
Portuguese black metallers Gaerea continue to shroud themselves in mystery, veiled and dressed solely in void. If there were a band out there that felt like a perfect almagamation of everything going through the black metal scene now, Gaerea would be a prime example. Having managed to take their excess of pessimism and nihilism and channel it into music, Gaerea have their fingers on the pulse of ‘now’, making music perfect for this moment in 2020.
This immensely dark and constricting form of black metal coalesced perfectly into Limbo. which saw release at the tail end of July via Season Of Mist and jams a weighty fifty-plus minutes of music across six songs and a few portmanteau of words for song titles. It’s tempting to paint a group like Gaerea as being a spectacle of pomp and circumstance with budget placed over music – and they do have some very nice outfits – but in order to do so you’d have to basically ignore an album like Limbo, whose music makes time absolutely soar by in a suffocating maelstrom of sound, shaded by bleak atmospheres and fueled by the occasional fiery updraft.
Our personal love affair with the group can be traced back quite a ways in their career but if you want a deeper dive into Limbo on its own than I can play at here, Andy dove head-long into Limbo’s swirling abyss right around the time it saw release.
It is an expansive album, multi-layered and dangerous in a way that’s difficult not to get dragged into. “To Ain” may be a ten-minute song but that song is a musical journey as it contorts and changes its sound from the overwhelming blast assault up-front to its post-black segment toward the end, and on to that final immolation. Many of the songs on Limbo make the same trek through darkened wastelands but every time they go there, you’ll get drawn in again.
I may derive some amusement from the band having nearly an hour’s worth of music here, but Limbo is an album that I spin when I want to make that hour vanish. How Gaerea manage to keep every song its own dynamic monster is worthy of applause as well. It’s why they’ve ascended to the upper reaches of my year-end list, because making gigantic songs like this and keeping them interesting throughout is a goddamned difficult task. The way “Conspiranoia” stretches out during its intro is fantastic, and I’m fond of just about any time a band give their rhythm section a chance to contribute a solid rumble to a disc, especially as the near-apocalyptic guitar work echoes its way out over the top of it.
Limbo is easily one of the standout releases for the year, and every commendation it receives is well-deserved, although the obvious question of ‘well, how the hell are they going to keep this up?’ is now one of the most daunting things a band can face. But hell, if they manage to just make Limbo 2 the next time they’re able to emerge from the depths, I’ll probably be okay with that as well.
11) Ulcerate – Stare Into Death And Be Still
If you had to make a wild guess at a disc popping up near my top ten, given how they always seem to camp out in the upper reaches of my year-end lists, Ulcerate would be a pretty easy one to go for. It helps, though, that the New Zealand dissonant death metallers seem to keep finding new ways to draw me into their darkest reaches whenever a new album comes out.
Even though the band have often existed in a universe of all their own making – usually located in a cave next door to where you’re listening, going by the suffocating audio quality – the group’s latest album Stare Into Death And Be Still is one of their higher-ranking ones with me. I loved Vermis quite a bit but will openly admit that Ulcerate have long been executors of a very specific and very appealing style. They don’t do singles and rarely do they do differing albums. They’ve been working from one very specific musical point and building giant levels of abyssal death metal, deeper than the Marianas Trench.
You’re supposed to drown in their music. It’s why each song seems to be the vocalist roaring up-front before being run over by his own drummer. Yet Vermis is kind of a darker and moodier twin of The Destroyers Of All, and Shrines Of Paralysis felt like the even more mature sibling of the two that happened to have a taste for a minor hook every once in a blue moon. It’s probably why people were so drawn to the closing few minutes of “Extiniguished Light” and how there is actually a very small melodic line bleeding its way into the walls of the previously impenetrable fortress that is most Ulcerate music. Which could partially explain Stare Into Death And Be Still, where in the four years since it feels like Ulcerate decided to continue with that specific trend – letting the tiniest microcosm of melody work its way into their music – while still seeking to crush listeners under the falling boulder that is every musical passage within their songs.
Stare Into Death And Be Still is still about as Ulcerate as the band can get. When you have an album consisting of eight songs each of which clears seven to eight minutes, then you can rely on the fact that Ulcerate will have plenty of moments throughout that consist of huge bellowed lyrics, rapid-fire drumming with an enormous guitar sound over the top of it, and then repeat. The lumbering nature of Ulcerate’s movement is still present throughout Stare Into Death And Be Still, so it fits perfectly into the niche that the band have carved out for themselves.
The closing three songs wound up sticking with me far more than expected. “Drawn Into The Next Void” as a whole just seemed magnetic and, like many of the songs on the album, where Ulcerate manage to take the song for its closing few minutes was more than enough to keep me interested throughout the rest. That’s actually one of the main drivers on the songs here: Hearing how a song starts and then listening to where Ulcerate take the thing by the end of it is part of the ‘fun’ – if only because any minor change or addition of differing sounds to the Ulcerate blueprint can often seem like a world-changing experience.
Our review of Stare Into Death found this record to be one of their best efforts to date, and I’m inclined to agree. You can easily do well with Ulcerate’s releases, as the changes between each disc aren’t drastic. They’re all huge monoliths built to crush, overwhelm, and suffocate. It’s just that Stare Into Death And Be Still happens to be the most dynamic among them.