Photo by Melissa Petisa
(Last Friday 20 Buck Spin released Anthronomicon and Helionomicon, the two new full-length studio offerings from West Coast blackened death metal trio ULTHAR, and today we quickly follow that with Comrade Aleks‘ genuinely fascinating interview of the band’s vocalist/guitarist Shelby Lermo.)
Shame on me! It’s easy to catch my attention if the band communicates with the cosmic horror born from the myths of H. P. Lovecraft. This reference helped me to learn about a few great bands, and Ulthar from the US is one of them now. The trio consists of Shelby Lermo (guitars, vocals), Justin Ennis (drums), and Steve Peacock (bass, vocals). Each of them have a few more bands or projects behind them, but they really put a lot of ideas and energy into Ulthar.
Their first albums Cosmovore (2018) and Providence (2020) demonstrated fanatical devotion to surrealistic and violent blackened death metal. And now 20 Buck Spin have released two new album from Ulthar at once – Anthronomicon and Helionomicon. The band chose not to release them as a double-album, as the two recordings are different entities, and of course you’ll know the reason when you read this interview with Shelby Lermo.
Hi Shelby! How are you? What’s going on in Ulthar’s lair?
Hello! I am well, thank you. Coincidentally enough, I just got back home to Virginia, after a trip out to California to rehearse with Ulthar and some other bands. It went well, Ulthar has been putting together a live set list composed of songs from Cosmovore, Providence, and Anthronomicon.
Well, nine years ago you, Steve, and Justin gathered under the Ulthar banner. Each of you had a rich background of playing extreme underground stuff. What united you back then? What was your primal motivation?
It’s a pretty simple story: I knew Justin (Ennis, drums) from booking some shows for his old band while he was living in Brooklyn. He moved to Oakland (where I lived) at the end of 2013, and I knew I wanted to play music with him. We were both fans of Steve (Peacock, bass/vocals), and his bands Pale Chalice and Pandiscordian Necrogenesis, so we asked if he wanted to play bass. He joined up, and after playing some shows, we released our first demo.
How did you manage to keep on playing together, as you live now in different States? Virginia and California are on different coasts. Is your motivation to keep the band active that high?
We send tablature and demos back and forth, then meet at our studio in Oakland whenever possible. Our goal is to still keep the band as active as possible.
How do you work over the material together? Can you tell that each of your albums is a result of collective effort, or do you have a tyrant who rules Ulthar with an iron hand?
Composition technique has changed over the years. We used to mostly collaborate in the studio, but during the writing of Providence, Steve and I started composing more at home, and just tweaking things at practice. During the writing of the new albums, I moved to Virginia (just outside of Washington DC) and Steve moved to Portland, OR, so now we split the material 50/50, writing and recording demos at home, then traveling out to the Bay Area every couple months to meet up with Justin and rehearse. We still work as a democracy, just as a remote one.
The band is named after the town in the Lovecraftian Dream Circle, and your first album Cosmovore (2018) is bound with H.P.’s myths. Which qualities of death and black metal do you see as vital regarding enhancement of the cosmic horror atmosphere?
I think we emphasize the qualities of dissonance, fractured songwriting, odd time signatures, and weird riffs to really put the emphasis on the “cosmic horror” aspect of the music. It should leave the listener in a state of uneasiness, even anxiety.
Is it about reaching this specific result or are you thrilled with this psychotic sonic slaughter?
For us, I think the music itself is the reward. We’re not necessarily setting out to make the listener feel a certain way, that’s just the typical result of the type of music we create.
A few of the Cosmovore songs have clear references to Lovecraft’s stories. Are these songs based on certain specific H.P. concepts or did you just use his images to benefit the album’s spirit?
There’s actually only one line in one song on Cosmovore with any directly Lovecraft-themed lyrics (“Entropy-Atrophy”), and the title of the song “Dunwich Whore” is just wordplay, it’s not about the Lovecraft story (spelled “Dunwich Horror”). I think the band has a certain eldritch aesthetic, thanks mostly to the amazing art of Ian Miller, but as far as inspiration goes, we’re cultivating our own mythology, not basing our music on anyone else’s ideas.
Is “Entropy-Atrophy” just a collection of images taken from Lovecraft’s stories?
No, just the one line, “Erich Zann / the terrible old man” refers to two stories, “The Music of Erich Zann” and “The Terrible Old Man”. It’s sort of a cypher, it doesn’t really pertain to anything else in the song.
Did you have a plan to develop this concept further through the sophomore album Providence (2020)? How do you see the differences between Cosmovore and Providence?
We had pretty much made the decision to leave behind any Lovecraftian trappings on Providence, and in fact the album title is a bit of an inside joke. We knew we would be dealing with the “Lovecraft band” label, and the title Providence isn’t actually about Lovecraft’s birthplace. If you read the lyrics to the song “Providence”, it’s about something else entirely. Same with “Anthronomicon” and “Helionomicon”—they sound like “Necronomicon”, but if you look at the etymology of these words, that’s not what they’re about at all.
Damn! You got me! Hah, I read the “Providence” lyrics and I had suspicions about its origin. But actually “Anthronomicon” and “Helionomicon” are consonant also to “Astronomicon”, and Ian Miller worked with the Warhammer universe as well. So “Necronomicon” was my second guess. However, what’s wrong with Lovecrfatian metal from your point of view? Too many bands praising Cthulhu and Dagon, right?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Lovecraftian metal at all. My point is just that Ulthar prefers focusing on more of our own original mythology, and not focusing on anyone else’s work too much for subject matter or inspiration. It’s fine if someone else wants to do that, though. I enjoy a lot of Lovecraftian metal, I especially enjoy the Lovecraft-obsessed album Cacophony by Rudimentary Peni.
20 Buck Spin prepared Ulthar’s two new albums Anthronomicon and Helionomicon. I see that both are presented as two separate albums even though their artworks complement each other. What’s the idea behind the release of these two albums at the same time?
Ulthar is a band that does things differently. We knew from the beginning we wanted to do two separate albums, and luckily, Dave at 20 Buck Spin supported the idea. I think the material present is conceptually and stylistically different, enough that they warrant separate releases. We even changed production techniques for each recording in the studio. But we also wanted them to retain similarities in aesthetic and artwork, and be seen as companions. Why not try something different?
Indeed! How do the productions techniques differ for these albums?
Steve used different basses and tones for both albums, and I believe Justin used a different snare and slightly different tones for both albums too. Vocal approach was different as well.
How did you manage to get the artworks by Ian Miller himself?
Very simple, I just emailed him through his website. He ended up being very friendly and wonderful to work with. Anthronomicon and Helionomicon represent the first original, commissioned pieces of art we’ve received from him, whereas the covers of the first two albums (and last year’s vinyl reissue of our 2016 demo, Nightgaunts MMXVI) were all pre-existing works that we licensed.
Yes, Nightgaunts MMXVI! You named the album after Lovecraft’s monsters, and you tell me that there’s no specific influence in your lyrics! Stop mocking people! : ) But you say that the Anthronomicon and Helionomicon artworks are original ones, so how did you discuss these artworks with Ian? Did you send him your music first?
You got me, nightgaunts are a Lovecraft creation—although I was thinking more of the song “Nightgaunts”, from the aforementioned Rudimentary Peni album, when we came up with this title. And still, there are no specific Lovecraftian lyrics on the album itself. As for the art on the new albums, Ian didn’t hear the music before creating it, we just gave him a very basic idea (“cosmic horror”) and a very general color palette, and he went to work. We’ve worked with him enough to know he’d return something amazing, no matter what we asked him for.
Anthronomicon consists of eight tracks with a “normal” duration of songs, whereas Helionomicon is two big compositions. Was it your intention to do such diverse material?
Yes, the track numbers and lengths were determined from the beginning, starting back in 2020. We knew what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it. As far as the material goes, I think Helionomicon has more breathing room, more time to expand on its themes. Which is not to say that it’s slow, or “doom metal”. It’s still 100% Ulthar, the songs are just deeper and more complex.
Well, what about the lyrics then? As I read the “Providence” lyrics, for example, I was puzzled with some texts where you don’t use verbs: “Covenant of cudgel bludgeon / Seizure sick and screaming horde / Torrential gutwrench spasm / Covenant of cudgel bludgeon”. A sort of ebullient flow of consequence.
Our lyrics tend to be pretty stream-of-consciousness. They don’t always make linear sense (or any sense at all), and they’re definitely not grammatically correct. Their meaning is often obscure or intentionally obfuscated. I think it fits the music well.
Both of the albums’ titles are obviously consonant. Do you see them as one solid piece of art or as a collection of psychic imprints and sonic images?
I think they function as both. You can listen to them together, you can listen to them separately. It’s up to the listener to decide what they mean; to me I don’t think the distinction is important.
How do you plan to support the Anthronomicon and Helionomicon releases? Do you already have some shows booked? How far do your ambitions spread regarding live shows?
Unfortunately we can’t commit to any tours at this time. About a month and a half after completing tracking for these albums, I was diagnosed with throat cancer, which was treated with radiation and chemotherapy in August and September 2022. Although things are looking good for me (I’m feeling a lot better and the treatment seems to have worked), my voice still hasn’t healed, so we’re sort of just waiting now to see what happens. We are eager to tour in support of both these new albums and Providence (which was released at the beginning of the pandemic and resultingly had all supporting tour dates cancelled), we just don’t know yet when that will be.
Hold on Shelby! I wish you to regenerate fast as well. If old guys like Dickinson and Mustain managed to do it, then I hope that your chances are even higher. Can you yield all the vocal parts to Steve for awhile?
Thanks. Unfortunately Steve doesn’t really have the range to do the low stuff (I can’t do his parts either), and I don’t want to perform as something different or less-than what our listeners have come to know as Ulthar. Rest assured, I’m working as hard as possible to get my voice back to where it was.
Ulthar’s music is refined and savage, and I believe your live performances should be pretty intense things. Do you aim to play from both albums live at once?
I can’t imagine an 80-minute Ulthar set, but maybe someday, who knows?
What are your plans for the rest of 2023?
I’ll be recording with all my other bands this year, but also returning to California to practice with Ulthar, hopefully for live engagements before too long. We’ll see.
Thanks for the interview Shelby! I hope that the next Ulthar album will come soon (and that you’ll include one real Lovecraftian song this time : )