The swell of dramatic death surrounds with immediate claustrophobia inducing horror, a bolt of morbidity that’d shake the shoulders of denial back towards the realization that death is a constant and altruistic reality and not some inescapable bone-rattling fiend. Befriending the reaper is a matter of balancing darkness with the over-emphasized light of empathy for the sake of revealing the full dynamic range of hues available to the human mind, anything less is a fool’s self-obsessed delusion of immortality and/or dreadful self importance. Live with death in mind and life’s shape malleable in hand — Fine-tuning the effector within is as much ‘purpose’ as any person could ask among the living and with time an inevitable definition will arrive for the aching, aimless ‘self’. Auckland, New Zealand based death metal trio Ulcerate would find life-and-death affirming definition in the tides of the unorthodox roughly a decade into their efforts by way of loosening the rigidity of their technical death metal beginnings and steeping within the blackened tea of future-consciousness. Having arrived upon distinction and importance a decade ago, a venerated being since, it’d take some years of meditation before the waves of this sixth full-length, ‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’, would become its mountainous presence today. The potent essence of Ulcerate is yet a dark liquid force freed of all confining forces on this masterfully achieved hour-long pour, unarguably a new high point within their already considerable body of work.
To have loved the expansive universe of all forms of extreme metal two decades ago and felt great frustration for the boxed-in limitations of orthodoxy in the late 90’s bears a great appreciation for what musicians are doing today, performing every possible splicing of sub-genre a thousand times over in search of fleeting golden moments. The alchemy of it all is akin to observing a visualization of a particle physics lecture on LSD where the nature of all things is minimized for perspective and then expanded to all known things, a revelation that is nigh religious in application. Where Ulcerate fits into these last two decades is certainly both a catalyst and folded creation, an early 2000’s technical death metal band that’d come into broader view just beyond innovations from tail-end Gorguts (see: ‘From Wisdom to Hate’), Immolation‘s mind-bending ‘Unholy Cult’, and Portal‘s ahead of its time ‘Seepia‘. Nothing so profound would come from Ulcerate just yet as their first demo (‘The Coming of Genocide‘, 2004) was current in style but not yet so profoundly experimental, nor was their debut full-length (‘Of Fracture and Failure‘, 2007) which felt entirely solid but unexceptional for its time. For the nostalgic fellow such as myself that debut is the kind of technical death metal I can still easily tuck into today and be sated by its brutal-yet-performative strokes. At this point in time Deathspell Omega would forever alter the extreme metal landscape with their fourth album ‘Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum‘ and those techniques continue to permeate and influence both black and death metal worlds exponentially since, including Ulcerate.
The lifecode that would serve the then formally solidified trio with purpose was established on their second album (‘Everything is Fire‘, 2009) where technique, distinction, atmosphere, and contemplative nihilistic headspace all arrived as a breakthrough moment. That second album tends to be the agreed upon ‘classic’ from Ulcerate’s discography but I’d suggest that it was merely a step in the right direction, the right modus but not yet the complete picture of their evolution. It’d be the next album (‘The Destroyers of All‘, 2011) where discordant runs, technical blackened death guitar runs, and a shedding of aging technical death metal battery would actualize Ulcerate‘s sonic identity. That moment or, point of evolution, is most related to what ‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’ is doing today as a redirection back to more evocative, confident pieces that aren’t as bloated and insistently challenging as their recent two album run on Relapse with ‘Vermis‘ (2013) and ‘Shrines of Paralysis‘ (2016).
Today Ulcerate are a known and revered force — A recognizable standout that is easily identified from a line-up for their original take on fluid and destructive blackened post-death metal riffing that rings out and rains down sorrowful dread, punishing and scintillating in spurts. At some point folks began to equate the hulking mass of atmospheric sludge and/or post-metal with the band’s sound and that’d be fair to a certain point on the previous two full-lengths but it does not necessarily apply to the bleak rush of liquid blackness that is ‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’. Unorthodox death metal, post-death metal, technical death metal, blackened atmospheric technical death metal, however you might describe the actual technique and style employed by Ulcerate it is worth reiterating that a distinct presence within the now completely overpopulated realm they inhabit is a rare feat that deserves some meditative appreciation. The ringing sway of album opener “The Lifeless Advance” immediately signifies both signature Ulcerate guitar work from Michael Hoggard and immediate shades of ‘The Destroyers of All’ where movement was less impeded by sludged-out atmospheric density than the two albums that’d followed it. As the tracklist itself advances it becomes clear that ‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’ is not only the biggest, longest and most detailed work from the band but also that it works best as a complete and unified full listen. Each track certainly does work as a standalone experience in preview but the flow from piece to piece is so masterfully interlocked that to break the full hour into portions is merely a mercy afforded any lacking attention span.
The first single and title track, “Stare Into Death and Be Still”, is probably the most demanding and taxing piece of the full listen not only for its length and complexly lain dynamic but for its crushing nihilistic prose, an acknowledgement of hopelessness and paean to the defeat of not only mankind but life itself. If the album title wasn’t clear enough, the central theme of the album is not only acceptance of death into the natural order of things but an embrace of death so that it might be a constant companion to life. Beyond the sheer destruction of the song therein lies some of the strongest guitar hooks of the experience, bearing all of the massively heavy sluice one would expect from Ulcerate but written in an ornate throng of riff that begins to soar within the nearly 9 minute song’s clearest apices. For the first several listens of the album much of the experience began to blur together into one great mass of permutations, it became pertinent to pause and consider the intended weight of each listen instead of over-analyzing the complex stream that it presents in sepia tone. The trade-off made here essentially swaps some matter of distinction for cerebral immersion by way of implied motion, there is no reigning in the full listen and it must be adapted to if you are the type of listener who eagerly listens for standout heavy metal riffs first and foremost.
“Drawn Into the Next Void” is, for my own taste, the quintessential argument for this album being the finest work from Ulcerate to date as it might not be the most memorable piece up front but by the time I’d spun through ‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’ ten times it’d begin to embody all of the newly opened doors for the future of the band as well as celebrating the most effective points of distinction for the bands style up to this point in time. It’d almost feel counter intuitive to see waves of the future in such a brutally final, destructive set of songs but it does manifest as a much needed vaulting point into the future for a band that’ve jogged in place since 2013 or so. When weighing innovative strength versus memorability, complex but intuitive patternation versus musical value, and any number of variables it becomes impossible to consider this album perfect but it is most certainly enlightened and essential listening for extreme music fandom in 2020. What appears as a bleak sea of oily death sprayed uncontrollably eventually solidifies into an opus that’d accept death for the master that it is. The full score I’ve given the album suggests a highest recommendation for soaking in the future-thinking and deeper actualized self of Ulcerate as much as it implies my own sensorial enjoyment of the experience.
Highest recommendation. 5.0/5.0
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