Ulthar – Providence (2020)REVIEW

Turbulence effervesces beneath still waters, impenetrable and black yet recognizably swirling all the same. Each bursting sphere a scream of horror signaling a second dream cycle spiked and torn from the flesh-bound pages of Oakland, California blackened death metal trio Ulthar‘s head-turning Lovecraft obsession. Each a notable figure in extreme metal, three cult and chasm-born bearers birth into eternally twisted form ‘Providence’, an eight part ode to a place of sordid life and sickened death for the frail, emotional and unrecognized master of cosmicism. Known for their myriad anti-formulaic output in their separate worlds Ulthar is an inversion of known worlds, a motion that moves left when the mind divines right and plunges downward, ever-sinking when the eyes begin to beg their gaze towards the heavens; That inverse sight and motion helps ‘Providence’ to illustrate set and setting with greater florid expression, beyond angular death metal that reaches a point of violent refraction before it shatters all mental fortitude.

Just as a Y’golonac takes the form of mangled corpulent flesh-horrors through projection beyond his subterranean encasement so projects many faces, fangs, and ropy-legged gnashing monstrosities from the two-headed howling beast of Ulthar who’d capably flit between the blackened specialty of Steve Peacock (Mastery, Spirit Possession) and dead maestro Shelby Lermo (Vastum, Extremity) each possessing traits you’ll recognize from their better known projects yet a great deal of credit goes to drummer Justin Ennis (Void Omnia, Vale) for pushing transitions between each strong personality into real sense and structure that’d make knowable the seeming unfathomable abyss of ‘Providence’. As a follow-up to their debut (‘Cosmovore‘, 2018) this second album considers the frantic blackened realms of black/death metal with forbidden knowledge, now partially derived from war-like forms, more pronounced in hand; This leads to moments of most classic battery as well as some measure of challenging strokes thrilling enough for cosmically-adrift technical metal fiends but spreading their chaos with enough feral energy to avoid a sterile product. In this sense ‘Providence’ is an invasive species rooted in one place yet spreading rather than a wandering ghast assimilating victims in the night.

Though they’d stricken iron sounding like Outer Heaven high on ‘Nespithe’ and ‘Drought’ to start Ulthar‘s swing towards better integration between old school technical death metal and modernist black metal appears to have been a matter of sound design and more intentional integrative diversification. The pronounced and bassy Tomb Mold-esque wallop of ‘Cosmovore’ now wrangles its corpse away from the phrasal side of Finnish death metal and towards their intense (later) Absu-esque side. This is key distinction from the direction I’d figured ‘Cosmovore’ was headed, unto a twist upon Demilichian forms, and I am pleased to find Ulthar making their own complexly stated take on blackened and hysteric death metal. Modern death metal most often appears as an exhibition of taste, of borrowed elements easily discerned by generations old and new, and this ultimately wears upon the individual. ‘Providence’ is all the more riveting for its dance between blackened death extremes with little direct care given to plainly referential songwriting. To not receive yet another curation of tradition is gift enough but the uniquely frantic, rumbling-yet-fastidious nature of their music is still not ‘catchy’ or memorable beyond a few songs that break out into special or notable moments.

“Undying Sphere” earns all manner of extra points from me for its acoustic introduction, spiraling through technical death interpretation rather than the usual finger-picked metal nonsense. This not only sets the mood for the piece but outlines the greater riff structures deployed on the undeniable standout piece. Fans of ‘Cosmovore’ might not have expected this much of a turn away from the incessant technicality and stream of conscious insanity of that first album but, I believe most will see the value in the focused intensity of ‘Providence’. “Through Downward Dynasties” offers a gluey thread from beyond ’til today once past its tension-building introduction, the excitement of striking into those first riffs and then riding the technical flash of their waves forth helps to justify comparisons to early Atrocity, and peak The Chasm at certain points, minus the overt nods to classic heavy metal. Side B ends up being where my allegiances lie this time around as the fittingly titled “Cudgel” introduces some of their technical side before my favorite piece, “Furnace Hibernation”, captures a bit of Obliveon‘s ‘Nemesis’ (or, alternately classic Voivod) in the jogging rhythms and discordant snaking flourishes atop those driven, thrashing rhythms. The apex of this evolution is the kaleidoscopic storm of riff and tear presented by “Human Knot”, it may lean towards the Vastum-esque side of things at times but this is surely one of the most intense and exciting pieces of the lot. More importantly it serves as a surge of energy pushing towards repeated listens, which is where I find each Ulthar release thrives best, spinning over and over until it whirls into a hailstorm sense.

Driving towards a recommendation becomes daunting when weighing my own interest in obscure and detailed extreme metal versus the typified reaction to music without instantly knowable forms. Ulthar have collectively provided more chances for an “Ah ha!” moment, such as the very lucid black metal roll of “Undying Spear” or the bounding n’ slashing ear-catching riffs of “Through Downward Dynasties”, yet this sort of album is meant to mush together towards the brink of insanity until it pours out its great meaning beyond. Building up the antibodies necessary to generate sense of the frantic, blackened and shifting techno-voracious beast at hand will boil down to user’s preexisting experience, those who’d lean towards classic technical death metal, modern futuristic black metal, and Eldritch spectacle within those classic forms. Beyond a studied ear and the hooks provided it bear some weight that Earhammer Studios/Signaturetone Recording have crisped and gnarled Ulthar‘s sound to some greater differentiation than their previous album, warming it to a fiery blast that’ll likely pull in more black metal fans than ‘Cosmovore’ did. Not to mention Ian Miller‘s gloriously menacing genitalia-stuffed tree creature on the cover, sepia-toned and surrounded by well-drained corpses, should be a great pull for folks even slightly as deranged as I am. A very high recommendation, despite the lack of truly ‘catchy’ moments the full listen writhes between well-chosen style and extreme metal’s performative textures, it bears the mark of an album with some solid repeatability.

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Artist Ulthar
Type Full-length
Released June 12, 2020
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Genre Blackened Death Metal

Very high recommendation. 4.5/5.0

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