ULTHAR – Anthronomicon (2023)REVIEW

What I have found is so singular, and so contrary to all past experience and expectations, that it deserves a very careful description.H.P. Lovecraft b/w Kenneth Sterling, In the Walls of Eryx (1939)

Ruptures, tremors rattle from below as the dual-godhede chews itself shoulder-to-shoulder in an concerted effort to decapitate its twinned realities by thousand toothed gnaw and flows of molten salivary crimson. Upon returning to the cellar-bound portal, curling every hair in my ear in terrified curiosity, I witness the faint obsidian glint of a fang-carved labyrinth unto the stone corpse of the Earth, I… Before I tried to tunnel in, before all was lost in the void of the nightmare these preparatory notes are meant to survive, a report to be made before these hallucinations become too intense for the pen-hand. The only finite element of my visions is the crucifying gaze of reality shining in behind me, a shaft of light that gradually blurs into the eternal night underfoot. Jagged stairways ‘ready bear moisture and moss-slicked pathway too treacherous to dare with any sanity in skull yet the foreboding curses of a thousand sightless, nameless creatures in congress (or, combat) churn in the din of the crooked abysm which United States avant-garde blackened kosmische death metal trio Ulthar conjures, willing I step down into this third impossible journey with eyes and heartbeat boggled near death. ‘Anthronomicon‘ is a fearsome, ever-beckoning portal, a gateway to repeatedly transgress into delirium, an ‘old school’ feeling technical death metal adventure with fluid strikes of black metallic envenomed voicing which wrestles loose from the fray with beauteous space ambiance whenever possible. Approach without confidence, stalk the shadows if you will, and await the eager revelation of long-silhouetted horrors, the coming legion of riffs.

Surrealism, cosmic horror, the supernatural landscapes of classic avant-garde death metal and the more technical fluidity of elite-thrashing black metal all coalesce to form the shared basal ingenuity which has served Ulthar their intense and unique shapeliness since forming in 2014. As is the case with any great idea the resolution and precision of its core concept have each steadily improved with iteration and revision as the trio of guitarist/co-vocalist Shelby Lermo (Vastum, Human Corpse Abuse), bassist/vocalist Steve Peacock (MasterySpirit Possession) and drummer Justin Ennis (Vale, ex-Mutilation Rites) now represent a brilliant fused colossus of forms rather than a clash of coincidentally relevant idylls. Though I hadn’t heard of their self-titled demo (‘Ulthar‘, 2016) until reviewing their debut LP, ‘Cosmovore‘, favorably back in 2018 their whole gig was an easy sell as a standout presentation after a full year of average ‘old school’ throwback records hitting peak glut. Between my review of Ulthar‘s debut and the follow-up with their second LP ‘Providence‘ in 2020 the gist of the band’s sound was easily communicated and the stymieing effect of listening ideally came across as a maze-like concoction of forms and the only major point to make with album number three is that here we get the coronal discharge of their potential, the flaring of the concept into mastery. Take note that while the fourth album (‘Helionomicon‘) is a sister-paired event I will approach it as a chronological ‘next’ beyond this one, a separate and equally considered piece of Ulthar‘s progression though both were recorded (Kevin Bernsten @ Developing Nations b/w Adam Tucker @ Signaturetone) in early 2022 and share two halves of one complete cover image (once again via Ian Miller.)

“Cephalophore” is the big riff opener, an immediately engaging composition weilding burly death metal groove within the eerie waltz of early 90’s death metal bombast, slithering out blackened shapes which read as tech-fingered black/thrash raving. If there was a way to sum the meeting of minds here we should consider the fusion-fleet arrangements of Absu and the crushing weird of Adramelech at their most brutal to start. Ulthar might still warrant some comparison with the grooving, swinging Finndeath-assisted crumble of ‘Manor of Infinite Forms‘ on some level but this is a convenient way to suggest how easily they make a connection to start before proceeding to remind that they’ve been constructing their own language out of decentralized black and death metal forms for a few of albums now. What once resembled Morbid Angel at their most dissonant and technical (per ‘Cosmovore‘) with some heavy-nods to the irrational bounding of Demilich (per ‘Providence‘) now produces a sleekened, more tightly synchronized flow of ideas. As we reach a first peak of primeval, diabolic glory in the full listen, “Saccades“, and begin to further divorce from these old references the point of no return emerges and Ulthar finally have the Rosetta stone chipped out in terms of incorporate black metal into their work which goes beyond asides, rants and transitional finagling. It should prove a point of pause for most any black/death metal fan to hear the two vocalists trade-off in such a seamless series of quick changes within the song, I’d definitely hit repeat on “Saccades” several times just to parse how they’d steered through this intensity. This song (along with “Cephalophore”) also features another dark/space ambient moment to end, recalling the immersive effect similarly-set passages had on the experience of ‘Með hamri‘ a couple of months ago.

Where do the more exciting comparisons to Atrocity’s ‘Hallucinations‘ factor in this time? Mid-album for sure as out jet beyond Side A focuses on the thrashing-yet-thinking riffcraft Ulthar especially excel within as we race through the gamut of “Flesh Propulsion” with considerable momentum and crack right into one of my favorite pieces on the album “Astranumeral Octave Chants”. Simply put, while ‘Helionomicon‘ is just as well a “riff” record in most respects ‘Anthronomicon‘ finds the grinding, elite intensity of the riffcraft a worthy obsession from my point of view. There are more details to parse on Side B, such as the triumphal semi-melodic riffs that build in the final third of “Coagulation of Forms”, but I think it is work pointing directly to the point where I was sunken into this experience, entrenched and transfixed on how different the experience was compared to the vexing, confusing disorder of ‘Providence‘, by comparison ‘Anthronomicon’ is thrashed-forth, directive at all points but still willing to interrupt itself with a breakthrough thought. This might’ve been a point to start fussing with keyboards, or, to begin to play with more pronounced variety in bass guitar tones/placement for many bands but Ulthar do not step into said prog-death abyss and instead opt to keep the ear engaged with an unperturbed death-thrashing focus.

“Larynx Plateau” resolves a bit of the previously mentioned quasi-Finnish death metal influenced meander one continues to expect from the band, pulling back into some similar shapes found on opener “Cephalophore” for transition between this technically finessed but still ‘old school’ kicked feeling. Natural to the character of ‘Anthronomicon‘ as it will appear at a glance, this song is a major peak in the action, a pool of physically-charged riffcraft which ensures the listening experience does not blur into mush as we reach deep into it’s second half, instead the band’s efforts intensify to a mutiny of decidedly non-meandering forms as decisive brutal actions begin to pile, groove and invaginate as the massive weight of closer “Cultus Quadrivium” hammers down. Even beyond the death of the song the moment doesn’t seem to have passed as jamming continues on the background while the dark ambiance cedes to a moment of closure. I’d taken this as a sign that Ulthar were on such a roll here that they’d just as well could keep going. Of course, sure, well they did keep going with ‘Helionomicon‘ but that’ll be the subject of a separate review.

By offering just enough respite between these technically marvelous, knotted absorptions of black and death metal abstraction Ulthar present a welcoming challenge, a thinking man’s death metal record which reads as avant-garde to the classicist and curiously memorable beyond the expectations of the established fan. ‘Anthronomicon‘ is neither a clash of ideals nor a compromise in its stylized ‘structurally sound expressionist’ take on black/death concurrence and in this way it manages to stick in mind while also beguiling, engaging the senses in an intoxicating way when left to rouse on repeat. I’m no less enthused about my time with this third full-length than I’d been with the past two, in fact it can only read as an ideal progression forth to anyone already invested in their discography. A very high recommendation.

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