A Token of My Extreme: Ulcerate- Everything is Fire (2009)
Willowtip Records; September/October 2008
Okay class, time for a show of hands. How many of you like post-rock? You know, long expanses of vocalless, languorous ambience and slowly building drums followed by loud climaxes designed to either leave you feeling like you were crushed under a giant boot or ascending into heaven?
Okay. Now, how many of you like technical death metal? Onslaughts of crushing odd-time guitar riffs, finger-flying wanktastic solos, relentless blastbeats and a vocalist that sounds like a cross between the Cookie Monster on a particularly aggressive bender and an African rhino in heat?
Fewer hands this time. How many of you like both?
Now, what that unnecessary and somewhat contrived opening was supposed to illustrate is that Kiwi 4-piece Ulcerate (somewhat lame name I know, but par for the course in this genre) are definitely not a band for everyone. Hardcore metalheads might be put off by the (relative) lack of technicality posed by the occasional medium-length breaks into doomy atmosphere, the total lack of solos, and maybe even the song lengths (all over five minutes, with the title track approaching eight), while the typical, more intellectual post-rock fan may dislike this band for... well, everything else.
BUT... if you're that fan of bands like Isis who lean toward the harder side of the post-rock spectrum and wanted to know what they'd sound like if their primary influences were Gorguts, Cryptopsy and Immolation instead of Godflesh and Mogwai, Everything Is Fire will leave you writhing in ecstasy. I haven't heard many albums this intent and purposeful in a long time, and from only a sophomore release, no less.
After hearing this album, I'm convinced that the problem that kills a lot of technical death metal albums is not so much what they're actually playing, it's how their music is mixed. Most place the largely incoherent vocals and the machine gun drums forward, which results in some excellent riffs being submerged by what are frequently the least interesting aspects of the music. Ulcerate, on the other hand, places emphasis on the guitars and their absolutely MASSIVE, all-consuming walls of distortion and thick bass, while the drummer (who is an utter machine) sits behind them and pushes the epic compositions along, switching through variations on three basic modes--minimalist ambient break, agonizing slow dirge, and blastbeat frenzy. Meanwhile, the vocalist, who is a fairly average mid-range growler, is placed deep into this hazy, hellish mix, leaving things like lyrics (which are actually pretty decent, if determinedly nihilistic and despairing) a matter of relative unimportance. I hate to use the worn-out cliche of "voice as instrument" but it applies here, and it's one more point of reference with post-rock bands that even bother to have a vocalist.
The end result of all this is thoroughly devastating in a way that most metal albums aren't. Whereas most death metal bands are loud and frenetic and busy, knobs always cranked to 11, the vast majority don't impart the single-minded atmosphere of doom and consuming hellfire Everything Is Fire attains on a regular basis (and all maintained through a very standard guitars/bass/drummer framework). And while the monolithic brutality is the first thing that comes to mind, subsequent listens reveal a surprisingly impressive degree of variety in the riffing--it's often very ominous, doomy and twisted, decaying and breaking down over the course of the song through many tempo shifts and key changes, but often eerie, slow and melodic licks will surface, as they do on parts of "Caecus" and "Tyranny." While every track is good, the primary standout (and a live staple, I'm told) is the title track--a truly epic showcase of everything this band excels in. From the gnarled opening salvo to the explosive tremelo riffing at 4:30 and the concluding roar of "EVERYTHING IS FIRE" three minutes later amid one final huge wave of distortion fading slowly into oblivion, you will shit your pants in awe.
Now that's all great, but what for the uninitiated listener?
Well, best thing I could recommend is to listen to a few songs from all the bands mentioned above--Isis, Cryptopsy, Immolation et al. Many connoisseurs of this genre would consider that a bit reductionist and lacking in the necessary context to appreciate something as extreme and specific as Everything Is Fire, but I say fuck all that. You don't have to plow through the entire history of metal for hours on end to understand this album (or particular genre, to be honest)--it's a rather visceral thing that promotes very visceral reactions, and listening to a few of those bands should be sufficient preparation. I've played this for people who normally dislike technical death metal and they've come away impressed by this band, so who knows? You may be one of those people.