originally written by Chris McDonald
As modern death metal continues to push the envelope of demanding musicianship, overbearingly complex song-structures, and pristine production, one eventually has to ask, “Where do we go from here?” What is left to accomplish in a genre where superficial qualities are often placed above real compositional prowess? At what point does death metal move beyond the role of mere auditory violence and become a means of genuine artistic expression?
The answer to this question lies in bands like Ulcerate. Beginning their career as a fairly straightforward brutal death metal band in their demo phase, this New Zealand-based outfit ventured into increasingly complex and esoteric territories with their debut LP Of Fracture and Failure, which happened to land them the attention of Willowtip Records. While their debut full-length explored a harsh and fairly unconventional style of death metal, I never would have believed that it would evolve into something this dark, distinctive, and utterly fantastic. Ulcerate’s progression into their current state may not be too radical a departure stylistically, but that doesn’t mean I was any more prepared for what this enigmatic group had in store for me this time.
Everything Is Fire is, without question, one of the bleakest albums I’ve ever heard. Every aspect of this work, from the cataclysmic music to the distant vocals and unrepentantly nihilistic lyrical themes, feels vivid and alarmingly convincing. Even someone unwilling to appreciate the artistic merit of death metal would be hard-pressed to argue that the guys in Ulcerate approach their craft with almost unnerving sincerity. There is absolutely nothing remotely tongue-in-cheek or feigned about this album, and this is what makes it so simultaneously frightening and powerful.
Music-wise, Ulcerate forgo the dry production and self-indulgent musicianship of their peers in favor of something less immediate but massively intense. Imagine the leering dissonance of Deathspell Omega channeled through the overactive maelstrom of Gorguts and delivered with the off-kilter savagery of Immolation, and you have at least a basic idea of what to expect. But obviously written descriptions cannot really do this album justice. Throughout the entirety of this disc it feels like the band is trying to musically simulate the apocalypse—whirlwinds of incredibly precise snare rolls and blastbeats back a constantly shifting bedlam of atonal chords and furiously discordant tremolo riffs, occasionally broken up by brief moments of quiet reflection before the looming pandemonium returns. The way the band seamlessly transitions into the calmer moments of clean guitar and jazzy rhythm work greatly increases their effectiveness, and these intermissions are all the more impressive considering how well-suited they feel in the context of the punishing overall sound.
And punishing it is. In case you hadn’t guessed, Everything Is Fire is a brutally unforgiving listen. Even for someone well accustomed to the more challenging strains of death metal, this record will take some time to show its true colors. But let me assure you that it’s completely worth the effort. Ulcerate’s ability to craft unexpected hooks and jaw-dropping instrumental dynamics is even more amazing considering how unstructured the songs initially seem. The two guitar tracks rarely mimic each other in the riffing patterns, each exploring and repeating their own individual themes while occasionally reuniting to deliver a bone-chilling tremolo flourish or jagged harmonic in unison before descending back into the ordered chaos. When the band does flirt with actual melody, such as the segments of haunting serenity offered in “Withered And Obsolete” and “The Earth At Its Knees,” it feels like a brief pause in a furious thunderstorm when the sun finally manages to penetrate the clouds, offering a fleeting glimpse of relief before being swallowed back up again in the uproar of lurching grooves and sudden tempo shifts. A fairly murky and raw production places the vocals and percussion more in a supporting role, despite being admirably performed; this is undoubtedly a guitar-centered album, and as such the guitars are given enough room in the mix to shake you with their force while still revealing their innumerable subtleties, while the merciless drums seemingly follow a path all their own. In short, Ulcerate are not only masters of their individual instruments, but of focusing their collective abilities to create music that transcends the limits of its respective genre to become something greater.
Let me stress again; do not take this record lightly. Those looking for anything less than a demanding listening venture would be well advised to search elsewhere for their death metal fix. But anyone willing to properly invest themselves in this album will know that Ulcerate have delivered something amazing and, dare I say it, visionary with their efforts here. Rarely do I hear extreme metal so deep and engrossing, so chaotic on the surface and yet so meticulously calculated underneath. Aside from being as brutally heavy as anything you’ll hear this year, Everything Is Fire is a bold look into the darkest abysses of the human psyche, communicated through music so technically articulate and seething with rage that it commands your utmost attention. So lock yourself in your room, turn the lights off, get some good headphones, and experience this album, as it demands to be experienced.