Anger. It’s one of the unifying themes of extreme metal. Anger against authority is perhaps most common. Anger at parents, anger at priests, anger at politicians. Anger against certain particular non-authority people comes up now and then, particularly with “non-political” bands, cough cough. But the ultimate fury? That’s reserved for anger at existence itself.
Ulcerate are a death metal trio from New Zealand, and their music has been alternately described as “technical death metal,” some combination of “Immolation + Blut Aus Nord,” and “the world’s fastest drone band.” Stare Into Death and Be Still is their sixth full length album. Drummer Jamie Saint Merat, who also produced, mixed, and mastered the album, is widely considered one of the most mechanically impressive drummers in death metal today, which is where much of the “Tech death” narrative arises. But if you’ve heard Ulcerate before, you know that the band shares less in common with bands like Spawn of Possession and Decrepit Birth than they do with far-afield weirdos like Portal or Dodecahedron. And if you haven’t heard Ulcerate before, welcome to the furnace.
Stare Into Death and Be Still is eight songs and fifty-eight and a half minutes. The shortest song, “Visceral Ends,” is five minutes forty seconds, while the longest (penultimate track “Drawn Into the Next Void”) is eight minutes thirty-seven seconds. This is music that seethes and writhes; a twisting fury that is just as likely to drown you with dense tremolos and blasts as sprinkle sparkling harmonics and cymbal trills amidst the wreckage. The tonal center of Ulcerate’s music is dark and fiery, ringing out in minor keys and adding bright tension with diminished and augmented high register notes. It’s important to appreciate this music for what it is, though, rather than be disappointed by what it is not. Ulcerate doesn’t write riffs that invite you to headbang or thrash around in the way that Immolation does. Their songs don’t have the sharp prickles and jabs of a band like Portal, nor the raw noise you’d find in a Teitanblood album. Instead, Stare Into Death and Be Still carries you like an ocean wave, flowing back and forth to reinforce the mood over and over until you are overwhelmed by the anger that hates and rages but cannot move.
The songs on Stare Into Death and Be Still are much sparser than what we heard from the band on 2016’s Shrines of Paralysis. Listen instead to the subtle build in “Inversion,” where Michael Hoggard and Paul Kelland layer guitars and bass in giant stacked chords that St Merat plays stick-destroying tom runs before the first vocal completely changes the pace of the song at 2:10. When high speed bursts of verse fade back down to the chords that opened the song, “Visceral Ends” immediately follows up with one of the most spacious, grandiose songs the band has ever penned. This is black metal, with old school blast beats and frigid tremolos. This is death metal’s dark bellows and double bass thunder. This is Ulcerate at the top of their form.
The album is the strongest batch of songs the trio has put together since 2009’s Everything Is Fire. It seems that the move from Relapse Records to Debemur Morti Productions, itself primarily a black metal label, has done the band well creatively. Everyone has stepped up their technical game on this album, particularly Paul, who is becoming much more proficient as a vocalist. The lyric sheets have all been provided for the album, so you can more fully take in the themes. “No worth remains of this condemned existence, Soon to be annulled” says the title track. A grim message fitting for the time in which this album comes into the world.
If you’re already a fan of Ulcerate, Stare Into Death and Be Still will delight your ears and most likely make it into permanent rotation in your collections. But if you’ve given the band a pass before, or perhaps were disappointed in the last few albums, I urge you to come back with fresh ears, because this is the best the band has been in a long time, if not ever.