In island ecosystems, particularly ones existing in a degree of significant isolation from a nearby mainland, evolution has a tendency to bend and distort in interesting ways. In New Zealand for example, some prehistoric animals that existed in Europe and Asia grew much larger, and predators that may not have dominated in those more heterogeneous landscapes were wilder and more savage. Apparently, this geographic dynamic has not changed through the millennia.
Where modern day heavy music is concerned, both Australia and New Zealand have been churning out some of the most uniquely morose, savage, and unrelenting metal bands of the past decade at a minimum – bands that are nothing like their mainland counterparts. One great example of this is Australia’s Portal, a band that essentially drowns listeners in a pool of churning tar. Great as they are however, this ain’t their party.
We are instead here to applaud their neighbors to the southeast – New Zealand’s Ulcerate, who are releasing a new record titled Shrines of Paralysis on 10/28 via Relapse Records. Ulcerate inhabit the same gloom infested territory as the aforementioned Portal, albeit with a completely different spin on the topography. Where Portal churns and menaces, Ulcerate blasts and devours.
Formed way back in 2000 by guitarist Michael Hoggard and the truly unique Jamie Saint Merat on drums, the band has four other records under their belt, the latest being the stellar 2013 release Vermis. That record was also issued by Relapse, and it was the release that turned me into a fan of Ulcerate’s signature maze of dark and twisting soundscapes. Back when I first heard that record I remember someone telling me they were a “death metal band, but not really”, which is a surprisingly accurate description. That is to say; Ulcerate is obviously death metal and it has all the elements – blasting snare and relentless double bass pedal pounding, guttural vocals, and dense, technical guitar riffs – but something is off, someone put acid in this batch and the trip is going bad fast. The riffs flail and bend in intricate movements throughout each composition, sometimes rushing in torrents of dissonance and grime and other times lumbering and roaring until they exhaust themselves in gritty little scrapes of atonal texture, like walking through a fog made of broken glass.
On Shrines of Paralysis, Ulcerate doesn’t deviate much from their tried and true methodologies, preferring to expand their sound in increments, rather than leaps. Regardless, they have managed to craft a complex and challenging sonic journey through tense and brooding territory. Album opener Abrogation comes blasting off the starting line, all pummeling rhythm and twinkling dissonance from the word go. In just short of 6 minutes, the track traverses all kinds of hostile ground alternating between staccato guitar lines made even more frenetic by bursts of actually insane drumming and almost languid, bending riffs that engender a feeling of truly primeval despair.
This track is followed by the exceptional Yield to Naught, which is singularly monstrous. The song is an unrelenting roar of disgust from beginning to end, interrupted only by a riff just before the 4:00 minute mark that is so massive it sounds like Moby Dick swallowing a barge full of lead.
Shrines of Paralysis continues in this pattern for the duration with few exceptions. Mid-album track Bow to Spite is one of those. Clocking in at just under 2 minutes, the entire song is basically one riff, pinioned by a filth laden bassline and restrained drumming, with the guitars providing a waving textural gloom that undulates weirdly below the growl and echo of the vocals.
In moments, Ulcerate can be reminiscent of other great contemporary heavy bands, frequently recalling the bizzare and chaotic structures of Gorguts, or occasionally the dynamic and textural aptitude of mid-career Neurosis. The standout track on Shrines of Paralysis – Extinguished Light, fits that bill. The song is a 9 minute long salvo of every weapon in the band’s formidable arsenal. The entire atmosphere of the song ripples with dissonance and an underlying sense of something awful lurking beneath the surface. Periodically, a gigantic riff that had been waiting in the shadows shambles into the foreground and shows off its mutilated features before diving back into obscurity, covered again by Hoggard’s wheedling single note textures and writhing disharmonies. This song is everything Ulcerate can give you, and it hurts.
Something I have appreciated about Ulcerate since they were first introduced to me is the feeling of actual physical discomfort their music generates. Listening to them is somehow disorienting or unnatural feeling in a way that is difficult to pinpoint. At high volume, the sound envelopes and covers you, crawls up inside you like an assailant jamming a blanket down your throat until there’s no way to breathe. The dread that infuses their compositions is a visceral and primordial thing in and of itself that most other bands of their genre (whichever one that is) simply do not even approach. On the strength of that alone, Ulcerate is worth investigating, and Shrines of Paralysis is a great place to start.
Bottom line: Ulcerate has again demonstrated their ability to produce darkly complex and uncompromising music that engages the listener on a physical level, challenging them to keep their head above the murk somehow. Shrines of Paralysis sees the band building on the foundations provided by their previous records and honing their unique sound to a finer, sharper, more deadly point.
Release Date: 10/28/16
Favorite Tracks: Yield to Naught, Extinguished Light