Essential Listening: Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still

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Artist: Ulcerate
Album: Stare Into Death and Be Still

Label: Debemur Morti Productions & Eitrin Editions
Release Date: April 24, 2020

Location: Auckland, New Zealand


Modern Death Metal. It’s a subgenre that distinguishes itself from its earlier, grittier generations of death metal through a few key elements; cleaned-up production that balances instruments and vocals while sounding human enough to avoid the robo-vibe of technical death metal, constant dissonance that acts to bury melodic hooks in a few layers of shadows, and intricacy that goes beyond playing a lot of notes. It’s deeply cerebral music that makes for poor background ambiance, but instead demands active listening, searching, and contemplation. Ulcerate have achieved the pinnacle of the modern death metal sound on Stare Into Death and Be Still, but COVID-19’s untimely arrival put a damper on what I consider to be the album of 2020. We would like to provide this review, now in 2023 as our humble way of highlighting an album that we feel did not get its due at its time of birth.

The Lifeless Advance drops down from the upper atmosphere as it introduces a great snapshot of what Ulcerate does on this record – creatively intricate drumming that is constantly varying from furious to serene, droning guitars doing fairly unmusical things you probably have not heard before, and subtle-yet-present, grinding bass lines underpinning the whole affair from a conservative spot in the mix. Vocals performed by bassist Paul Kelland don’t appear immediately, but when they do, provide a commanding presence that projects deliberate control in both delivery and placement. Kelland doesn’t sound like he’s trying to do too much – an all too common shortcoming in death metal vocals; too in-your-face, too forced, too often. Kelland knows why the people here and his vocal restraint is what allows this record to exist as it does without becoming crowded. This initial seven minute piece winds and grinds its way through a steady tempo before arriving at an epic climax, well placed as an introduction that also stands on its own merit. Lyrical themes across the breadth of the album that tackle the inner struggle against mortality and the bleak inescapability of death are delivered in loosely poetic form. Kelland appears to be the sole lyricist in the band and his ability to convey hopelessness and futility while remaining grounded in the common human experience we all share lends a seriousness and a vagueness that keep the theme from straying into cliche and absurdity.

Seizing on the momentum of the moment, Exhale the Ash gets busy immediately, changing rapidly through several riffs, switching feels from blasts to grooves, drum fills absolutely everywhere. Jamie St. Merat is undoubtedly among the most proficient death metal drummers of our time, but what sets his playing apart is his creativity. It’s clear he is a complete expert and well aware of the death metal troupe drum parts, every kind of blast, every kick pattern, every tom fill, but his work on the ride bell, these sprawling fills that traverse the whole kit and last for days, the single stroke rolls on the snare in the midst of chaos. It’s a controlled fury that combines the disciplined chops of someone like Hannes Grossman with the sprawling wildness of Brann Dailor. A moment of extreme tension is built when the guitars fragment into low register drones while a brief staccato lead repeats over the top at odd intervals. Yet, as quickly as the anxiety builds, we release back down into calming waves of sprawling half-tempo guitars…only to build back up again immediately thereafter. A surprisingly straight-ahead 4/4 groove follows and it’s never more apparent that this is not music for passive listening; Ulcerate want your active participation on this journey.

The third piece sees the title introduced and Stare Into Death and Be Still distinguished itself with a lengthy instrumental introduction. A straight-ahead groove featuring guitars that shift from ringing open to rapid tremolo picking give the band a wide open sound that defies the fact that there are only three people in this band. St. Merat keeps the groove strong while managing to incorporate his trademark bells and whistles. There is not a trace of any type of “regular” guitar playing, not anything even approaching the traditional universe that Guitar Center licks live within. Sprawling, dissonant, amorphous, crushing, soaring. It’s all strongly evocative of the album art which depicts a greco-roman statue dissolving and exploding – something beautiful with defined recognizable form atomizing into chaotic darkness lacking orderly patterns. This track showcases Ulcerate at it’s most melodic with memorable lines in the lead guitar managing to stick in your head for days, despite being melodies that would land you firmly in “weirdo” territory if you walked around whistling them at your desk job. The title track also represents a lyrical high point for the record. Again, Kelland delivers poignant commentary and description on the helplessness we mortals feel when confronted directly by our death;

“Stare into death

And be still

The darkness ahead

Mirrors a past of ruin

Barely lived

Every fire exhausted

Awaiting surrender”

When I first expressed interest in writing this review, James and I were discussing how incredible and relevant this record was and he used the word “cavernous” to describe the massive, reverberant space the music lives within. At the time, I found that to be an odd descriptor, so I immediately put the record on and tried to imagine it for myself. James was right, cavernous is definitely an apt descriptor, but it was hard for me to envision, because as much as that word implies an immensity of scale, I had been envisioning something so much bigger than a cave – for me There is No Horizon gets that point across perfectly. The scope of this record’s sound for me, was more akin to the space storm clouds take up when you can’t see any clear sky: bigger than what your sight can even encompass, even when you look straight up and see nothing but sky. These lead guitar bends at 4:50 that appear and disappear highlight exactly the sense of enormity implied by the title before drawing to a close with an appropriately thunderous crescendo.

Inversion starts off with guitar chords I couldn’t identify if you paid me, punctuated by pounding floor toms. The drums on this record are tuned so low, the snare especially is perceived as being only a small step away from a tom, instead of a distant relative as with more traditional mixes. This is really the only flaw I can identify in the mix at all, occasionally letting that low snare get lost in the context of the overall drum sound, but simultaneously making the blasts heavy in a way I don’t think I’ve experienced prior. Apart from this minor gripe, the drum sound is pristine – the cymbals sizzle with no unpleasant clanging, ride bells and other small pieces cut through sharply, toms thunder. An instrumental introduction is a pleasure to hear as all three players have their time to shine and groove together as a band. As the vocals make their appearance, the riffs play with your expectations in a way that is truly subversive. Sludgy, low, palm-muted chords accented with floor tom hits set you up for what surely will be a big, fat, slow, headbanging moment, only to flip the switch into high paced blasting and upper register melodic lines.

My preference for a bit of a breather at this point in a tracklist is personal, but I was somewhat relieved to get a moment of relative quiet at the onset of Visceral Ends. The clean tone on this record is oddly one of its highlights tonally, achieving a darker, more sinister version of the pristine Milton-Keyes sound made popular by bands such as Tesseract. Some satisfying double-kicks locking in with the rhythm guitar towards the end of the tune provide a moment of resolution in a sea of rhythmic tension. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else going for this track and at this point in the 58 minute runtime, I can’t help but feel that this could have been trimmed. It certainly does not damage the overall experience, it’s just the only skippable song on a record absolutely packed with great tracks.

Drawn Into the Next Void touches upon a melancholic moment, somewhat surprisingly, before launching into another moment of aggression marked by St. Merat absolutely playing his ass off. The contouring lines of dynamics that Ulcerate provide are on full display as the energy levels ebb and flow, all the while maintaining such an exciting aura of unpredictability. Again, there are no safe bets on whether Ulcerate are about to deliver on the move they have been hinting toward in the previous bar, one such example living at the 3:05 mark where we hear the ride bell occasionally punctuating the loose and open fills. This is something we have heard often on this record and its presence is highlighted often enough that it’s a reference we have become attuned to. In most prior examples of this motif, the bell is used as a chiming punctuation to a fill, but rarely as a structural element of a beat, yet that expectation is subverted as a ride bell beat is exactly what we get only a few seconds later. Structurally, this song is a journey across an ever changing landscape where we rarely, if ever, pass a familiar scene, but it really highlights how skilled Ulcerate are when it comes to blending these parts together without blatantly overt signals spoiling the fun.

The album’s closer is one of its strongest tracks and features the only Ulcerate music video to date, which I highly recommend you go check out. Dissolved Orders is possibly the most accessible track Ulcerate has released, but that does nothing to take away from the fact that this is also an incredible representation of their sound as a band. The utter eeriness conjured by the introduction, the shimmering crystalline guitars, the chime-like cymbals and splashes all sitting within this cavernous echo. The moment of quietude gives way to one of the most melodic riffs on the album, further shifting and opening up underneath the savage vocal delivery. The B section shows up quickly and builds tension before quickly resolving back down. Chord tones bend in and out of sh

ape as the St. Merat’s playing is relentless as ever, huge fills spilling across from one section to the next. Time absolutely flies by as the sense of vertigo recedes and we are already somehow half way through an 8 minute epic. A moment of minimalism gives a breath before the plunge into *the* riff of the album at 4:36. Again, Jamie St. Merat shows off his creativity and incorporates the trademark ride bell on a driving rhythm while Hoggard’s guitar melodies tug at the heartstrings while maintaining their mysterious obscurity. This moment is cryptic, frightening, and yet satisfying as only Ulcerate can deliver. Kelland’s bass is crushing as are his vocals. The motif established in the B section returns with new lead guitars added over the top before the quiet eeriness of the introduction returns to conclude the journey.

This record did receive high praise on a near-universal level, but I still can’t help but feel that its day in the sun was, criminally, somewhat marred by the unfortunate state of the world during its release. This is such a shining example of what modern dissonant death metal has to offer, an absolutely huge serving of pristine performances, catchy and yet utterly inaccessible at the same time, devoid of predictability except for the moments where the predictable thing shows up, paradoxically becoming subversive, all wrapped up in a masterfully mixed ambiance. For fans of the genre, this is an absolute must-own, if only a hair’s breadth short of a masterpiece. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Ulcerate play this material live since it was released and the expectations for their future releases have been well and truly set by Stare Into Death and Be Still.

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