Metal, death metal included, is an emotional and aesthetic space first and a form of music second. As with art in general, first it must be experienced and conceived internally before it can move into the realm of the Real. It is not a mysterious, pure affect that drives it; instead, it’s the sense that this music above all else names and gives form to the unnameable and makes it real and able to be experienced, both for the listener and those that want to know the shape of the inner world of those listeners. What death metal does not do traditionally is offer a very legible figure for the non-initiated to make sense of. Yes, we death metal fans may seem to instinctively know why “Hammer-Smashed Face” and “Devoured by Vermin” are rightfully canonical, why the perpetual stomp in the guts that’s any given Autopsy or Obituary record is necessary, or why Bolt Thrower and Carcass deserve to be listed as two of the greatest rock bands period, regardless of subgenre, but outsiders tend to have a harder time. Part of this can be blame on the outsider, certainly; it has never really been in vogue to develop the listening skills necessary to emotionally or artistically decode death metal, even as doom and black metal grew in respect and cultural acumen. But part of this lies at the feet of death metal itself. It has always been a small, devoted kvlt.
This is what makes Ulcerate so special and so remarkable: They lay bare sonically the emotional core of their death metal and make it legible. This proves, additionally, to be potent not just to outsiders who may not initially understand the spiritual impulse to create and listen to death metal, but also to the metalhead themselves. The terror is there, palpable in their riffs, when the wide Neurosis/Isis-inspired post-metal morose spaciousness collapses into an avalanche of hyper-technical drums and dissonant post-Gorgutsian/Deathspell Omega guitar riffs. The vocals rumble and roar in a manner closer to doom or black metal, conveying pain or panic or confusion or rage or loss. Each element seems designed with an emotional evocation in mind, each riff and musical moment arranged to grab a key emotional element that was arising through the previous and develop it into something that can be expounded on in the
Ulcerate, too, seems keenly aware of the way that death metal, especially as it becomes more frenetic and technical, often loses itself in the movement of riffs. They approach this not with caution and the curation of hooks, however (though a fruitful domain that still remains!); instead, they allow the collapse of certainty of time and position to add to the suffocating sense of loss and existential unrest rippling through their riffs. This is a sound they have been pursuing for some time now, at least since The Destroyers of All two records ago. But where that record seemed more defined at the edges, more a conscious mixture of post-metal spaciousness and emo-for-metalheads emotional forthrightness, their follow-up Vermis focused on the darkening of texture, moving us as listeners closer to the precise moment of trauma. Shrines of Paralysis, by comparison, feels like a reflection upon the wound; the songs are lugubrious and terrifying, from the first swarming dissonant riff through to the increased amount of spacious, near-gothic moodscaping. There is palpable hurt here, and crackling above the hurt a sense of rage.
Something terrible has happened, something burned, something lost, and something somewhere inside is feeling it, remembering it, and making music with it. It is important to acknowledge when death metal ascends to these heights, making itself legible to the world. These are the traits that make not just for a great extreme metal record, or a great rock record, but a great record, period. Their avant-gardisms are wielded like tools, their experiments and occasional hyper-technicality like so many names for different scalpels and pliers, all devote to the creation of this hyper-emotional and yet still profoundly heavy and extreme record. Ulcerate’s Shrines of Paralysis isn’t just one of the best of their career, it’s one of the best of the year.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.