Ulcerate on crafting introspective, overwhelming death metal

Ulcerate interview

Throughout their nearly 25-year career, Ulcerate have kept the “death” in death metal in the most metaphysical sense. We will all die, everything we’ve spent decades building will evaporate, and there’s no way to prepare for or make sense of it. The New Zealand trio have long examined how this reality shapes us and how much of our lives we spend grappling with it. They do not hold a morbid fascination with the ways we could die or the many bloody outcomes we could meet. Rather, they recognize how powerless we are when death comes for us. As such, they are one of the best bands on the planet at making you feel insignificant. 

Their latest album, Cutting the Throat of God—out now via Debemur Morti—furthers this thematic element while honing in on the meditative aura of its predecessor, Stare into Death and Be. Both are intimidating in a manner unlike the band’s earlier records. During the first leg of their career, running roughly until 2016, their vision was best defined by one of their album titles, Everything is Fire. They employed velocity and stupendous technicality to a degree that you couldn’t keep up with them. In a sense, they cast death’s shadow through physical intimidation. 

It was on 2020’s Stare Into Death and Be Still that Ulcerate adopted a more languid pace, and although Cutting the Throat of God begins in an even colder climate than its predecessor, it quickly establishes a connection between the albums. They mark the group’s second chapter; one with less dissonance and centralized melodies. This doesn’t make for a less challenging or radically different Ulcerate, but a more mature band. 

While writing initial ideas for Cutting the Throat of God, Ulcerate kept tapping into sadness and discomfort. Though those feelings might have yielded ample material, they decided to push them to a place of spiritual death. The group found a quandary that superseded their first feelings—defying one’s own moral boundaries. They saw that there is no returning to where you once were after you’ve crossed the line you’ve drawn in your head. All that remains is cognitive dissonance. Cutting the Throat of God pantomimes betraying oneself through its long, ruinous passages. Going back on your morals sucks, and Ulcerate offer reminders of that at all times. The only release granted is that which previously scored the majority of their albums: technically demanding, heavily dissonant death metal. 

Ulcerate were, and still are, hard to ignore and even more difficult to speak about without hyperbole—because their music is hyperbolic. And how could it not be? They’re exploring, in their own words, “the most fundamental aspect of all life.” It’s not just that they’re musing about death; they’re trying to fight it in its native weight class. 

We asked drummer Jamie Saint Merat about how Cutting the Throat of God developed musically, how they create such overwhelming metal, and why their bass is now so damn heavy.

Treble: “To Flow Through Ashen Hearts” begins Cutting The Throat of God with a mellow post-metal section that’s far removed from where Stare Into Death and Be Still left off. Did the time between this album and the last push you down new music interests that would later play into the new album?

Jamie Saint Merat: Not necessarily—there are similar dynamics throughout Stare Into Death…. For us, that was actually quite a defining feature of that album, an exploration of this specific tonality—”Dissolved Orders” being the most notable. I don’t hear “post-metal” in this sonic approach personally, but I can understand the need to somehow categorize it perhaps.

Stare Into Death… is the album that marks the second chapter of the band, where we made a conscious decision to move away from an almost entirely dissonant palette, and embrace melody and power. So with Cutting the Throat… we just had a vastly wider sonic landscape to begin writing in, and writing sections like the “To Flow…” intro came very naturally and captured the appropriate mood we were after.

Treble: Death as an overpowering idea has come up multiple times through your music (“To See Death Just Once” on your latest album and the entirety of Stare Into Death and Be Still are two examples). What is your fascination with death in this way and how does its concept evolve over time? Does it change as you get older? 

JSM: We are strong proponents of the idea that death metal is indeed the metal of death, and that there should always be a correlation to exploring this most fundamental aspect of all life. We’re most interested in not so much the event itself, but the atmosphere surrounding it, and its impact on a still-living psyche.  The fascination is purely born out of real-world experiences: the complex mix of pain, tragedy, release, and at times, terror. And yes, this has absolutely shifted the older we get, the reality of our mortality is felt in a much deeper sense. We’ve also all lost loved ones over the past few years, which obviously resounds deeply.  There’s a profound sadness and melancholy that surrounds this, and the music we’ve been writing is triangulating towards a sonic representation of these feelings.

Treble: You said to Decibel, “To the uninitiated: this is a form of music that should overwhelm you and force you to feel small and insignificant in the scheme of things.” How does that idea interact with the album’s theme of severing your own moral code, which itself is quite intimate?

JSM: To me these go hand in hand, no? What we’re aiming at here is a transcendent sense of scale, and it feels like a very natural fit that these compositions conjure up very specific and difficult metaphorical themes. There should be a weight to the words, so to speak. Cutting the Throat of God refers to an ethical stasis resulting in an abject sense of dread and terror coupled with a deep melancholy—which we all agreed felt 100 percent right in describing the music we were composing.

Treble: Along those lines, do you feel there’s an upper limit to how much you can overwhelm someone familiar with Ulcerate? Is there a ceiling?

JSM: My use of the word “overwhelming” isn’t necessarily in terms of sonic punishment or violence. I meant overwhelming at an emotional level—in the same way that nature can instill an overwhelming sense of awe for example. I really think that all great art does this—you lose yourself in the moment, and even if for a brief second, your ego and all earthly concerns just evaporate. So no, I don’t believe there is a ceiling to this, it doesn’t matter how violent or serene the music is.

Treble: How do you make music that reflects your inner thoughts while sounding as large as humanly possible?

JSM: I think we just see it from the exact opposite angle here. Sounding as large as humanly possible is not the goal—it’s about striving for that aforementioned transcendental scale, which can only be achieved through introspection in my honest opinion. And it’s very much a case of “you know it when you hear it”—the goosebumps or hair standing up on the back of your neck, the shot of adrenaline through your veins. We’ve really been striving for this at all costs when writing—anything interfering with this sensation was dropped immediately.

Treble: “Further Opening the Wounds” is one of my favorite tracks for how overpowering it is without sounding too busy. It seems that the album as a whole is like that: more spacious than Stare Into Death… without relinquishing aggression. Was that intentional, or am I just hearing things?

JSM: Yeah for sure, this is our biggest challenge after an entire career built out of writing suffocating spiderwebs for songs. We’re learning to embrace space and depth and build songs vertically through orchestration rather than horizontally with a ton of notes—and I think we are succeeding with this, without relinquishing any of the characteristics of the band’s identity. A lot of this also comes down to how and where I’m positioning the drum parts, as it’s very easy for me to go overboard here. So I’m self-policing that side of my playing, and opting for more of a producer’s mindset, which unsurprisingly helps immeasurably with the production of the album, which I’m also tasked with.

Treble: I read that for your songwriting process, you identify a particular sonic approach you want to take, then let everything flow out from there. What were the musical ideas you wanted to explore with the album during its early stages? 

JSM: Mostly it’s around finding the “sound” of the album at a macro level. The micro level—riffs, rhythms, lyrics—obviously informs this, so we will build an initial bank of raw ideas and see how things start to shape up. These ideas can be crude and malformed, but you start to get a feel for what direction works and what doesn’t. We also knew we wanted to push even further into having bass really drive the riffs, particularly with a lot of the cleaner moments. There’s a very intoxicating sound that can be achieved with almost dead clean guitars underpinned with horrendously ugly chord-driven bass.

Treble: Ulcerate has been around for 24 years. Has the group’s development fallen in line with how you thought it would progress and your original vision for it? 

JSM: It’s exceeded it, to be honest. I don’t think any of us would have imagined that we’d still be this invested this far in, and that with every album we’re becoming more and more excited by what we’re writing. We laid a framework early on around the need to avoid stagnation at all costs, as well as maintaining a DIY ethos that has served us very well.

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