October 28, 2016

Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis

By Craig Hayes. Ulcerate have been on the receiving end of abundant critical acclaim for a number of years now. Each subsequent release from the formidable Auckland, New Zealand-based death metal band is seemingly hailed not only as the band’s very best work, but also as a genre-quaking release in its own right.
By Craig Hayes.

Ulcerate have been on the receiving end of abundant critical acclaim for a number of years now. Each subsequent release from the formidable Auckland, New Zealand-based death metal band is seemingly hailed not only as the band’s very best work, but also as a genre-quaking release in its own right. Truth is, while we all know that the world of heavy metal is awash in hollow hype, Ulcerate deserve every single iota of that praise.

You can expect more of the same genius on Ulcerate’s brand new album, Shrines of Paralysis. The band’s fifth full-length confirms that Ulcerate are a singular band, ahead of the curve both musically and conceptually. Shrines of Paralysis also reaffirms that Ulcerate are experts in combining unrivaled amounts of sonic heaviness with intimidating amounts of musical complexity. But if Shrines of Paralysis showcases one thing most of all, it’s that Ulcerate are a distinctive musical entity, constructing a dynamic language all of their own making.

None of the above is false flattery. You only need listen to Ulcerate’s albums in sequence to hear a band carving out a creative path that’s grown more distinct as they’ve become more unconventional and nuanced in mixing instrumental mastery with pure ferocity. In fact, Ulcerate are famed for meticulously arranging highly technical death metal. Although, I’d argue, that’s not really an accurate picture of the band in 2016.

Paul Kelland 2014. Photos © John Mourlas. All rights reserved.

Ulcerate are ever-evolving. Today, doomier and disharmonic dirges, black metal, industrial and post-punk textures, and atmospheric post-metal all feature on Ulcerate’s artistic palette. Of course, all of that is battered by swarms of progressive and dissonant death metal –– and then trampled by jaw-droppingly insane solos. But albums like 2011’s The Destroyers of All or 2013’s Vermis also highlight a band that’s entirely comfortable with wilfully ignoring death metal’s rules and regulations.

My theory’s always been that Ulcerate incorporate influences from well outside death metal and make evolutionary music because they exist on the fringes, both artistically and geographically. In other words: isolation = innovation. Or, Ulcerate’s remoteness helps to inform their uniqueness. Fair enough if you disagree, but what isn’t up for debate is the fact that Shrines of Paralysis is Ulcerate’s most artistically ambitious and thus most intimidating release yet.

The album’s first two songs, “Abrogation” and “Yield to Naught”, are perfect examples of how Ulcerate craft intense songs filled with micro machinations that hypnotically draw the ear. There’s no question that people rejoice in the expertly sculpted detail packed into Ulcerate’s songs. However, the band also ensure there’s a macro component to Shrines of Paralysis: that giant wall of noise that hammers home the album’s oppressive whole.

Jamie Saint Merat 2014. Photos © John Mourlas. All rights reserved.

So, yes, those complex time signatures deserve applause, as does the way guitarist Michael Hoggard twists labyrinthine riffs around drummer Jamie Saint Merat’s knotty percussion. As do bassist and vocalist Paul Kelland’s guttural growls, which form a whole other layer of vocal instrumentation. But don’t forget to step back and admire Shrines of Paralysis in terms of its sheer overall power. Because it’s a mammoth, head-spinning work of art.

As you’d expect, Shrines of Paralysis is painstakingly produced, mixed and mastered, by Saint Merat once again, to maximize its aggressiveness and impact. And tracks like “There Are No Saviours” and “Extinguished Light” benefit from that production clarity because their more intricate elements are able to shine alongside their bitterest and most nerve-shredding components. That pitch-perfect production also highlights how Ulcerate’s work has become increasingly more interesting as the band’s unique vernacular has expanded, and Shrines of Paralysis is certainly Ulcerate’s most diverse recording thus far.

Throttling tracks like “Shrines of Paralysis’” and “Chasm of Fire” show that Ulcerate are very adept at constructing chilling songs. But those songs also reveal that the band prove themselves to be true masters of dread-filled death metal when they slow things down and flesh out their songs –– allowing their often avant-garde and always hypothermic and hypnotic atmospherics to really get under the skin.

Michael Hoggard 2014. Photos © John Mourlas. All rights reserved.

For me, that’s always been the band’s best attribute. I mean, sure, Ulcerate’s hyper-technical exertions are impressive. But the hook, for me at least, has been that unnerving chill that lingers: that all-encompassing and unrelenting darkness. That’s not to deny Ulcerate’s skill in orchestrating a discordant cacophony with maestro dexterity. Technically, Shrines of Paralysis is a masterclass in balancing elements like velocity, rhythm, complexity, savagery, atonality, and nuance. That’s a lot of ingredients, and the album’s final track, “End the Hope”, puts all of that into action while underscoring Ulcerate’s ability to create music that’s evocative and organic yet mechanical and ruthless.

In the end, that’s the best way to describe Shrines of Paralysis: human yet utterly inhuman. That’s an apt description of Ulcerate’s thematic sophistication too. Aesthetically, Ulcerate are unrivalled. They are what others cannot be.

Shrines of Paralysis is challenging and jarring and, like all of Ulcerate’s albums, repeated playing reveals increasing layers of detail. Because Shrines of Paralysis incorporates a wider spectrum of influences, the listening experience is exponentially more unique and satisfying. The album shows what happens when an unrestrained and unconventional approach meets idiosyncratic creativity. Shrines of Paralysis is visionary music for the bleakest of times.

Ulcerate remain unsurpassed.

1 comment:
  1. What an utterly fantastic review. I think I (almost) read every review written of every Ulcerate record and I think this review captures my view on Ulcerate in the same way. I never felt this way about any other band. Thank you kindly for your review.