Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still

Double Doink!
My relationship with Ulcerate is somewhat similar to the relationship Charlie Brown has with Lucy’s football.  Every few years, they release another album to widespread acclaim, so I take the snap and then whiff the kick as they pull my football-shaped enjoyment away at the last second.  I want to like Ulcerate.  They’re one of the most important metal bands in recent memory, their discography is very consistent, they’ve influenced a multiplicity of young death metal bands, they’re chaotic and unrelenting, on paper they are just everything I want in a metal band nowadays.  And for whatever reason they’ve just never vibed with me.


Stare into Death and Be Still is different while being exactly the same.  This time I actually made contact with the ball and even managed to avoid a ridiculous Scott Norwood shank.  It’s not pretty, and I hit the post, but dammit I put three points on the board!

What makes this different from other seminal works of theirs that I never managed to care about like Everything is Fire or Shrines of Paralysis is pretty difficult to pinpoint, because this really isn’t all that different.  It’s still an unrelenting deluge of cataclysmic percussion and dissonant guitars that don’t really riff as much as they whir and clang.  Maybe the guitar tone is a bit beefier and less scratchy?  Maybe the songs themselves are simply more well constructed?  Their approach to songwriting is just as non-euclidian as ever but the flow feels a bit more natural to me this time around.  Ulcerate always had a strange Uncanny Valley feel to them, where their songs always yawned and swayed like organic creations but felt lifeless and stiff at the same time, like saltwater frying a fish’s nerves and causing it to flop and spasm long after it dies.  Stare into Death and Be Still simply managed to catch a live one, I think.  Like always, this is much more about overarching atmosphere than riffs or hooks, and as a result the whole experience tends to feel like one long song instead of a collection of them.

And if you’ll allow me to mix my sports metaphors, I think the reason this isn’t quite a home run despite some solid contact is exactly this.  There are tons of twists and surprises within the riffs themselves, but rarely within the wider context of a song or the album.  58 solid minutes of this suffocating atmosphere is just that, suffocating.  That absolutely works at times but around the second act of this behemoth it goes from exhilarating to tedious.  It’s like the coaster I built in Rollercoaster Tycoon when I was 9 that had like fifty inversions and took twelve minutes to finish.  Sure there are subtle variations in tempo and approach on Stare into Death and Be Still, but ultimately you’re just doing the same loop-de-loops over and over again on the same track for an uncomfortably long time.  Each successive Ulcerate album has been a few minutes longer than the one preceding it, and that trend continues here, and I really think it’s to the album’s detriment.  Despite all eight tracks basically feeling like the same long song, it’s still quite noticeable that only two of them run for less than seven minutes.  This wouldn’t be a problem if it felt like the songs were actually leading somewhere, but after repeated listens the only time I can truly pick out a song with a climax is “Drawn into the Next Void”.  The rest of it sounds like sonic flash rust, standing still and deteriorating before my eyes despite the immaculate craftsmanship put into the initial product.  Every Ulcerate album tends to spin its wheels to some degree, and admittedly Stare into Death and Be Still manages to get a good amount of traction and actually move forward, but a lesser degree of the same problem is still the same problem.

When Everything is Fire dropped in 2009, I recall the buzz around it at the time being something akin to “It’s Deathspell Omega but death metal”, and I see where that statement is coming from.  But the key difference to me is that for as anarchic and chaotic as DsO can be, they always have a point to make and more often than not they do it very well.  Some of this boils down to my own personal preference, since I notably tend to prefer my death metal to be a bit more pugilistic than textural, but the fact that I like Portal well enough tells me that Ulcerate simply struggles to reach their destination at times.  I would definitely say I have a positive impression of Stare into Death and Be Still overall, but the problems that have always plagued the band haven’t really been ironed out here.  They made it work more than usual, but at the end of the day I can’t help but think this heavily atmospheric style of dissonance simply fits more naturally in a black metal context and a shorter package, and that’s why Serpent Column absolutely wrecks my shit while Ulcerate merely manages a brisk foot tapping.

Rating: 56%

In Flames – Clayman (Re-Recorded)

Inconceivably worthless

Rarely does a band re-recording their older studio material go well. There are instances where it makes sense of course; wanting to give older material the benefit of new production, wanting to re-interpret the material within the framework of a different style, wanting to show off a new vocalist who was substantially different to the one who performed on the old material, and so on – all of these cases would produce re-recordings that have a purpose by serving a need the original could not provide, even if it turns out ultimately redundant and inferior to the original. This however has no reason to exist at all, being a note-for-note rehash of Clayman‘s title track that adds nothing whatsoever to the original song. Every change made here is one for the worse, and what few positives this track does have is carried over from the original and has nothing to do with this version specifically.

The production, which on Clayman was and continues to be a gold standard for modern metal, is not copied or improved upon here. The thunderous sound of the drums, the slick and heavy guitars, the vocal layering, precisely none of that is present. Instead, the band chooses to use a totally unremarkable and boring modern metal production style. Sure it’s still slick and what not but it sounds so much limper than the old song, lacking a lot of the low end and robbing the music of a lot of its original power. The instrumentation sounds lifeless and lacks a lot of weight and frankly even by the standards of an average modern metal recording this is subpar.

The instrumentation is performed 100% faithfully – while many would see this as a good thing I believe it serves only to make this recording more redundant than it otherwise would have been. Later In Flames traded its layered guitar harmonies for increased keyboard presence, but the band doesn’t even choose to adapt the song into their more modern formula – while this wouldn’t have made it better it’d at least give it somewhat more of a reason to exist, instead of being a facsimile that pales in every conceivable way to the original. And then there are the vocals; Anders Fridén has never been a particularly good vocalist, harsh or clean, but at least backed up with the massive production of Clayman and with some vocal layering, his growls and cleans fit with the instrumentation well and weren’t the focus of the song. Here, with its anaemic recording and unsuitable vocal mixing, all of his vocals are pushed to the forefront and as you would expect he doesn’t sound good at all. His growls sound weak and his cleans are as awkward and whimpering as ever, with his performance here really topping off how useless this entire endeavour is.

There are many failed re-recordings in metal – Let There Be Blood springs immediately to mind – but at least on that album Exodus wanted to give the original album heavier, modern production and show off a new vocalist that, while in the same lane as the the original, could still offer something different. As bad as that album is, at least it makes sense as to why Exodus chose to record it, and while I didn’t care for the changes made on that album, that can be put down to personal taste. This on the other hand is inconceivably worthless and devoid of any distinguishing positive characteristics – every change made on this version is objectively inferior to what was on the original, and the band do nothing to substantially change it in a way that could be seen as some sort of reinterpretation of the original. As bad as this band’s post-Clayman output is, they’re still better off sticking to what they’ve been doing for nearly 2 decades instead of pointlessly rehashing the past.

At least this should put to rest the delusion that this band will ever turn it around, because with all the lineup changes from their glory days it will never happen, as demonstrated here.

Rating: 0%

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