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%

Gruesome – Twisted Prayers

Death metal’s Greta Van Fleet

The revival of old school death metal has, in a similar fashion to modern thrash, yielded a few gems in a sea of redundant, bland, toothless and copy-paste bands that offer nothing new at all, and Gruesome is perhaps the most notable and blatant example of how creatively bankrupt this wave can get. Their music isn’t an Encoffination-type ordeal, where the band fundamentally misunderstand what made their main point of reference appealing to begin with, but more a straight up facsimile of something that’s been heard before with absolutely no twist or spin on it to speak of. I can give it to the band that the baseline level of competency (songs that progress, tight playing, decent and clear production) has been met but that’s really about it as far as positives go.

Gruesome, for those who’ve never heard their music, is a carbon copy of early Death, put simply. They play a very thrash-influenced, very simple and highly riff-driven style of death metal. The longer songs and more frequent changes of pace within them point towards the band drawing more from Leprosy and Spiritual Healing, with the latter obviously being an inspiration for the thematic content of the lyrics and cover art. The problem with zeroing in on a singular inspiration here is that at no point do the band do anything to the basic template at all; this album is literally an inferior copy of those two albums (which really says something as Spiritual Healing is one of my least favourite Death albums) with no positive unique traits to it at all. Literally the only distinguishing features this has from either of those two Death albums are notably worse and less memorable riffs and production that strips the music of intensity, due to being more polished. Not helping matters is that Spiritual Healing has had another impact on the music, which is that the music itself isn’t as intense or savage as it could have been as to not remove focus from the somewhat more intelligent lyrics. This is the main problem with Spiritual Healing, and so on an album that is worse in every respect it is an even more notable problem. These flaws result in an album with longer songs that feel much, much longer than they actually are because the few basic ideas presented by them get stale in the first minute or two and were never played convincingly to begin with. The album is tired, dull, stale and boring and the only redeeming qualities it has beyond basic competency are the decayed remains of the work of a much better band.

There really is nothing else to say about the music, it’s that vanilla and plain. If all new music was as uninspired, worn-out and cliché as Gruesome’s work, there would be no reason to listen to new music at all as every genre would be a dead end that never challenges or intrigues the listener at all. Fortunately, Gruesome truly is an exceptional case, as there are very few bands out there that ride the coattails of larger acts as hard as they have done. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with drawing heavily from classic artists – some of the greatest modern albums in multiple genres would not exist without those kinds of influences – but zeroing in on one or two albums by one band and doing nothing with those influences at all, and not even trying to live up to them quality-wise? That is inexcusable, not only because it’s unbearably lazy but also because the end result of such a process sounds unbearably lazy. Even the earliest of Death clones, Massacre, were so far above this album I feel bad for comparing them to Gruesome, and at least the people behind From Beyond actually had a hand in the sound of early Death. If you want good music in this style, cut out the middleman and go straight to the source, as there is no reason to listen to this over any of the far superior albums that inspired it.

Rating: 25%

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