Writing this review has been a long time in the making. Usually, sitting down and pressing play is enough to get some words flowing, however, Ulcerate are a unique experience and apparently so is the process of trying to explain why Stare Into Death and Be Still is so, so good. Much time has been spent on consuming the New Zealand trio’s new record but even that wasn’t preparation enough to sit down and say something worthwhile. Talking about a genre defining/defying record is easy in terms of “OK, look, this is amazing,” but the risk of not actually saying anything is high. Oh, it’s good – why?
Stare Into Death and Be Still is incredible. Let’s just get that out of the way first and then we can move on to the why. Or at least, try. Ulcerate have been evolving their highly technical death metal for a long time (the band formed in 2002) and while 2016s Shrines of Paralysis was a monument to change, the Ulcerate of 2020 is a wholly different beast. The band have stepped up their control of the chaos that burns beneath the surface of their songs – their music has long had the tendency to teeter on the brink, to be one step away from falling into a swirling maelstrom – and on Stare Into Death and Be Still, they have fully embraced that aspect. Songs push against the confines that Ulcerate have created for them and where lesser bands would let the music take charge, these three musicians have the power to keep it on the edge and instead let the listener live in fear of what could happen. The record is exciting in this regard and it truly gives the listener a sense of breathless wonder – what will happen next?
Stare Into Death and Be Still, though, doesn’t take any obvious routes to its end goal and while you might spend much of the time feeling a sort of trepidation as to what might unfold, the music takes you on a journey to the centre of catastrophe, an explosion of near apocalyptic proportions – the imagery created by bassist/vocalist Paul Kelland is that of being atop a mountain, looking down on a world that is lit only by fire and seeing the destruction wrought on humanity by a old, foul God. The narrative is potent in its symbolism and this is carried through into the music, as well as the lyrics.
"Bear witness to what is before us. Dissolve all the illusions. Be brought back down to ashes."
The music, then, is intricate and powerful, with songs that bend and form into new beings as they progress. “The Lifeless Advance” opens Stare Into Death and Be Still with twisted guitar progressions (Michael Hoggard) that are hypnotic and somewhat fascinating in their dynamic shifts. One second they are taking you to the abyss, the next they’re ascending into the clouds. It’s these subtle movements that give Ulcerate their strength and during “Exhale the Ash” those movements are used to great effect when the song shifts its course from deep dark structures into guitars that radiate with pain, illuminating the song from within.
The title track is a destructive force from the outset with the drums of Jamie Saint Merat pushing the song forwards and the guitars of Hoggard cycling and recycling sounds, layering the passages and creating new harmonies within the tight structures that the band have created which finally explode outward during the final minutes and give a brief glimpse into what beauty would look like in Ulcerate’s world. The guitars are laced with soaring sorrow and it’s clear that any beauty to be found here is born from bright, shining pain.
The discordant architecture of “Inversion” and its towering configurations of sound build increasing layers of anxiety while “Visceral Ends” fully steps outside of what is expected and travels a distinctly lighter path in its opening phrases, setting aside tangible weight and going the way of doomed elegance instead. It’s an extraordinary feat of musical engineering and goes some way to explaining just why Stare Into Death and Be Still is a record to be revered, and will be for years to come.
9.5 / 10
Posted March 16, 2015, 10:48 a.m.
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