When your last album was both an underrated sleeper and a frequent inclusion on Best of 2011 lists, expectations are understandably high for your follow up. There's a reason that apres-masterpiece sequels generally come 2-3 years after the fact rather than in back-to-back, sequential years: at that point it's no longer acceptable to shit out an obligatory new record just to have something to tour on.
Technical death metal bands typically establish the "technical" part of the equation in one of two forms: compositionally or instrumentally. These are not mutually exclusive, obviously, but most bands tend to skew predominantly toward one or the other. Particularly in the 2010's, the compositional advocates have largely begun abandoning the confines of death metal altogether for the more expansive climes of sludge and all forms of post-whatever. In 2013, tech death has largely become the shred bracket for brutal death metal.
Which makes Ulcerate's artistic trajectory all the more flippant; starting life as a moody variant on the brute tech template with a stronger-than-average focus on composition, the band have gradually edged back from the full throttle shred (drummer Jamie Saint Merat taking up much of that slack) and started dabbling in more atmospheric forms… basically following the moody intent of their early work to its logical – though hardly inevitable – conclusion.
It was with their third record, The Destroyers of All, that Ulcerate really broke with the past, sacrificing speed and dexterity for extended musings on entropy and decay. The first track, "Burning Skies", was part bridge to the past, part sleight of hand, opening with blast beats and furious crescendos before settling into the midtempo groove that the remainder of the album (mostly) conforms to.
After an uncharacteristic, ambient intro Vermis goes on to follow in similar fashion, the title track representing possibly the heaviest song Ulcerate have yet to publish, particularly once you factor in Paul Kelland's unusual, Cthulu-like vocals.
From there the rest of the album see saws back and forth between cacophonous tech death rave ups and subdued, introspective set pieces, often mixing and matching both within the same consistent framework (five of the album's nine tracks hover between the seven-minute and 7:42 mark). "Clutching Revulsion" illustrates this dichotomy superbly, vacillating between sludge-laden doom and percolating, slow burn brute tech with unhurried ascent.
The comedowns are a little more cathartic, jarring even, with "Weight of Emptiness" as methadone to "Clutching Revulsion"'s teeth rattling Ritalin. The track probably won't be the obvious standout on Vermis but it does offer the most psychological insight, it's crashing, wave-like tempos betraying a restless creativity that is constantly being reined in… repressed. Big riffs take wing and tease epic payoffs before being forcefully grounded, only for the whole charade to cycle through again with entirely different ideas.
Ulcerate do offer more calculated variety this time out – "Confronting Entropy" and "Await Rescission" join the title track as front-to-back brute stompers – but the running thread is a huge, cavernous din that looms monolithically throughout the album's 55-minute run time. Where most technical death metal favors clean, precision audio engineering, Ulcerate go for an unclean smear of ugly noise, the better to articulate their ambivalent motivations… both musically and psychologically.
Vermis is a bit tougher a sell than even The Destroyers of All, let alone the band's relatively accessible early work, but it's also the most profound work Ulcerate have composed to date. It's a tough listen, both mentally and physically draining, but the payoff is more affecting than the kind of pure, body-oriented tech stuff that you'll find in, say, the Summer Slaughter lineup.