Album Review: ULTHAR Providence
Ulthar’s 2018 debut Cosmovore solidified the Oakland trio as one of the most exciting bands on 20 Buck Spin’s roster. Raw and animalistic, yet melodic and technical, the band’s blackened death metal immediately struck a unique balance of experimental and traditional ideas. After its remarkable entrance, Ulthar now expands its sonic territory. Aesthetically and musically, Providence retains similar building blocks to Cosmovore, but further pushes the lurching chaos and atmospheric dynamics. Ulthar uses erratic artistry to mold the timeless essentials of death metal and black metal into an exhilarating, hellish adrenaline shot.
The artwork of Providence works like poetry. The debut came packaged in an amorphous nightmare of spikes and sharp-toothed vagina mouths—so why not form it all into a monstrous tree and a bunch of phallic imagery? The uncompromising cover art reflects the opening surge of “Churn.” Drummer Justin Ennis, guitarist/vocalist Shelby Lermo and bassist/vocalist Steve Peacock form an avalanche of blast beats, buzzsaw tremolo riffs, and demonic howls.
Ulthar relishes its sonic turmoil, but all of these songs come packed with memorable motifs. “Furnace Hibernation” throws early Celtic Frost and the weirder side of Mayhem into a tech-death blender. An adventurous approach pervades throughout the concussive brutality, soul-searing dissonance and startling, chaotic transitions. At just the right moments, countess aural pathways reveal themselves.
With Lermo, Peacock, and Ennis respectively handling samples, synths, and electronics, Ulthar’s synthetic elements remain more of an unsettling undercurrent than an overt genre mashup like Anaal Nathrakh. The foreboding ambiance and alien effects at the start of “Through Downward Dynasties” might bring projects like Theologian or Gnaw Their Tongues to mind, but hammer on riffage, thrashy drums and tortured screams quickly take the reins. “Through Downward Dynasties” inexplicably shares throat-singing with “Undying Spear." In the second case, the ultra-low drones support rapturous acoustic guitar intro. Though curveballs like this function more as moody interludes before the blackened death frenzies, but Ulthar maintains provocative unorthodoxy when its aggression boils over.
Lermo and Peacock’s riffage is absolutely insane, but not incomprehensible. The two evoke contorted shredders like Gorguts and prog-era Death, but a sinister foundation remains apparent in all of their arrangements. This archaic evil could be summed up by the maniacal vocals that open the title track. The riffs remain air-tight and lethal, while wraith-like wretches and barrel-chested growls spiral into anguished pandemonium. Both screamers incorporate bombastic, almost operatic wails into their style, much like Attila of Mayhem—but it’s safe to say Ulthar has taken full ownership of its vicious vocal delivery.
Ulthar's vocal mania plunges cuts like “Cudgel” over the edge of madness. The instrumentation would be punishing enough, careening through chug-happy grooves, and eviscerating death-grind attacks. If the instrumentation is a bull in a china shop, the vocals give that bull a (un)healthy dose of meth cooked in the bowels of hell. Still, it’s easy to appreciate cuts like “Narcissus Drowning” on a purely musical level, as the band deals a flurry of blows without sounding overindulgent. From harrowing modulations and agile fret-work to molasses-caked down-tempo passages, the band’s chemistry and dexterity remain on full display.
It wouldn’t be hard to trick someone into thinking closing track “Humanoid Knot” was actually on influential compilations like Earache’s Grindcrusher (1989) or Metal Blade Records’ Blackend (1995). Ulthar’s forward-thinking ethos centers less on how many notes are being played or how many weird noises they can make, but how thoughtfully their onslaughts play out. Every tempo switch and riff change is as vital as it is air-tight. Ulthar's sound might have an air of familiarity, but few bands in the modern era come close to playing it this well.
Ulthar might abound with savage filth, but Providence pushes their songwriting chops further than before. In terms of raw talent, bullet-proof execution, and evolutionary songwriting, Ulthar captures the essence of extreme metal while outplaying most ponytail prog-heads.