I’m Listening to Death Metal #3: Ulcerate’s “The Destroyers of All”
I’ve spent the last seven years, off and on, attempting to put into words what precisely I see in death metal and why it means so much to me. This column is my latest and so far best attempt to enunciate the value of death metal to me, artistically, aesthetically, and emotionally. The following are a set of guided stories loosely centered on certain records and the various relations to them, both inside and outside myself and the records themselves.
In the summer of 2011, I faced my annihilation. Within the span of just over a year, my life and all I had built crumbled to dust in my hands, or at least felt that way; I had spent time in a suicide ward, had lost my long-term relationship, my dog (who was my sole anchor in years of an abusive home) and my father, and had descended into the belly of alcoholism and self-isolation to cope. I was boarded up in now only my mother’s house, no longer a full family, cradling my increasingly emaciated body with a blanket as I replaced necessary nutrients and sight of the sun with increasing amounts of brown liquor and self-harm. I was despairing, and I wanted to die, whether by my hand or another.
It was in this condition that I found Ulcerate’s The Destroyers of All.
My conditions had roots in the things I discussed in my previous two installments. Bad blood was a major culprit. My father’s side of the family had intense bipolar in the days when the difference between it and borderline personality disorder weren’t quite clear; as a result, the tendency toward dark, brooding, apocalyptic depression made the occasional hypomanic or full-on manic fits seem more like storm clouds breaking than a problem in and of themselves. The attendant hyperaggression, hypersexuality, and rapid psychological unspooling that comes from the unbearable tightness in the chest of mania went wholly untreated in the face of that seemingly more monolithic depressive tendency, a fact that only deepened the conditions of both.
My mother’s side was no less fraught, having flashes of autism and anxiety so deep it tended to manifest as OCD being passed down to my brother and me. Again, in those days autism wasn’t understood as a spectrum, at least not widely, and so the debilitating social effects of it, where it seemed that I was trying my best to communicate myself to those around me and those same people were trying their best to communicate back all to no avail, went largely undiagnosed as anything other than a general failure of mine to properly socialize -- all because I was at least still vocal and wasn’t as obviously as overwhelmed by sensory information.
I still had the bleedthrough effect, where intense sensation would cause synesthetic response, as my brain failed to fully process sounds or words or sensations and had to offload some of that processing to other parts of my brain. These combined with the abusive home to make a difficult and at times untenable mind to live inside of.
To be fair, I will admit that I have since learned as an adult (and as someone who has undergone a substantial amount of group therapy) that I am not the only one to have suffered in similar ways as this, and that there are people who have it both better and worse. This is a brutal contextualization, one that at first gives comfort and then later deepens into a wider compassionate sympathetic suffering, where you can no longer turn off your sensitivity to the suffering of the world because it reverberates now with some painful chord inside of you. This is both tremendously useful, as a writer and more generally as a decent human being, and a cause of inordinate pain.
My conditions, thankfully, were abrogated by the family dog, a husky and rotund 80-pound beagle/Norwegian elkhound with Rottweiler markings named Tai, my girlfriend of four years from the ages of 17 to 21, and my rabid obsession with music, books, and film. Thankfully I also had a tight-knit group of friends, much larger than I probably deserved, all of whom dealt with similar trials and traumas in their homes albeit in different configurations, who were for long stretches more of a family to me than my own.
There was peace and safety even in suffering, and the strange lesson of the shape and contour of time is that moments of trial and punishment make up so terribly few of the moments of our lives; it is merely a poison, a spreading black root, that makes them seem to take up so much more space than they do, tainting the air around them and turning the mind’s eye toward that pain instead of any of the other dull moments of life. I have spent more time in bathrooms and airports and the seat of my car than I have spent having the shit kicked out of me or told that I am worthless or that I wouldn’t be missed if I was fucking dead or that I was a mistake (to be born, to live, to know), and yet, it is one type of event that my mind fixates on and not another. A minor lesson here is that even when discussing great trauma and suffering, there are always an arterial spray of moments of pleasure and joy speckling the darkness in pointillist brightness.
And then, at the age of 20, I lost my mind.
New Zealand's Ulcerate formed under the name Bloodwreath in 2000. At the time, the country had little in the way of an international presence in the extreme metal scene. The past 20 years have been kind of international extreme metal, with various archives, documentaries, and social media helping to fill in the global story of heavy metal. But, in the early 2000s when the Internet as we know it was just in its infancy, especially with respect to music,, the group went largely unnoticed. They put out two demos, one untitled and the other bearing the name The Coming of Genocide, both of which have been released under the latter name. Ulcerate was more straightforward in their death metal those days, bearing trace elements of the heady brew of post-metal, heavy tech-death a la Morbid Angel, and post-Gorguts jazzy skronk they would eventually develop, but clearly leaning more traditional. The seeds were there, however, and with a name change to Ulcerate and a signing to a bigger label, the group released their debut Of Fracture and Failure.
This debut featured a handful of shifts from their demo period. The group was clearly focused on the inward path of artistic progression, a somewhat ambiguous and flowery way of saying that each release was designed to be an aesthetic leap from the last. Compared to their demos, the extent of their deep dive into progressive, avant-garde, and technical metal was evident, with the record featuring some of the most knotted song-structures and demanding riffs of their entire discography. As always, top-notch drumming rules the material from opening to close, taking what feels like a bebop scattered and expressionistic approach to death metal drumming in the lineage of Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, etc. This is paired with a suffocating wall of twisting, angular guitar riffs replete with extended techniques and higher-pitched (almost hardcore) screams on the record, a change from the deeper and more traditional death growls of the demos.
Of Fracture and Failure, similar to their demos, achieved increased notability after the breakthrough of the band, but at the time represented yet another small but steady step forward in terms of press and critical success.
(This sense of "arcing" over a group's discography, be it for the entire career or just for a stretch, is not entirely uncommon; it's an act of critical evaluation of work that sometimes gets overlooked for a more pointillist approach to viewing songs or records as isolated moments rather than necessarily emerging from the same creative mind or group-mind and thus containing certain recurrent themes that we can pair against each other to reveal fixations or repeated symbolic passages. We tend to grant this kind of critical view to bands we deem to have earned it, which is a condescending way of saying "bands that we like," but it’s impossible to collect a sufficiently sized body of work without accruing a holographically layered set of conflicts and recurrent motifs that we can psychologically analyze for an interior. This is often useful for evaluating why precisely certain changes are made record to record, or why certain material is released in alternative ways, either through smaller releases or other project names, as they don’t cohere or cleave easily to the previously-unnamed core of a project’s identity.)
In the instance of Ulcerate, the recurrent theme that arises prominently on their debut is one of grappling with the incongruity of moments of pleasure in life, all with a historic arc that seems almost wholly bleak and nihilistic. Ulcerate doesn't carry a mere existential rage at the conditions of birth and being (though that too is clearly present) but one that seems more fixed on thoughts of the escalating scale of war in history and unshrinking sense of punishment of large swaths of people. While there isn’t an explicit socially conscious or environmentally conscious message on Of Fracture and Failure, it's hard not to read their eschatological screeds marking a loosely-narrative concept of the extinction of humanity as being flecked by those concerns.
The broader issue underpinning the conflict of these songs, and thus necessitating the chaotic, winding, suffocating linearity of ultra-technical and ultra-heavy death metal the band applies, is the resultant chaos from applying the perpetual change of the passage of time against the pseudo-durability of human tradition and construct. It’s the frisson of social traditions and the conservative ideal of preserving the great images and moments and manners of history against the abrogating tide of time and change, which sees psychological transients build until they hit a psychic noise wall and erupt into social violence, which feels often like it's moments from descending into a neverending vortex of apocalyptic proportions.
Given the haunted nature of the world, haunted by rapidly increasing global inequality (something well in-process by the mid-2000s when this record was recorded), and climate change (An Inconvenient Truth having come out only a year before), it feels fitting that they would affix themselves to these thematic tension points of the undo suffering under the fascistic image of human order versus the eroding tides of change and time, and the resultant experiential chaos.
The first stage of losing my mind was a mental breakdown brought about by the tail-end of puberty. Mental health is a funny thing: some aspects of the shape of our psyche reveal themselves young, while others linger, lurking in the shadow of the mind until certain neurochemical thresholds are passed. For a friend, this meant the specter of schizophrenia only rearing its head after his 25th birthday, hurling him headlong from his career and into a miasma of untreated mental illness for the following five years. In my case, my bipolar effloresced into a full depressive breakdown, where I developed a morbid fixation on the scale of time and where I fit within it.
It was a spontaneous thing. I recall laying in bed in my sophomore year of college, staring up at the ceiling of my dorm while my roommate played Call of Duty next to me. In college, you learn to sleep through certain noises; you have to, since noise never stops. I’d always loved science fiction, especially the broader kind, like Foundation or Dune, which seemed to gesture to pseudo-psychedelic limits of human thought and wrap them in the immediacy of pulp and cool ass spaceships. I’d been on a Philip K. Dick binge since discovering my college library had a complete set of his books and I had a surplus of spare time. And it got me to thinking about the shape of the world, from the Big Bang to heat death, and all the space in between. It was, in retrospect, a pitifully common existential revelation, piercing the solipsistic hedonism of youth with the same shattering awareness that my atheism rearing its head had years earlier, finally reckoning that those innocent that were killed by injustice had no heaven to succor them after they died.
Only this time, the target was me, and the vastness and permanence of the grave and all the time that threatened to swallow me up and make me miserable and tiny seemed so great and powerful beyond measure that I found myself immediately drained of all hope.
This was, at least, the interior of the thought of things. The chemical component, I learned later, was more squarely to blame, my bipolar flaring out like a supernova, sucking my psyche down with it. What followed was several days where I was bedridden, shaking in wordless terror, unable to enunciate my grief and fear to my roommates. To their credit, they fed me, bringing me snacks from the small store we lived directly above. I forced myself to sleep for 16 hours a day, if only because the brief moments after waking were the only ones where I wasn’t fixated unduly on my mortal doom, the death sentence of being. When it faded, I set myself a doctor’s appointment and got medicated.
The second contributor was the death of my dog, for long the only partner and sense of peace in the home I had growing up amidst substance abuse, neglect, and physical abuse. The loss of my dog sent my fragile mental state careening back into darkness, and in that state, I became a terrible boyfriend. So came the third contributor, my girlfriend of four years rightfully leaving me when I became too toxic and bizarre and difficult, something that as an adult I understand and agree with fully but was too absorbed in my own suffering at the time to fully comprehend.
The three components wove themselves together. I turned 21 and immediately set myself to voluminous alcohol consumption. Then, drunk and miserable, I taped a garbage bag to the kitchen wall of my parents’ home behind my brother and abuser’s seat and set about scouring the house for my father’s revolver.
It was Ulcerate’s second LP, Everything Is Fire, that broke them with wider audiences. At the time, the sonic shift was as much a step forward as it was a step back. The group simplified their vocal approach, returning to the solely guttural death metal growling that had marked their demos, while musically they advanced forward, pinning the grit and monstrousness of technical death riffs against more solidified and easily-followed song structures. The result was a record that was not only incredibly demanding and complex but also, at last, legible. This is a trying point for a great deal of technical metal bands, be they death metal or prog or thrash or any of the other technicality-inclined subgenres.
It is tremendously difficult to come up with tricky riffs that retain a technical demand after learning a special trick or two to their completion, but the emotional legibility of those riffs, the way they connote a sense of loss or chaos or foundlessness or perhaps even the immense mathematical beauty of the world, can sometimes be lost by overexposure, like an overstimulated limb. Death metal, granted, exists as a genre of overstimulation, one that seeks by extremity of some measure to lacerate you, and so bare overstimulation is not itself an aesthetic sin. But, in a lesson plucked from harsh noise and avant-garde music, there are different kinds of overstimulation, different shades, and they contribute differently to the overall emotional picture.
It is in a manner of speaking a matter of metalinguistics, where it is the unnameable contours of the overstimulation and how multiple stimulants both layer together and work sequentially that is of importance in death metal. This, too, becomes the hardest aspect of it to parse for pop critics, who view things often in the narrow band of melody or hook or lyrics. Death metal, like all forms of heavy rock, was born when humanity first distorted the signal of a guitar and fell in love not with the song, not with the instrument, not even with the sound, but with the primal unbounded feeling a roaring distorted electric guitar provides. On Everything Is Fire, Ulcerate demonstrated they understood this inherency and had gotten more proficient at producing that emotional core to the sound than on their debut.
It also demonstrated a path forward for the band in terms of aesthetic progression. Ulcerate’s work moving forward would tend toward this crystallizing tendency, to have an unshakeable core riff or timbre around which filigree of guitar and drum fill and feedback and distortion would wrap, whip and squeal.
My parents were not stupid people. They noted my worsening mood, which seemed every day to take on darker and more distant character, and had wordlessly moved the guns from the home some days before, entrusting them to a neighbor for the foreseeable future. I scoured the house for over an hour, tearing through boxes and ripping open cabinets and checking behind televisions, every hiding space I could think of, but found nothing, not even ammunition. Following my failure to procure the gun, it hit me…. it, like a terrible black wall, this screaming terror that I had almost killed myself, was hungry enough to do it, angry enough, stupid enough, hurt enough, scared enough.
I collapsed to the floor of my parents home and cried. It was two or three in the morning. I was the only one awake.
When I composed myself enough, I lifted myself from the floor, took down the garbage bag, which now filled me with shame and trembling self-hatred (that I could have planned to do something that would hurt my loved ones so much), and went upstairs to my parents room. I shook them awake; I needed to tell someone what I’d tried to do, someone present, someone there in the flesh. I told my mother and father and I cried; they woke and comforted me. The next day, I checked myself willingly into an outpatient suicide therapy group.
In brief: those groups help some, but after a full hour of enforced silent drawing and coloring, I felt that it wasn’t for me. It felt infantilizing, less intense and severe than what I needed, which was to be grabbed by the shoulders and forced to puke up the poison I’d ingested over years, from toxic masculinities to cissexism to misogyny to racism and all the self-hatred that motivates those wickednesses within people. Different therapy measures work for different people, and I don’t seek to abridge the value of tools or schema that did not work personally for me. But I needed something stronger, something that held me more accountable, whether it was fair or not. I craved it. It was, in a measure, like a secondary suicide; a death of the me that was, a ritual burning of the undergrowth of my body and spirit to make way for some new flesh.
When I returned home, I started work on a story. I decided I would not return to the therapy session. My therapy would be poured out onto the page, a coded suicide letter in fictional archive. I made a dark pledge to myself: I would not be allowed a second attempt on my life until the novel was complete, and the novel was to chronicle why my heart hurt so fucking badly that dying was the only way I felt it could be fixed. I would allow myself up till that time. I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a child. Well, almost; there was a period where I wanted to be a paleontologist, and after that an inventor. But writing was always close, and had been what I’d clung to for years prior, a seemingly never-ending fountain of thought that, on the night of my mental breakdown, shut off entirely. I would force it out. I would make myself write.
It would be the first novel I ever completed.
It was exactly one year later that my father died. It was an unexpected death through one lens. He had struggled with alcoholism my entire life, including a stint where doctor’s told us he was certainly on the verge of death from an ulceration caused by negligence on the part of another doctor (a black synchronicity.) The last ten years of his life were pockmarked with disease and trial. But he had been sober for six months, more or less, and his health generally seemed at long last to be on the uptick, only for a heart attack in the hospital during a routine draining of abdominal fluid (a nasty procedure made necessary by his cirrhosis). In another light, however, it was not a shocking death; the clot that killed him was formed in his legs, which had grown still from neuropathy caused by his drinking and his inconsistency in stretches and compression socks. It was an ugly and stupid death. Almost every death is ugly and stupid.
It was in this rabid and harried state, my college degree seemingly on indefinite hold, trapped in my parents house which seemed in every room to possess the disappearing spirit of my now-dead father, the house I’d attempt to blow my brains out in, that I discovered The Destroyers of All.
There was a final crystallization for The Destroyers of All. Ulcerate lost a guitarist, dropping themselves to a power trio, and it was from this position that they would write and record their newest album. Thankfully, adjustments like that don’t tend to offer much in the way of studio difficulty; a quiet secret of most records is that, unless they are recording the songs live on the floor, most albums are cut with only one guitarist of a group tracking all the rhythm work as a way to make sure that parts lock in with each other better, with the full range of guitarists mostly used for particular textures or solos or things like that. However, some production tricks aside, the songwriting decided to take advantage of this simplification of the group with a slight dialing down of the complexity of the material they composed.
And when I say slight, I mean slight. While in context of the band’s discography, The Destroyers of All is the first time the band leaned more Isis than Morbid Angel or Gorguts -- on its own, it's still a tremendously intimidating technical death metal record. The biggest thing the group seemed to garner from injecting a little post-metal and industrial into their sound is a sense of space, even if for Ulcerate that meant breathes rather than wide oceanic passages. In the middle of a riff, a held note, one that cuts the rhythm into syncopation, and then the returning dive; the guitars of Michael Hoggard, all Morbid Angel bends and squalor, enjoining themselves to the frantic over-drumming of Jamie Saint Merat. The group tended on The Destroyers of All to lead the material with guitar and drums in a duo, something work of this level of busyness allows, while bassist and vocalist Paul Kelland can focus on using both of his instruments to highlight portions of the song rather than provide its explicit backbone.
That is, of course, until they reach the more post-metal oriented sections, feeling often like Godflesh or Isis punched through with Meshuggah-minded rhythmic bracketing. It is an album that conjures contradictory images, one of spaciousness and a final sense of breathe to the demanding technical riffs and busy, jazzy drumwork of the group that is yet also a suffocating wall of static, dissonance, and buzzing bass drums and snares. The jazzy sense of breathe I mentioned before comes from the way on the album they finally learned to give microseconds of space between riffs or fills, enough space to orient yourself and digest a flurry of notes or a squealing dissonant chord or absorb a deep fuzzed out punch of bass. It stems historically from the fact that wind instruments for jazz players literally needed tiny gaps in play to breath and the way those little pauses would shape melodic ideas in improvisation; post-metal, drawing from spaces like krautrock and dub, orients itself in a similar way, maintaining an atmospheric groove overwhich heavy flurries are layered. Ulcerate is no different in this manner. The only difference is their breathes are composed of unholy blasts of technical death metal ala Gorguts or Morbid Angel rather than elaborations on Neurosis or the like.
As a result of these tweaks to songwriting, each of them relatively minor adjustments compared to their previous record, Ulcerate was able to perfect the vision of the group. It’s no wonder that every record following this has been more or less compositionally identical, shifting more in terms of production approaches and the specifics of how songs are constructed riff to riff. On The Destroyers of All, Ulcerate found their identity, a way to make tremendously technically demanding death metal that draws from prog and tech worlds, but also bears the emotional gut-punch of doom metal or industrial. I have written elsewhere that they are perhaps the most emotionally legible death metal band and this is something I still believe.
The returning lyrical theme of the environmental and sociological doom of the world, one where we destroy first the ecosystem and then, in its ashes, ourselves returns here. It is a recapitulation of one of death metal’s most recursive thoughts, Lovecraftian annihilation, but with the unspeakable horror being rendered as a blindness to environmental or social injustice that one day will devour us. It is perhaps not the most profound philosophical insight, but it is still a valid one; our own determination to disrupt the course of nature, while not inherently bad (medicine and shelter, after all, being disruptions of a sort), often lead to structures like capitalistic exploitation of resources, where the demands for a sustainable world free from climate apocalypse are ignored in favor of wealth. A specific fact they cited as inspiration for the record was the heartbreaking number of extinctions in the Anthropocene era, a number which has only risen in the past seven years. And if fixations on human failings and the tendency of humanity toward its own heartbreaking and nihilistic self-destruction feel a bit trite, try to remember: this is death metal, after all.
The lead single for The Destroyers of All had been released for streaming. I’d taken up the practice years prior of religiously reading a handful of metal blogs, refreshing the pages constantly throughout the day, all to keep up with extreme metal. Music was a lifeline for me then, and while things like pop and rap were made readily available to me through normal socialization, things like prog and jazz and metal weren’t. I listened to the debut single of the record off and on throughout the day and, by evening, realized what had to be done, so I pre-ordered the record.
When it arrived, it came with a pack of other albums. I rarely would buy one at a time, so intermingled with it were a bevy of other black, doom, and of course death metal records. I can’t recall what in specific came with it, largely because Ulcerate’s album so wildly overshadowed the others. And while, in the plague years of my mourning and madness The Destroyers of All would become a recurring record for me, scoring my various attempts to exorcise my demons implanted in me from a traumatic abusive youth and my failing mental health, it was the very first listen that cemented it in my heart.
The first track passed with me in my headphones positioned at my dining room table. I sat at its side, avoiding the seat at the head of the table which my father would sit in when he was alive. His loss was too great, and in the melodrama of grief I would imagine him in his chair advising me, or sometimes just frowning. Deeper, I believe I wanted some part of him to be respected as still present so as to lessen my grief by tricking me into thinking him merely absent and not permanently dead, erased, swallowed up.
After the first track ended, “Dead Oceans” began, a surging tidal riff, melding an Isis-inspired post-Godflesh industrial groove with skittering, wild death metal drumming. It took less than a minute of that riff for my hands to scramble to my computer and open a document. Images burned in my head: locusts, mummification, a dead planet, dry as dust, Beksinski scowls, and fragments of bone. The desolation of space and the eternity of death and the strange monuments the world makes of grief and dead bodies, where we can unearth the rotting corpse of the dead but never know the joys of their life, allowed only to commune with grief and loss.
By the end of the record, I had finished a draft of a science fiction short story. I sent it out to a fiction magazine the writer Warren Ellis once ran, or at least was involved with, all on a whim. I’d been locked up for years regarding writing, falling out of the writer’s habit of writing and editing and sending out work in cycles. This one struck me in the heart like lightning, and it felt only proper to hurl it out.
The story was accepted within a few hours. A week later, my first published fiction story as an adult ran on Weaponizer, titled “Dreams of Mutilation.” I’d always wanted to be a writer ever since I was little. But the severity of my mental breakdown, something that was a long time coming, and the grief of losing my father stopped me up. There was the novel, something I forced myself to work on every day, but that was for all intents and purposes a suicide note, for some untriggered second suicide attempt, so that people would understand.
It was a melodramatic and raw novel, as portions of this retelling have themselves been melodramatic and raw, but suicidality and grief and mental breakdowns are themselves melodramatic and raw. They are irrationalities, contortions and exaggerations and fixations on thought, ballooning some aspects while constricting others to almost nothing. They are states of mind which, frankly, make no sense outside of themselves and become impossible to relate to those that have not experienced them or have forgotten the experience, because they simply operate so wildly different from the sense of emotional calculus we otherwise use in our day-to-day lives.
But in that space, with Ulcerate, I was immediately inspired to write something shorter, just under 2000 words, that captured that same titanic sense of loss and grief I felt when I thought about my father and the fact that not only was he dead now, dead forever, but that nothing of his life mattered to people nor his death, that this thing which stopped my heart and ruined me meant nothing to over seven billion living people and countless yet to be born, and that this had happened billions of times already, and that I one day would be just another dead fucking body rotting in the dirt of an overheated, climate-destroyed earth.
When that story got published, I felt, at last, like a writer. When I finished the novel I’d been working on, I shelved it. And I didn’t try to kill myself after. I had always wanted to be a writer. Ever since I was little. And finally, I was one. That was all that mattered, the only thing in the world. I still have PTSD nightmares sometimes; what would happen if I’d found the gun that night and everything that never would have happened. A great black gulf swallowing me up. Garbage bags taped to my parents’ walls. They break me, make me shudder in my bed heaving and crying.
But they are only nightmares. I did not find the gun. I am a writer now.
Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. Here are the prior installments of his column:
Support Invisible Oranges on Patreon.