Ulcerate – “Extinguished Light”
Ulcerate have a thing now. By this I mean that anyone familiar with the band can click on a new song from them - like their freshly released single “Extinguished Light” from their upcoming record Shrines Of Paralysis - and know exactly what they have gotten themselves into for the next nine minutes.
There’s nothing wrong with having a thing, of course. Pretty much every good band, and plenty of terrible ones, have a thing. Having a thing is what helps distinguish you from the unwashed millions that do not have a thing. If you last as long as Ulcerate have, it is pretty much inevitable that people will figure out how to listen to you, what to expect from you, and will adjust their anticipation accordingly. Again, there’s nothing wrong with being a known quantity when most musicians playing this kind of music never become known at all. But it still feels slightly perverse to see a new Ulcerate song feel wholly prepared for it.
This is probably because seven years ago no one was prepared for Ulcerate. It’s hard to overstate how much of a breath of fresh air Ulcerate, along with bands like Portal and Baring Teeth, were at the time. At the tail end of the aughts, death metal was in a rough spot. Deathcore was hogging the spotlight by aiming directly for the pleasure centers of maladjusted teens, and the technical death metal scene was in no better straits. In 2009 hope was still out there for a new Necrophagist record, and plenty of bands were eager to satisfy the thirst for endless sweep arpeggios and typewriter blast beats.
Ulcerate’s Everything Is Fire was doubly revelatory. First, by having a dynamic range they injected a sense of humanity and nuance to a genre that was becoming increasingly computerized and lifeless (Mitochondrion and Krallice were experimenting in this direction a year earlier, but those were black metal bands, especially then). Second, by drawing from bands like Gorguts, Immolation and Neurosis they developed a nauseating, disorienting and gleefully disharmonic sound that made the Summer Slaughter types look stodgy and safe. Two albums later, and that sound has become Ulcerate’s thing.
Luckily for all parties involved, that thing defies easy dissection. “Extinguished Light” is no less of a whirlwind than anything on Vermis or The Destroyers Of All, and familiarity with Ulcerate’s game plan doesn’t reduce its effect. A lot of technical death metal gets described as knotty, but Ulcerate are much better at untangling the strands. Guitars will start in unison and then one will splinter off or hang on a single suspension. Phrases will go a beat or two longer than they should, and Jaime Saint Meret will push past bar lines or abruptly jump from jackhammered blast beats into a flurry of ghost notes and triplets on the cymbals. All of these formal zigs and zags are impressive on a technical level, but they also establish a mood.
This decentralized and evasive approach to brutality captures the essence of death metal at its onset - a sense of unease and terrifying otherness - without ever falling prey to the genre’s tropes. “Extinguished Light” doesn’t return to parts, like most Ulcerate songs it is a linear affair, but it does return to a few harmonic ideas. Even as the song glides freely from key center to key center, it finds its way back to a few simple and effective i-vi chord changes. After burning nerve endings for much of the 9-minute run time, these moments of conventional harmony strike like lightning. “Extinguished Light” doesn’t change Ulcerate’s thing, it is every bit as confidant and and comfortable with itself as you would expect from a band on their fifth full length, but when your thing is this dope, why bother changing?