Album review: Ulcerate – “Shrines of Paralysis”

Ulcerate‘s brand of technical death metal is compelling precisely because it challenges so many of the established tropes that have emerged in the genre over the last decade. This New Zealand group are certainly incredibly gifted musicians, and the technicality and complexity of their music more than proves this. But more than this, Ulcerate understand the importance of the raw feeling of an album, and of atmosphere and songwriting. The heaviness has to serve some kind of end: Sheer technicality, speed or brutality can never compensate if an album lacks in these departments.  Shrines of Paralysis is a majestic, haunting record encapsulating vitriolic misanthropy redeemed through violent, decadent beauty.

This is still just as challenging a listen as any album in their stellar discography stretching back a decade now. The mix of frenzied technical death metal, atmospheric flourishes, crushing doom passages, and surprising, subtle melodic sensibilities is a potent mix, and the sense of barely controlled chaos remains one of the band’s greatest strengths. The songs are complex, challenging listens that demand your full attention. Labyrinthine in their density and depth, this is music to lose yourself in. There’s a dark, haunting beauty to this band’s music, a grandeur found in the decaying beauty of the desolate wastelands and ruins this music conjures up in the imagination. The nine-minute title track builds and builds before exploding into a tormented crescendo, while closing track ‘End the Hope’ builds momentum, piling on melodic layers to create an unstoppable whirlwind of oppressive death metal noise.

Michael Hoggard’s trademark dissonant, off-kilter guitarwork twists and turns, finding melody where none should exist, shaping order from chaos before sending it all tumbling down again. Songs like ‘Extinguished Light’ and ‘Yield to Naught’ feature some of his most interesting, powerful fretwork on the album; the latter features unbelievably heavy sludgy, doomier sections reminiscent of 2011’s The Destroyers of All. Jamie Saint Merat’s drumming is as stunning as ever, his creativity and range putting to shame so many metal drummers who seem to think the only thing that matters are the speed of your blastbeats. His performance forms the backbone of the band’s sound, propelling the faster sections forward and adding weight and depth to the more atmospheric moments. Paul Kelland’s performance on bass helps ground the chaotic, spiralling guitarwork, while his vocals have more range, depth, and personality than ever before, particularly on ‘Extinguished Light’, without a doubt one of the album’s highlights.

If I can touch on the lyrics, I feel they’re an often under-appreciated facet to Ulcerate‘s music. Written by bassist/vocalist Paul Kelland, his morbid, beautifully poetic style has always been a draw for me. They’re relentlessly misanthropic. Where ‘Vermis’ criticised human weakness and oppression, my interpretation of Shrines of Paralysis is that it is criticising our tendency towards idolatry. We turn everything from individuals to moral creeds into shrines at which to worship – but in doing so we paralyse ourselves and our capacity as a species and individuals to learn, progress, and better our position. We do this frequently out of weakness, and fear of what is demanded of us if we were to forge our own path. And of course Ulcerate insist that we End the Hope – we are not going to save ourselves, and no one is going to save us from ourselves. Our own weakness accelerates our decay, pushing us further towards our own inevitable self-destruction. Ultimately, it’s hopeless – all this narcissistic veneration will be for nothing, as everything we worship will crumble, and we’ll all fade to dust, forgotten.

Drawing on the legacy of bands like Gorguts, Immolation, and Deathspell Omega, Ulcerate‘s core sound is just as invigorating now as it was when their 2009 album Everything Is Fire shook the foundations of death metal. But their songwriting abilities have matured and their technical skills have been honed. The noxious atmosphere is pervasive, and the weight and heft of the music here is almost intimidating. The songwriting is mature and deep, with depths to discover on repeated listens. And their continued emphasis on feeling over mere technicality continues to work wonders for them. Shrines of Paralysis might be Ulcerate‘s best work to date.