Fifty years on from the birth of heavy metal, it’s worth taking a minute to reflect on just how far the genre has come since then. Or maybe just eight and a half minutes, the running time of “Stare Into Death and Be Still,” a titanic and transporting new song by the New Zealand band Ulcerate.
The trio utilizes some of the signature features of death metal: growled vocals, flurries of double-kick drums, and the occasional blastbeat. But they’re not concerned with meeting any sort of benchmark of speed or surface intensity. Instead, their greatest strength is atmosphere, conjured through exquisitely weird riffs — grand, eerie, micro-detailed creations that bring to mind Lovecraftian alien architecture rendered in a hundred different shades of black. (Immolation, a Yonkers, New York outfit active since the Eighties, are the undisputed godfathers of this style.)
On this new song, the title track from Ulcerate’s upcoming LP — their sixth since forming 20 years ago in Auckland — Michael Hoggard’s guitars billow like noxious clouds, as bassist-vocalist Paul Kelland roars ominously over the top, and drummer Jamie Saint Merat expertly juggles crushing density and lean groove. Listen how, after a dramatic pause around the 4:55 mark, the drummer breathes with the ensuing riff, punctuating it with fluid accents. Here and throughout the song, the way the guitars and drums dance around one another makes it feel like time is warping.
This sensation is an Ulcerate trademark. A lot of extreme metal comes across as frantic; their work, on the other hand, evokes both patient menace and deep sadness. This jibes with the thematic content of the band’s new album, which, according to a press release, “explores the concept of ‘death reverence’ — drawing on recent personal experience to confront the truism that death and tragedy aren’t always sudden or violent, that people are often passive observers trapped ‘in the silent horror of observing death calmly and cleanly.'”
It might seem tough to connect any of what’s happening in “Stare Into Death and Be Still” to heavy metal’s first principles; after all, Black Sabbath started out as a blues band, and you’ll find no trace of that in Ulcerate’s modernist approach. But what does remain is a sense of fearsome majesty, how — much as when you give yourself over to the six-plus minutes of “Black Sabbath” — at the end of this epic track, you’re left feeling equally awed and unsettled. It’s proof that a half-century on, metal can still take us outside ourselves, and scare the hell out of us in the process.
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