God is dead, but what can be done once the corpse is buried? Just to the left of nihilism, HP Lovecraft staked out a territory where divinity was absent and mankind insignificant, battered by forces beyond time and comprehension. Anti-christian, nihilistic, and cosmicist themes have all long been staples of metal, both lyrically and musically – but after decades the fear is gone; the well dry and the water stagnant. To reach ever greater extremes, these tropes must be transcended. Ulcerate did so. Their music reaches deeper than Lovecraft, whose fantastic god-creatures crumble before what they represent: reality. Since Everything is Fire, they have charted their own path, using music not just as art but, I would argue, as a philosophical exercise. Their art does not only transcend death metal; it transcends death, mixing Lovecraftian themes in death metal with the nature-reverence of Cascadian black metal towards a sort of naturalistic cosmicism. In Ulcerate‘s music, life itself is insignificant, not before alien gods, but before earth, light, and entropy. Shrines of Paralysis stays the course.
What strikes you first is the violence. “Abrogation” wastes no time slowly opening the gates; those familiar with Ulcerate already know what lies beyond – and that dawns on you next. The violence is a byproduct, and as “Abrogation” slows, the absolute vastness of Shrines of Paralysis becomes clear. Whereas Vermis was jagged and claustrophobically oppressive, its absolute spelean blackness as impenetrable as it was omnipresent, Shrines brings us back to the surface, where The Destroyers of All left off. In “Yield to Naught,” fragmented shards of melody flicker unevenly past the tumult like hapless sunbeams to scorch the barren soil below. “There are No Saviours,” pushes back out of that substrate, and after a lengthy introduction relapses into furor.
Vermis also suffered from a somewhat monotone mid-album, something that Shrines of Paralysis most definitely avoids. The title track writhes through a dozen ideas smoothly, pulling together fragments of melody into a desolate architecture that’s among the album’s greatest accomplishments, and “Extinguished Light” provides a more visceral reaction than any piece of music I’ve heard this year. Ulcerate‘s spellbinding compositions are at times fugue-like in their use of repetition, yet produce anything but complacency. In a darkened room, the highest points of “Extinguished Light,” bring one’s stomach to the throat, as a very real sense of dread and fear twist through the mind. It’s a feeling of existential horror that remains as powerful here as when I first felt it listening to The Destroyers of All.
Though every Ulcerate album since Everything is Fire has been fantastic on a musical level, each has suffered from a compressed master that makes listening through the entire thing a chore. Such dense music begins to induce fatigue very quickly, and Shrines of Paralysis proved often difficult to sit through because of the sonic monotony. It’s confusing to me how a band with such a fantastic grasp of dynamics and contrast in their writing can crush those exact qualities out of the master, which definitely suffers for its lack of dynamic range. After Ad Nauseam demonstrated how incredible this sort of music can be when left rich and dynamic, Ulcerate‘s recordings seem just a bit more wanting.
In a way, Shrines of Paralysis is nothing more than what is expected; a densely written record that’s both technical and brutal, harrowing yet atmospheric. What we’ve come to expect from Ulcerate is far beyond that of other musicians. In its performances, writing, and scope, Shrines of Paralysis is a cut above, but in emotional impact, it’s paralleled only by the band’s previous work. These albums have rapidly disfigured the face of extreme metal and brought blood back to the surface; they are lofty in ambition and terrifying in scope, and though short of perfection will undoubtedly be seen as classics in the years to come. Whether as a musical statement or philosophical exploration, Shrines of Paralysis is an unqualified success.