Úlfúð – Of Existential Distortion Review

The concept Of Existential Distortion intrigues me. Does it imply some horrifying limbo state of being? A twisting and defilement of existing things? Úlfúð—pronounced “Ool-wooth” and meaning “animosity”—confirm at least the sentiment of dread with their sinister blackened death. Hailing from the remote and starkly beautiful Iceland, one has a preconception that the music will be likewise harsh and cold, infusing an already bleak subject matter and musical style with extra grimness. Úlfúð don’t necessarily make good on this assumption, as their blend is not especially dissonant, chaotic, or brutal. They do, however, succeed in crafting a solid and promising debut that balances the black and the death metal elements well and showcases just enough personality to stick.

Initially, it seems there’s nothing particularly unique about Of Existential Distortion. But listen closer and listen longer, and darker, more intriguing elements that lie otherwise dormant will rise up and reveal themselves. While the baseline of their sound lies in a semi-melodic more-black-than-death style, with little ornamentation, it’s when things slip into more atmospheric and intense territories that the record shines. A dissonant edge recalls Dysgnostic (“Faceless”), a pained yowl and mournful melody Gaerea (“An Elegy to a Paradise Out of Reach”); but in each case, the take is individual and thrilling. Sometimes the opposite is true; certain cuts and passages feeling comparatively unexciting. But Úlfúð get away with those by playing everything really well and producing it excellently. That second point, in particular, is worthy of note, as, with a DR of 12, this is some of the most spacious and layered-sounding black-adjacent metal I’ve heard in a long time. As a result, the music envelops and tides the listener over between moments of dark excitement, and all these excellent performances are elevated.

As intimated, it’s the elements with mysterious bite that carry the album. It’s there almost constantly in Sigurður Jakobsson’s percussive backbone, which roils and rolls over in brilliant clarity in ever more complex and restless patterns. And while the album does broadly grow more sinister and haunting as it progresses, there are omens throughout in the whining chords (“Where Strange Lights Dwell”), urgent riffing (“Tears of Terra,” “The Gods Left Behind”) and malevolent melodies (“Mockery Theatre”). Yet it truly is the back half of the album—minus “Questions,” which I would substitute with “Mockery Theatre”—where Úlfúð demonstrate what heights they’re capable of reaching. Stand-out epic “An Elegy…” is an evolving and engrossing piece of atmospheric, blackened extremity. Its partner and closer “Leviathan Dreams” is similarly arresting in a dissodeath kind of way. And both, with Breki Danielsen Imsland’s tortured wails grasping at the layers of pitiless, hopeless tremolo melody, are incredibly reminiscent of early Gaerea, only more restrained, and more angry than anguished. And this is no bad thing. Úlfúð’s music can really be beautiful, and not only in these layered, built-up catharses. The mournful solos of “Mockery Theatre,” and “An Elegy…” are particularly mesmerizing, and escalating tremolos coupled with low, haunting chorals (“The Gods…,”) feel urgent and alluring.

Not everything in Of Existential Distortion hits as hard. “Faceless” and “Questions” are the weakest with their slower and more meandering tendencies. The intensity and brilliance of some of the melodies (“Mockery Theatre,” “The Gods…,” “An Elegy…”) leaves me additionally yearning for more; that is, for more prominent refrains, rather than a shifting hint that occasionally asserts itself. The more I listen, however, the more I hear—thanks again to that dynamic range. And what I hear is an encouraging lean towards those strange, dissonant-yet-not woven-in melodies. Even if not everything here is mind-blowing, enough of it is special to portend great things for the band’s future. Those final two tracks in particular, “An Elegy…” and “Leviathan Dreams” speak volumes about a still more sinister, still more spellbinding potential.

Úlfúð’ feel like a group on the edge of greatness. Still finding their identity in the extreme metal world, they have already carved themselves a black and ominous niche. I’ll be thinking Of Existential Distortion for a while, and watching these Icelanders with a keen eye.

Rating: Good
DR: 12 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Dark Descent Records
Websites: ulfudband.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/ulfud
Releases Worldwide: March 17th, 2023

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