What’s in a name? How important is that moniker to a band’s identity? And what do we make of it when a band makes a radical change to its own name? These thoughts crossed my mind listening to the new album from Siberian metallers, Ultar. Previously, the members went by the very death-metal-sounding Deafknife. Then, for reasons unclear, they changed their name to Ultar, after the fictional town “Ulthar” in. H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dreamcycle” stories. The town of Ulthar in the books is famous for its most significant law: that “no man may kill a cat.” Ultar followed up this name-change by releasing Kadath, a shoegazy, Deafheaveny –and non H.P. Lovecraft-y– slab of post-black metal. I was impressed, but was also left perplexed about the references. When I think Lovecraft, I think the swirling chaos of The Great Old Ones, not a fairly straightforward modern off-shoot of black metal. Now they’re back with Pantheon MMXIX, and to be honest, I’m even more confused than I was before.
Kadath knew what it was and did it well. It mixed black metal elements with shoegaze and atmosphere. Not original, perhaps, but effective. Pantheon MMXIX on the other hand, appears to be suffering from an identity crisis. Ultar have doubled down on the black metal fury and aggression and dispensed with almost all of the shoegaze/post-black elements, which is strange because the effective shoegaze was what separated Kadath from a million other pretenders. Want proof? Listen to the final song off Kadath (“Kadath”). After a furious opening, and a long instrumental, with four minutes to go, it explodes with a knee-bucklingly beautiful riff which could go on forever as far as I’m concerned. Yes, they made you wait for it, but the payoff was worthwhile. It’s a magic few minutes, and it feels earned. Pantheon MMXIX’s dispensing of shoegaze means it loses moments like this. It’s absolutely no coincidence that the two best songs on the album are the ones that employ a more old-school Ultar style, namely “Yog Sothoth” (where the explosion into shoegaze at 3:00 is the most compelling part of the album) and “Worms,” where the gentler passages of the song lend pathos and tragedy to the blast beats and screams that follow.
Without this dynamism, Ultar have to rely far more on their riffs and fury. While they don’t disappoint in this regard, there is little that actually stands out. “Father Dagon,” is an exception: it elegantly and organically alternates between the soft and the loud, the gentle and the brutal. Otherwise, there aren’t many obvious highlights. Some songs have great moments, like “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” but when they happen, they’re almost always shoegazey and too short, which simply makes you yearn for more of them. Nothing here wrestles the attention or pulls at the heart strings like the best songs on Kadath did.
It’s not for a lack of trying. The musicians are all clearly talented and pour their hearts into the material, with drummer Vlad Youngman a standout performer. His intense and furious beats are a constant highlight, particularly on songs like “Swarm,” where he drives the melody remorselessly forward. Gleb Sysoev’s vocals have improved dramatically from Kadath, which suffered at times from his high-pitched shrieks being too monotonous. He has far greater range this time round, and Pantheon MMXIX is stronger for it.
Nevertheless, Ultar find themselves at a crossroads. Their sophomore effort is undoubtedly more brutal and intense than their debut, but in the process, they’ve left out a lot of the shoegaze elements that made Kadath so remarkable. I’m not saying they should have given us Kadath 2.0, but the power of the few shoegaze parts in Pantheon MMXIX makes you realize how compelling Ultar can be when the band plays to its original strengths. It doesn’t need another name change, but the guys would do well to return to their roots and focus on what made them special in the first place. Or else they risk killing the cat.