As the album title suggests, Ultha play a tangled, cryptic black metal which treads many a well-worn path. What it seeks to release forth from its befuddled loins is a sense of emotional strife and confusion, a feeling many bands in this progressive black metal quagmire seek to explore. This German five-piece are no strangers to the depressive end of the black metal spectrum either. Ultha‘s two previous full-lengths—2015’s Pain Cleanses Every Doubt and 2016’s Converging Sins—merged second-wave riffs with rhythmic, tribal washes and sparse, depressing moments with aplomb. Much of the same, then, is to be expected from their third full-length The Inextricable Wandering. Prepare to feel forlorn.
Opening with the downcast plodding of the bass, moody reverberating guitar chords and wisps of choral chants, the album begins with typical joyousness. As with many bands of this style, a steady build-up is key—the aim is to submerge a listener in gradually tangling webs of misery. It’s all rainbows and butterflies. This slow build-up of sound is a common feature but part of The Inextricable Wandering‘s success comes from the band’s ability to transition at the right moment with a satisfying tonal change. This is particularly the case three and a half minutes into the opener “The Avarist (Eyes of Tragedy)” where the sullen and steady build-up is swallowed by a swirling mass of evil high-pitched tremolo riffing, supported by higher pitched vocal shouts. This trickling guitar lead continues for a solid five and half minutes, picking up rubble and flecks of mayhem in the form of intensifying drums, cosmic keyboard noise, and complementary rhythm guitar noise as it progresses. A solid riff is needed to carry a song through for fourteen minutes—the opener succeeds because of this core driving force.
A greater sense of melancholy, created through punchier bass playing and higher pitched melodies which echo through the mix, carries through follow-up track “With Knives to the Throat and Hell in Your Heart” astutely. It’s a solid contrast to the stormy violence at the heart of “The Avarist,” counteracting well. Variety of pace is key to Ultha‘s sound and the album moves through periods of rapidity and slowness often. The ambient track “There Is No Love, High Up in the Gallows,” placed early on in the album, pulls the album in slower direction. This Burzum-esque track layers whirring keyboard noise with an angelic lightness for six monotonous minutes. In terms of mood building, it adds nothing to the atmosphere that the previous songs have created. Other songs on the record fail to reach the hypnotic heights of the opener due to a lack of memorable riffs and powerful transitions. “Cyanide Lips” fails to fall to the maddening pits of despair of “The Avarist” and fails to reach the melancholic grandeur of “With Knives.” It’s stuck somewhere in the middle, a purgatory of middling riffs and somber ambiance. Because of this, other nagging flaws emerge, particularly the lightweight vocal approach. Nothing is exactly bad, but there’s a certain generic rasp which fails to provide a punch to songs.
Penultimate track “We Only Speak in Darkness” is a slow song that acts more as a bridge between “Cyanide Lips” and the eighteen-minute closer. It’s a bastardized mix of somber southern rock and doom as the reverberating twang of guitars and ominous organ sounds merge with croaky spoken word vocals and typical black metal ambiance. It comes and goes without making much of an impression—a gap filler which, when coupled with the ambient “There Is No Love,” stultifies the album. Closer “I’m Afraid to Follow You There” is solid but not exceptional, building from calmness to a cascading tumult which manages fizz energetically to a satisfying end. By linking rapid, evil, chugging intensity with escapades into loftier melodic territories, the song is able to maintain its blistering pace. Buried solos, whirring ambiance, and layer after layer of guitar noise forces the song forward and creates a hypnotic feel. It ends as it begins with the music moving at a withering, decaying pace, exhausted from the madness of the previous ten minutes.
The Inextricable Wandering is on the whole unsatisfying. The potential is clearly here for all to hear, but there just seems to be an inconsistency of sound and a strange pacing to the record which makes it a difficult overall listen. Individual songs listened to in isolation pack a punch, but in terms of an album, Ultha don’t offer anything especially powerful. This is decent but it could be so much more.