Ulthar – Anthronomicon Review

Ulthar represent one of the strongest ascents in death metal that I can think of. Their debut was a sloppy and unrefined affair but their sophomore was a precise, punishing powerhouse. Many modern metal bands operate on a 3-year album cycle with Ulthar’s announcement of a new record in 2023 not being particularly surprising. What was surprising, however, was that they announced two albums. Not a double album; rather, two concurrent releases following an apparent overflow of creativity during the last couple of years. While this sounds like a recipe for an uninspired disaster, their immense quality on the last record meant I withheld pre-judgment. First, Anthronomicon.

Anthronomicon is recognizably the same band that made Providence. It’s old school, it’s modern, it’s blackened, it’s groovy, it’s technical, it’s melodic, it’s atmospheric. It wraps elements from every type of death metal into one neat package with refreshingly excellent production. The guttural, forceful growls are thunderous, while the higher shrieks are nasty. The surprising variety is enclosed by an idiosyncratic strangeness, conveyed through an oppressive atmosphere, ominous interludes and the curious but unsettling way that they stack layers of guitars. On that subject, it’s hard to overstate just how awesome the riffs are. Incredible leads are ubiquitous, moving from groovy stomps to warped technicality to blackened barrages at a moment’s notice, and then back again—all as exemplified by “Coagulation of Forms.” Those quick transitions are fascinating too. The drop-shift at 2:10 on “Flesh Propulsion” is wild, indicating how the band changes passages in marvelously unexpected ways. Ulthar are effortlessly more interesting than other death metal bands.

Despite the ease with which they appear to create, Ulthar is clearly very thoughtful in their compositional approach. The descending leads and cyclical drumming on “Fractional Fortresses” are the death metal equivalent of a helter-skelter, while the explosive introduction to “Saccades” is the death metal equivalent of a Formula 1 driver stepping on and off the gas, before unleashing the brakes as extra layers of guitars are included. Riffs are stacked on riffs are stacked on riffs, but such evocative music doesn’t happen by accident. Anthronomicon doesn’t scream “tech death” but is very technical. The leads change rapidly but always deliberately, moving in a clever and circular way. The music sounds unhinged but by design; it’s on the edge of escaping its own constraints but not messily. As the album progresses there’s a distinct sense of continuous escalation which undoubtedly contributes to its unique atmosphere and total effect.

There is an abundance of powerful, standout riffs. But Anthronomicon isn’t immediately catchy. It isn’t unfocused as the music all pulls in the same direction, but it’s changeable and often jittery. It’s so frenetic that, apart from a few exceptions, Ulthar don’t stick with any one idea for long. This means that individual ideas don’t have the requisite time to embed as they could, resulting in a sense as the album develops that it’s tough to distinguish one track from another—even with their pervasive quality. It took repeated spins for the best riffs to settle in, leaving the real rewards of the record to only the most persistent listeners. Anthronomicon is ‘everything everywhere all at once,’ being consciously and bewilderingly heavy. What’s here is sufficiently compelling to encourage perseverance but it does sometimes feel like too much of a good thing. It’s easy to enjoy but less easy to dissect and understand.

Make no mistake, however, that Anthronomicon is a record right out the top drawer. Any misgivings are grossly outweighed by Ulthar’s peculiar but powerful approach. Their superlative riff-craft isn’t the only part of this but it goes a very long way. The album moves the goalposts for Ulthar; the same team is playing but they shoot for more. Simply by releasing 2 albums concurrently, you sense their ambition, but this isn’t a case of unfulfilled potential or delusional confidence. Anthronomicon is the sound of a band executing on their ambitions.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: 20 Buck Spin
Websites: facebook.com/ulthar | ulthar.bandcamp.com
Releases Worldwide: February 17th, 2023

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