Ulthar – Helionomicon Review

I’ve written already about Ulthar and their ambitious attempt to overturn norms by releasing 2 separate but related albums concurrently. Anthronomicon offers a death metal tour de force, bending surprisingly sophisticated songwriting and exemplary riffs into an oppressive but imaginative album. Helionomicon, however, goes even further. It’s described on its one sheet as a “psycho-cerebral spectacle,” indicating its grand designs and contemplative approach. And all of this across just two 20-minute tracks; if Anthronomicon demonstrates growing ambition and songwriting subtlety, then Helionomicon demonstrates outright precociousness and a healthy risk appetite. Can Ulthar excel a second time?

Helionomicon is stylistically similar to Anthronomicon, in its singular and powerful blend of death metal influences with a strong streak of black metal. But what’s most ensnaring is how Ulthar walk that line between the familiar and unfamiliar, the predictable and the alien. It’s recognizably death metal but has an idiosyncratic strangeness; a nature that isn’t of Earth and is instead from another planet. Maybe it’s the bizarre, unsettling artwork and the grand song titles but it does feel similarly otherworldly to the likes of Blood Incantation and the latest Tomb Mold record. The band also leverages ambient, cosmic synths for a few reprieves across the record, with longer versions closing out both tracks. No doubt that the expansive, 2-song structure bolsters this effect too, as their ambitions grow beyond typical earthly confines.

Given the mammoth-sized component songs, Helionomicon doesn’t benefit from the natural pauses offered by breaks between multiple songs. This has a couple of consequences. On one hand, the album feels more progressive and experimental which are qualities I tend to enjoy in my metal. On the other, it’s a lot to take in. Anthronomicon, even with only one song exceeding 6 minutes, was already a dense and intimidating affair. Helionomicon matches such intensity and complexity but does this with extreme length as well. It’s partly this reason why my favorite moments are those which stick with one more idea for longer stints, such as one core melody which is embellished, or one rhythm with layers of insane guitars on top. More repetition gives more time for listeners to familiarize themselves with these ideas. Helionomicon is very busy but uses a little more of that repetition than Anthronomicon; unsurprising given the songs’ durations and its search for grandness.

Similarly, the record is better when the insanity strips back to expose the killer leads. If you endeavor to pierce the mayhem, the riffs are truly spectacular. Although the mix is reasonably successful in balancing the intense music, the songwriting choice to sometimes deprioritize rhythmic leads is slightly detrimental. “Anthronomicon” is much more blackened than “Helionomicon,” blasting drums and layering tremolo-picked guitars over its first half. This builds an impressive wall of sound but has the downside that the riffs are relatively buried in the mix. They’re therefore unable to stand out, with these 10 minutes blurring and being the least exciting across the sister releases. I enjoy how the band wraps black metal into death metal as a secondary part of their sound. But when the black metal becomes the focus it isn’t as striking. “Anthronomicon” is still more interesting than most other metal, and pleasingly grows into a muscular second half, but is a step below Ulthar’s other new music.

Even more than Anthronomicon, Helionomicon demonstrates Ulthar’s great musical ambition. They write death metal which is as powerful as it is unique. While this album suffers from a predictable bout of being long-in-the-tooth, I don’t hear any dull repetition or wasted ideas; it does indeed offer the spectacle advertised. The group is fundamentally more talented and inventive than other death metal bands, even if the length and depth of the music occasionally represents too much of a good thing. As great as “Helionomicon” is, I think Anthronomicon has the edge of the two albums because it’s simply more digestible. But you won’t go wrong with either and I thoroughly recommend the whole package.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
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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