Ulthar – Providence Review

It’s always interesting to be the second reviewer of a band at this website. Where opinions are similar, it’s arguably a testament to orientation around the core group of writers who initially attracted us. But where they differ, how do you account for that? Simple difference of opinion? Or was one release simply vastly different in quality? It’s a question I’ve considered while listening to the sophomore album by California’s Ulthar. Their debut in 2018 was received poorly by the respective probationary writer, noting that it suffered from “conflating incomprehensible fury and aimless blasting with gripping riffs and relentless aggression.” While it was slightly underrated, and this at least demonstrates that not all of the probationary writers were overrating bastards (though all the ones who made the cut are), it was far from essential and hardly suggested that there were great things to come. Enter 2020 and Providence.

Where Cosmovore was a thrashier, sloppier affair, Providence is precise and punishing. Its approach is one of a consummate death metal record. It’s a little old school, a little modern, a little melodic, a little technical, a little brutal and a little dissonant, embracing all without excluding the others. It has the huge, stomping leads of Bolt Thrower (“Cudgel”), the noodling strangeness of Morbid Angel (“Providence”) and the blackened melodicism of Sulphur Aeon (“Undying Spear”). I use such comparisons deliberately; they entail the excellent riffs constructed here. It’s relatively rare that a death metal record fully engages me throughout as relentless, blasting riffs begin to blur, but Ulthar’s sole guitarist does what thousands of others cannot: demand my attention from first minute to last. The dual-vocals are a smart approach too. The throat-ripping, muddy growls are truly ‘brvtal,’ while the higher-pitched, raspier shrieks balance these so that the growls don’t become monotonous. Both are pleasingly threatening.

The more time I spend with Providence, the more I appreciate the subtle technicality and sophisticated songcraft. “Furnace Hibernation” shifts between tempos and riffing styles frequently, shuffling groovy dips, chromatic steps and blackened demolition. But such progression is always bridged with sharp, nimble transitions which blend accelerando and ritardando on the guitars and drums, such that passages seamlessly transition. Routinely great riffs are consequently stitched together in a routinely great way. “Cudgel” is the arguable highlight (to the extent that the record has highlights), adroitly assimilating differing types of riffs into something which is exciting and creative, but also heavy as fuck. Make no mistake that Ulthar have crafted something punishing but it’s deceptively intricate and technical without being obnoxiously so. Moreover, even the infrequent atmospheric moments introducing and closing a few tracks have a lot to say for themselves. They leverage deep choral voices, rumbling chords and subtle, creepy synths to frame their tracks in gloomy and unsettling atmospheres.

This is usually the spot where I would note the deficiencies before drawing an ultimate conclusion. This is simply not possible with Providence. As if mere musical supremacy wasn’t enough, it also boasts spot-on production. It uses a similar tone as Phrenelith, benefiting from meaty textures which are neither abrasively raw nor over-produced. It’s a touch cleaner perhaps, with less grainy guitars which befit the use of dissonance, but has thicker bass presence and sounds equally as monstrous. The mix is very well balanced too, conferring breathing space on each instrument without a crystal clarity which would undermine its death-inflected murkiness. It’s an album which exemplifies the value of great production, as while it’s nigh-on flawless musically, it may not have the killer edge it has without the overall aesthetic completing the package.

The result of my splurge above is a record which is one of the largest leaps from a debut to a sophomore that I’ve heard. It’s a far cry from the comments cited in the introduction, as Ulthar here adopt a menacing, deliberate pace and song-writing approach. Cosmovore was the meth-head; skinny, sloppy and wild. Providence is the meat-head; burlier, decisive and much more likely to actually kill you.1 It isn’t just one of the best death metal records of the year, but is one of the best records of the year, full stop.

Rating: 4.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: 20 Buck Spin
Websites: facebook.com/ulthar | ulthar.bandcamp.com
Releases Worldwide: June 12th, 2020

Show 1 footnote

  1. I really like this metaphor, although my day job has taught me that the meth-head is far more likely to actually kill you. – Holdeneye
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