Album Review: Ulcerate – Shrines of Paralysis

I don’t know who I can recommend Ulcerate’s Shrines of Paralysis to, but maybe that’s the point. I thought Anaal Nathrakh’s latest would have won Ugliest Listen of 2016 by a landslide, but Shrines dropped trou and shit all over that ill-fated notion. The whole thing, all 57 minutes, 44 seconds of it, is a fucking glorious mess, with a fuzzy guitar tone that isn’t so much atmospheric as it is asphyxiating, and drum production that’s drier than a 24 oz. can of cold Asahi.

Album art for Ulcerate's Shrines of Paralysis.

As for the songs themselves, I admit I struggle to identify the structures as simply ultra-technical; Ulcerate seems confident, comfortable even, regarding simple verse-chorus patterns as paltry and juvenile, the playthings of lesser bands. Still, I find it hard to talk about Shrines on a single-song basis, as all the tracks do kind of meld together — if I saw Ulcerate live I’d have trouble distinguishing one song from another — but like Anaal Nathrakh, Ulcerate isn’t just spewing noise; it’s calculated chaos. Monstrous vocals roar over muddy, distorted guitars, which only halt their frenzied tremolo-picking for frequent dissonant melodies. But even that isn’t all dicks out, either; they know how to hold back and lay down some tasty layers, as the gorgeous latter half of “Yield to Naught” proves.

I can already say Shrines of Paralysis won’t be making my Top 10 list this year, but I think it may be the most sonically impressive thing I’ve heard all year. Sure, I can try forcing it into a coveted slot, but what I really want is to just give up, call it “art,” and put myself at the mercy of these Kiwis pummeling my ear canals.

Standout track: “Chasm of Fire” – Every song on Shrines feels like a fucking journey, but “Chasm” encompasses the full range of Ulcerate’s terrifying talents. A buildup of intense blast beats and sublime, awe-striking rage culminate in a final minute and a half of sheer ferocious beauty.

Support Ulcerate and buy Shrines of Paralysis here.

Album Review: Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

Music is one of those things, apart from maybe religious belief and hard drugs, that can elevate you, take you to that “higher place.” Although metal as a genre isn’t usually associated with that more Josh Groban-y type of feeling, I’d be willing to make a strong case for Transcendence, the latest from Devin Townsend Project.

As a whole, Transcendence evokes the consistent feeling that you’re listening to music with a higher purpose. It doesn’t feel same-y the way an album with too-similar songs from a creatively tapped-out band would — instead, it feels “on-theme.” Devin and Co. have been doing this music thing for years, they knew the sound and mood they wanted and they went for it. And damn every god ever, I’m happy to be along for the ride.

Transcendence by Devin Townsend Project.

“Truth” kicks off the album with an uplifting, waltzing synths-guitar melody, immediately slotting Transcendence into the discography that is Devin Townsend’s trademark mix of prog metal and ambient. Townsend’s grasp of melody has always been nothing short of divine, both vocally and on guitar, but he knows how to bring the hurt too (they don’t call him “Hevy Devy” for nothin’). “Failure” has a driving 6/4 rhythm that melds down-tuned chugging with melancholic choirs, while the impossibly huge sound of “Stormbending” strikes you with a veritable stormwall of keyboards and lead guitar notes while still retaining an ethereal air.

Even softer, more accessible songs like “Secret Sciences” have an honest-to-God Badass Metal Part ™ that mixes up the kinda corny pop mentality present in the verse and chorus. Diversity in songwriting and structure has always been one of Devin’s strong suits, but unlike albums like Epicloud no track seems out of place here; it’s all a necessary part of the spiritual journey. I’ll admit, I’m a little bummed with the closer being a cover song (Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration”), but that’s only because I want to bask in the album’s final moments with the same band I’d traveled with for the last forty minutes. Like, we spent all that time transcending and stormbending the shit out of everything, and then emerge into our new spiritual afterlife as fuckin’ Ween? What’s the symbolism here? The whole situation makes me feel weird and selfish, but mostly just weird.

Then again, the diversity of the other songs is so good, I can forgive ending on a spur note. And as if I needed one more reason to love Transcendence, I should also mention this album sounds fucking great. At times it hits with hurricane force, awashing you with waves of synths and guitars; other times it pulls back and we hear subtle bass grooves and ghost-note snares. For an album that feels like an 8-step process in a personal journey to find one’s self, the dynamics don’t only feel natural but intentional.

I can already tell you this is a contender for my album of the year, so if you’re sick of hearing me gush about it, just be on your way. Nothing has come even close this year to the kind of transcendent musical experience of Transcendence, so elevate your listening habits and give this a spin.

Support The Devin Townsend Project and buy Transcendence here.

Impressions: More Albums from 2016

I’m torn.

I always want to discover new bands, or check out ones I’ve heard of and somehow haven’t gotten around to. You never know where you’re going to find another contender for the top 5, y’know? But I also don’t want to ignore the popular stuff — the stuff everyone else is listening to. Sure, it’s good to seek out your own interests, but I want to be a well-rounded listener.

This recent batch is made up of friend recommendations and a couple discoveries. Broadening the ‘ol musical horizons, and all that. I’ll try to be brief.

Master, An Epiphany of Hate – I listened to the entire first track, which is probably more than this album deserves. I don’t especially like ragging on bands — not in public, anyway — but I honestly don’t think I could stand more than four minutes of this album. I just can’t take the vocals seriously — even for death metal! It just sounds like the laziest effort, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the instrumentation made up for it. But I can’t remember a single note. If an album can’t grab me from the first track — or in An Epiphany of Hate‘s case, the first 30 seconds — there’s a good chance it’s not for me.

Score: n/a

After the Burial, Dig Deep – My friend and fellow Mysidia member Chris recommended this one to me. The clip he played through his PlayStation microphone late one night didn’t really do the band’s metalcore heaviness justice; a couple listens later and I’m kind of on board. Maybe it’s just the way the genre has been going lately, but I felt a distinct lack of clean singing on tracks like “Deluge” where it felt like there should have been. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely didn’t mind their absence. After the Burial seems comfortable doing it their way, and as it turns out, I’m more or less into it.

Score: 3

Delain, Lunar Prelude (EP) — Is there really room for another female-fronted symphonic metal band in my life? Maybe, if Delain would put out a full-length album. The good news is they’re doing just that later this year, so why put out Lunar Prelude so close to its release? The two brand new songs they put out aren’t bad, and neither is the new version of a song from their last album, but they aren’t enough to really get my horns in the air. I’ve always been a fan of the less-operatic vocals that this genre has been moving toward in recent years, so a proper release from Delain might be enough to win me over to their side.

Hypno5e, Shores of the Abstract Line – Awful name aside, Hypno5e could be one of the year’s more promising new discoveries for me. Not top 5 material, but prominent enough to get my ears perking up whenever I hear them mentioned. The opening track has great atmosphere and builds up to a welcome dose of heaviness. I’ll admit, I was expecting a more unique sound than the derivative djent-inspired riffage, especially for a band labelled as “avante-garde,” but their offenses weren’t egregious. Shores probably won’t win any awards from me, but Hypno5e has my attention.

Omnium Gatherum, Grey Heavens – Disclaimer: This is a Garrett J. Peters band. Or was that Insomnium? I’ve never been able to tell the two bands apart until now. Ominium Gatherum emphasizes the “melodic” in their brand of melodic death metal, but Grey Heavens doesn’t especially wield this in a way that hits home for me. Some tracks like “Rejuvenate” have standout moments, but overall I think I’d rather listen to something with a little more variety. “The Pit” and “Frontiers” are excellent though, so I can’t completely condemn this one.

Score: 2.5

DevilDriver, Trust No One – I said I didn’t like bashing bands. I really don’t. But it’s hard for me to express my dislike for DevilDriver without getting a little rowdy. I bought their first album back in high school, and like then, there’s competent musicianship on Trust No One, but it’s hampered by the same bland songwriting. Not predictable necessarily, just filled with an overwhelming sense of apathy. Like, that shouldn’t seem possible with a genre as bombastic as metal, right? If you want me to get the claws out, here goes: I think Dez Fafara might be the worst vocalist in metal. His diction is terrible, his voice just totally devoid of charisma. He’s like the first death metal vocalist you ever met, who only got the job because he’s the only one whose voice didn’t hurt after growling for half an hour. But, like DevilDriver the band in the time I’ve listened to them, he never got better.

Score: 1.5

Witherscape, The Northern Sanctuary –  This album does things I like, but I’d still find it really hard to recommend. Like, unless you’re looking for something very specific (“albums with Dan Swano”), I’m not really sure what my angle would be. Songs with memorable parts that don’t build up to anything that impressive? A mix of clean and death vocals that ultimately don’t work together in interesting ways? Half-baked progressive elements that don’t challenge listeners? It seems like I’m coming down hard on The Northern Sanctuary, and I really, really don’t mean to. This is a “metal album.” It has metal music, played by metal musicians. It’s an  instance where actually having nothing to compare it to is a bad thing.

Score: 2.5

Whispered, Metsutan – Songs of the Void This is a Garrett recommendation, which means there was a good chance it was going to be melodic death metal. Whispered is the latest offering in a line of bands he’s brought to my attention that sound Bodom-inspired, which isn’t the most grievous act if they’ve got the chops. Metsutan shows theirs well enough with talented showcase of catchy riffs (the opening of “Strike!” will probably be stuck in my head for the rest of my life). However, it’s all marred by the very thing Whispered uses to set themselves apart. The Eastern instrumentation used to lend exotic flavor to their songs is done in such a poor, tasteless manner to the point of distraction. I mean, not even Chthonic gets it right all the time, but at least that sort of thing feels like it belongs there. Maybe I’d have liked Metsutan more if it had been more derivative after all.

Score: 2

That’s it for now, but man, the weeks keep flying by. Expect another one of these sooner than later.