Dissonant death metal is, admittedly, not my cup of tea. That much should be fairly tautological to read for anyone who’s followed my Everything Is Noise output. A Scene In Retrospect isn’t about me and my tastes, though, and as such I’m glad to give my esteemed colleagues ample opportunity to write about the stuff they love but leaves me scratching my head. Today’s example is none other than The Destroyers of All by one of the most accomplished bands in the realms of knotty, disturbingly atmospheric death metal: New Zealand’s very own Ulcerate.
The term ‘bleak’ has been tossed around for quite a while now to describe bands that play a certain style of music, but there are very few artists that embody the whole concept of bleakness better than Ulcerate.
The band’s distinct sound that started to evolve on its two predecessors was finally born in perfection on The Destroyers of All and damn, it was filthy.
While the two previous albums were following a more traditional approach of death metal songwriting, times changed on The Destroyers of All. What you are met with over the course of the 52 minutes the album spans around feels like an oppressive nightmare that might even leave you anxious. Dueling guitars that are on a constant quest for the most shrieking motifs are accompanied by lyrics that (well, who would’ve guessed that after reading the album title?!) deal with all things negative, while slowly played, dissonant guitar chords round off the overall disturbing atmosphere. I don’t know how they did it and why they never did it again, but The Destroyers of All arguably features Ulcerate’s prime guitar tone, so bonus points for that.
So yeah, if you ever find yourself in the position of having to find the perfect soundtrack for a depressing dystopian movie, take some words of wisdom from me: stop searching for too long and simply go with the obvious choice that is The Destroyers of All. What a great fuckin record.
I’m a huge advocate of two things: metal and local music. When I first fell head-over-heels into the turbulent, bottomless pit that is metal in my early teens, I knew instantly that this was a passion I would never lose. Under the eye-rolls of my peers, the bemused smiles of my family, and silent cheers of those with the same affliction, I puffed out my band-shirt-clad chest, narrowed my be-eyelinered eyes, and wielded my newfound love for this dark, twisted, abrasive music like a sword.
Really, nothing much has changed – I wear my love for metal on my sleeve; it means more to me than I expected it ever would, and it’s so diverse and multifaceted that I can’t imagine ever growing bored of it. I know many people who see the term ‘metalhead’ as a slur, and yet I still wear it with complete pride, and a generous dose of self-aware irony (I hope!).
When I was around 15, I snuck into my first local gigs, and continued to do this until I could finally stop sneaking and go like a normal person when I turned 18. It was through these gigs that I met a bunch of awesome people, mainly musicians, and became an honorary part of the local scene. I was in a tech-death band for a hot minute, and while I was not a great player, I think a lot of the older musos were somewhat charmed by my eagerness, which even the scowl, eyeliner, and wild hair couldn’t hide.
The older I became, the more involved with local music I was. Now, I have a variety of musical projects and am always harping on about how everyone should go to local gigs, buy local bands’ music and merch, and promote each other’s music. Shame on me, then, for skimming over possibly the most renowned New Zealand metal band of the 2010s: Ulcerate.
Growing up in New Zealand metal scene, I had of course heard of Ulcerate before – it was impossible not to. They have always been heralded as The Single Greatest Kiwi Metal Band (that is, until Alien Weaponry came along, and nefariously claimed that crown, at least in the eyes of the masses), not just by kiwis, but all over the globe. I never got the hype; I think I liked the idea of this monumental, local, brutal band more than the reality of the beast. I listened to Vermis a few times, didn’t really get it, and discarded it. I loved Stare Into Death and Be Still more because of the name and album cover than the songs it’s made up of. I never really bothered digging deeper. And I stand here boasting of my pride as a Kiwi metalhead! The cheek! When The Destroyers of All was announced as this week’s ASIR album, I knew it was time to change that and give these New Zealand heavyweights (hah!) the attention they deserve.
I consider myself very open-minded when it comes to metal, and often go by the motto ‘the bleaker, the better’. But I found my match in The Destroyers of All. Holy hell, did this album make me work for it. To describe it as a challenging listen would be an understatement. It’s 53 minutes of darkness so dense and impenetrable, of misery so absolute, that I felt myself faltering in my resolve to love, or at least appreciate, this band halfway through the first, second, and third listen. It wasn’t until my fourth listen that things finally started to fall into place for me, that I started to see the delicate shades of grey among the black, started to feel more than hear the nuance in the crushing wall of sound.
On my first listen, I was impressed by the album’s monumental weight and magnitude more than anything, but not really favourably. Every song felt like an age, like wading through tar. Because of the nature of the genre, I found very little to grasp onto melodically, the rhyme and reason of the songs blurry and indiscernible. The songs blunder headlessly in tormented, agonising structurelessness, lumbering about like beasts blinded. The Destroyers of All is so bleak, so expansive, so dark – three qualities I adore – and I just didn’t understand it. It was like a deformity I couldn’t bear to look at, but knew I had to face, and that I was somehow both sickened and fascinated by.
But, as these things tends do go, the more time I spent with this album, the more it grew on me. There was no ‘wow’ moment, just the dawning realisation that the more I heard it, the more I wanted to hear it, if that makes sense. Something about The Destroyers of All started to draw me in, to close in on me. I listened to it four times in one day, because it irked me so much that I didn’t understand it, and when the day was over, I realised that, even though I didn’t think I really liked the album, I had been eager to hear it every time. And, I realised I had fallen in love with it, Stockholm syndromed myself into adoring it.
Now, there are some that would argue that you shouldn’t have to listen to an album eight times to like it, that that sort of thing is bordering on obsessive and that no album is worth that amount of time. I don’t agree with that. I know very few albums that I loved from the first listen, and that continued to deliver on each subsequent listen, but I know plenty that I initially wasn’t amazed by and that have grown to fascinate and shape me.
Initially, what drew me into The Destroyers of All were mere moments – the end of “Cold Becoming”, which always makes the hairs on my neck stand on end; the intro of “Omens”; the final moments of the title track. And then, suddenly, it was the album as a whole. I stand humbled by its complexity, its hostility; I stare, silenced, awed, into its churning guts. In a few years, I’m certain I will be so into Ulcerate that I won’t be able to imagine a time without them in my life. And you know what? Even if I’m not, I can still say right here and now that I haven’t heard anything like this album before. It stands as yet another testament that metal is ever expanding and evolving, and that I’ll never know it all.
The Destroyers of All perhaps doesn’t sound as fresh to me as it would’ve had I heard it in 2011 and been versed in metal enough to appreciate it, but it is seriously fantastic. The production is so organic for music so technical, the guitar tones are absolutely astounding, and the musicianship is beyond anything I’ve heard. Not just because it’s technical – but because Ulcerate know when it’s time to just repeat a riff, when it’s time to ease up and drop into a doomy wasteland of a section. It’s powerful, it’s dreary, and it’s so intensely dark. I love what it stands for.
My friends, it took me ages to even get close to understanding The Destroyers of All. Do I even get it now? Do I like it now? Does it matter? Honestly – I don’t know, on all three fronts. But you know what? Perhaps it’s okay to like the idea of a band more than the band itself. To me, even without fully understanding, Ulcerate are One of The Greatest Kiwi Metal Bands purely because of what they stand for and the sheer amount of effort they have put into establishing themselves as tech death giants on a global scale. I hope they continue to push the boundaries of tech death for many years to come.
Back in the day I used to work at a theater as a handyman of sorts, working on a multitude of different things for a plethora of purposes for a whole lot of people, usually all at the same time. One particular task of mine was to make cables of varying lengths for the lighting department, and it was something I enjoyed, as I could just hang my brain to a hook by the door and listen to music while cabling away all by my lonesome. It gave me time to breathe and mull over other things without getting interrupted all the damn time. I used a lot of that time searching for new artists to listen to, usually gave individual songs or albums a chance before proceeding on to the next. One day, however, I didn’t proceed anywhere after hitting play on a certain record, as I got so overwhelmed and absorbed into it that time seemingly stood still for hours on end.
My first impression of The Destroyers of All was ’what the ever-loving fuck was that?’, followed with deepening dives and fixation on every single aspect possibly foundin there. I had read Ulcerate’s name somewhere a few times before in some contexts, but had never dared to check them out for one reason or the other. Either way, that day I did, and everything changed forever.
The Destroyers of All is a masterclass in musical intelligence and fluent delivery, neatly tied together with a bow of atmospheric gravitas and earth-moving production that plows everything it comes across flat to the concrete. The aerial compositions still feel like some type of a strange alien gymnastics competition where the most out there ideas come together with the accustomed ones. From the first evocative seconds of ”Burning Skies” onwards, The Destroyers of All delivers on all artistic fronts. Honestly, I could spend an eternity dissecting every single detail in there – althoughI’m fairly certain that a decade later I still haven’t discovered all of them – but I doubt you’d have the timeor interest to take all that in within this lifetime.
The usage of repeating patterns and loop-like (also not only -like, but factually looping) riffs that borderline being riffs to begin with are a majestic entity to listen to, and probably adds most unique flavour to Ulcerate’s output, without diminishing the twitching and rampant drum work or the scorning vocals, all of which make the band what they are. In addition to the constantly evolvingwalls of sound, the reverse side in Ulcerate’s mien are the near-fragile serpentine and intricate quieter passages that provide the type of dynamics to their overall presence that makes them stand out from the rest of the dissonant death metal mass. There really is no other like them, albeit some others have dabbled on similar grounds with varying degrees of pulling it off. Even so, the fluency I mentioned is on a level of its own with Ulcerate, and especially so on The Destroyers of All.
This album proved to be a significant and eye-opening effort to me personally, both as a listener and as a somewhat of a musician, as it showed me in-depth how you can bend even the most self-explanatory aural concoction into a form of its own and have it speak a language that has gone globally unspoken for a long time. Still today, hearing any of the quadrillion notes on the album sends a river of shivers down my body and mentally resets me, while reminding me of those days spent in that dimly lit corner working on electric cables. What rang true then and still does today, is that times may pass but Ulcerate never will; they are forever.