Let’s get a couple of things out of the way before we get into this review. For Ulthar to release two albums at the same time is a gutsy move, and I’m not sure how many bands can pull something like this off. I guess that is something that should be clarified as well; this isn’t a double album. These are two distinct records with different goals and ideas, and while they are sisters of sorts, they are different creatures entirely. When I first heard this news and saw the announcements, I was pretty certain about how this would play out. Some people would like album A and some would like album B, and, depending on your tastes and moods, you’d likely shun one and cling to the other. This is the way of things. Well, having both albums in my head for weeks now, I am happy to say that I am wrong. Very wrong. I still don’t know if Anthronomicon or Helionomicron is my favorite of the two. So let’s get into why that is.
If you’re unfamiliar with how Ulthar approaches music, I’d advise you to check out their entire catalog and start with the demos. It’s all great but it also demonstrates their penchant for mixing technical-leaning death metal with the harshness of black metal and love for atmosphere that is showcased in both the back- and foreground. Their proficiency at their instruments and ability to think about riffs and song structures is somewhat out of step with the wave of modern metal and the OSDM revival. It still retains that nasty tone and aggression, but they have more in common with Immolation than they do with Morbid Angel. With this in mind, breaking into these albums was a labor of love, since their style is somewhat unique. Knowing the quality of their releases until now, I was curious and hopeful for what was to come.
Beginning with Anthronomicon seems like the right move. This album consists of eight songs and clocks in at just under 41 minutes, giving it the more traditional Ulthar album structure. This is where I began sinking my teeth, and I had plenty to chew on. The first thing I noticed from the very opening of “Cephalophore” is the energy. This album comes in swinging with stop and start riffs, an array of vocal styles, and a punchy production. Seriously, even when played at lower volumes, this album feels loud. At just under five minutes, this opening track winds through a myriad of ideas, from head-banging to head-tilting, and finishes up with an aqueous outro that leads into the next song. Seriously, thank you Ulthar. This is what I think makes the most sense; no bloating the tracklist with ambient interlude song titles. Thank you. These atmospheric ideas aren’t new to the band at all, but they get better and better each time they appear on Anthronomicon.
Across this album, there are a variety of things to note, and while some aren’t necessarily novel – at least to Ulthar – they are worth mentioning. Firstly, this is a band that knows their way around their respective instruments, vocals included, and they push themselves right up to the brink on every song. That being said, there is some restraint shown, as it seems like it would be quite simple for this band to crank the showboating up to 11, but they never let it get that out of pocket. To me, that signals that the band are really focused on making interesting compositions and let that be the point of these songs and not letting it devolve into wankery for its own sake. That’s not to say that chaos isn’t the operative word at times, quite the contrary. “Astranumeral Octave Chants” is a frenetic track that that keeps the intensity high throughout and reaches peak cacophony levels before resolving into “Coagulation of Forms”. This type of dynamic pacing is something that gives this album a sense of tension and pull toward its conclusion.
The final two songs of Anthronomicon – “Larynx Plateau” and “Cultus Quadrivium” – are frankly two of the best death metal songs I’ve heard in quite a while. These are crushing songs that shift from bouncing grooves, blind aggression, with riffs so cosmically and comically good I had to have a chuckle or two while listening. On its own, this album will stand as one of the best in the genre in recent memory and perhaps the best in Ulthar’s already stellar discography. If this was all that Ulthar was releasing it would frankly be more than enough. But bless their hearts, they just didn’t see it that way. One album was simply not enough.
Helionomicon is the second album by Ulthar being released on the same day. Knowing how to quantify its relationship to Anthronomicon is a little difficult, as it’s not really a sibling, second half to a double album, or a companion. It’s all of these things and none at the same time. There is shared art, and the two track titles are “Helionomicon” and “Anthronomicon”, but it also has something to say that differs from the Anthronomicon. Confused yet? Me neither. Semantics and correlations aside, this record deserves its own in-depth look as well.
Ulthar are no stranger to longer compositions, as Cosmovore’s closer “Dunwich Whore” was over 13 minutes long. However, Helionomicon is comprised of two 20-minute songs which have their own message to get across, so there’s no retreading going on here. The title track is an expansive piece that pulls from all of Ulthar’s previous work and pushes them into new territory. While this isn’t what I would call ‘prog metal’, there is no denying that it is progressive in a technical sense. This song feels alive. The riff structures range from angular to groovy while the song’s amplitude is an ever-changing roller coaster of genre blending. The blackened vocals shriek, scream, and growl throughout this opus and like all well-written songs that flirt with a duration like this, the whole thing flies by. This isn’t ‘easy listening’ music by any stretch, but it sure is easy to listen to. The final three minutes settles into the spacey synth-driven ambience that has been all over their albums until now, but this time around there is more depth, as it feels less like a segue and more like a dire draw of the bowstring. As the phasers shoot too and fro and the underlying rumble declines, it only takes a moment to realize that the final arrow is being nocked.
“Anthronomicon” is the second track, the final song, and the entire B-side of this album. Given a role such as that simply means that it’s going to be reaching into every bag of tricks, and this song does just that. I won’t go into every moment or aspect, but it’s both more of the same and more. This is an unhinged and utterly brutal ending chapter that says just as much as it’s counterpart track. It’s difficult to not both gush and guffaw at how impressive Ulthar are at writing these protracted death metal songs, so I’ll stop trying to avoid that.
Ulthar have blown the doors off of the year with their two-album jab and cross and have put the metal scene on notice. They have long been an above average band with a unique set of skills, but what they have done here is something otherworldly. To release two albums with this much to offer is a high water mark for the band but also for the genre. We are blessed to live at the same time as Ulthar. Anthronomicon and Helionomicon are two damn impressive albums on their own merits, but bringing them into existence at the same time says so much about what this band is capable of. These albums are heavy and with a combined runtime of around 84 minutes, you’d think they’d be exhausting. They’re not. They are refreshing, energizing, and beg to be looped again as soon as they’re reached their end. Go buy these albums, I dare you to pick a favorite.
I mean, 84 minutes is just a great ORM album or a Mare Cognitum/Spectral Lore split. Not long at all. Seriously, great write up Jake.