Ulcerate Ponder the Debate of Growers vs. Showers on Vermis

  • Sammy O'Hagar

One of my favorite surprises of the year so far has been Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Labyrinth. Not that I ever disliked that band of pompous weirdos, but what drew me to 2011’s Agony was that it was so unabashedly batshit. But Labyrinth (yes, I know Ulcerate is in the title of this. I’m getting to that.) tightens some bolts and sands some edges to make a metal album that’s absolutely over-the-top with a considerable amount of weight to it. I didn’t think Fleshgod Apocalypse could make me feel anything other than “HOLY SHIT, they sound mad at that orchestra!” but here we are. A little focus and clarity were all they needed to go from being an enjoyable band to a surprisingly great one.

A good point of comparison is Ulcerate’s Vermis (THERE it is!). However, the band took the inverse approach to Fleshgod’s. 2011’s The Destroyers of All sounded as if it were genuinely summoning the apocalypse: the uneasy, bending riffs, the relentless drums, and the noxious valleys of ruins all added up to something incredible. And while Vermis certainly isn’t Destroyers Part II: Destroy All Harder, what it is is something challenging. But Ulcerate walk a fine line between challenging and impenetrable. It definitely takes a few spins of their latest to find out on which side of that line it lands.

The appeal of Vermis is hard to explain. It’s tricky to call a band as enormous and blistering as Ulcerate subtle, and it’s hard to call what they do as providing hooks. But the hooks here are far more subtle than they were on Destroyers of All. For example, think of the opening of “Dead Oceans”: the sine wave shift of that riff sucking up all the space around it until the rest of the band comes in to dice it up and spread its bits all over the rest of the song. There’s nothing that guided here. You’re left to sift through the 54 minutes of Vermis for something to take a firm hold of, and most likely, you’ll find nothing. At least at first. Truth be told, I was wavering back and forth trying to figure out just what in the hell I thought of this record. Part of me thought it was rigid and impossible to translate into something from which anyone could derive enjoyment. But I also knew I was missing something: Ulcerate are far too smart a band to get as lost up their own asses as parts of Vermis initially seemed to suggest. The thing is, I was right on both counts to a certain degree.

The hooks are missed. Part of the fun of Destroyers, though, was being able to enjoy the choppy waters between flagships riffs. Vermis is not nearly as kind. After two minutes of being dragged across the cracked, death earth of ambient opener “Odium,” Ulcerate drop you right into the shit with the title track. It takes about a minute or so for a discernible riff to show up, and once it does, its sinewy nature makes it a different one each time the band sprint through it. And while this sort of abstract tech-death can be offputting, once you settle into the wall of rumbles, squeals, growls, and insistent pounding, seeing the machinations of the song is incredible. Vermis represents the band’s truest self, expecting no newcomers or the faint of heart to be able to decipher anything beyond the noise. They’re not here to make first impressions or impress; they’re here to demolish.

The other hurdle the band have to clear is that, without the aforementioned hooks, the intentionally dead air can feel more meandering than dynamic. And there seem to be more spans of slow or stilted moments than before. But this is sort of an Ozymandius/Walter White declaration of, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” The seeming randomness of Vermis’ aural war makes the down time triply ominous. Logic says Ulcerate will come roaring back, but not knowing what is going to be revisited makes one uneasy. That’s where you get the jagged terrain of “Clutching Revulsion” or the long build-up that closes out “Cessation.” First impressions of Vermis promise emotional seasickness. But beyond that, the shifts from destructive anger to bleak, apprehensive calm come to make their own sense.

Vermis is a record that has to grow on you. Even something as challenging as Altar of Plagues’ latest/last gave you a hint that it may be worth combing through the album to find something that makes sense. Ulcerate simply present what they do at their obtuse, barbed best and let those who will most likely come to them show up. They don’t lead you by the hand into anything. This is a particularly ballsy move for a band that expanded their audience significantly after their last album and for their first release on Relapse. It’s something you have to devote time to in order to properly grasp. Ulcerate are not a band with noodly fusion-jazz licks, chunky Morbid Angel worship, or even a scant trace of the remotely-inviting appeal of melodic death metal. Vermis is the band at their most unpalatable. Whether or not that makes it the best thing they’ve ever done is debatable. But whether or not this is something Ulcerate’s devotees will ultimately enjoy is a little less subjective. They’re not an easy band to like, but if you like them, you’ll know Vermis will be worth the time you put into it.

 Ulcerate’s Vermis comes out September 17 on Relapse. You can stream the whole album right here at MetalSucks! You can also pre-order Vermis here.

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