Ulcerate: Vermis

You could write a doctoral thesis on death metal band Ulcerate's complex musicality, and the band's latest album, Vermis, is another stunning mix of science run amok, organic madness, and clinical brutality.



Label: Relapse
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-10-23
Label website
Artist website

Sometimes it takes a seemingly unrelated source to explain why an album is so damn good, and that's certainly the case with Ulcerate's latest album, Vermis. The band's first album for new label Relapse is the death metal album to beat in 2013, at least in the sub-genre's more technical and venturesome sphere. Admittedly, that might seem debatable, especially as Colored Sands, the latest release from similarly adventurous death metal legends Gorguts, is a masterful display of technical finesse and ferocity. However, there's a very good reason why Ulcerate's album edges ahead, and the reason is provided by the world of evolutionary biology.

It's not surprising that a scientific theory could help explain why Vermis is such a commanding album, and why Ulcerate is such a fascinating band; after all, you could write a doctoral thesis on Ulcerate's complex musicality. The evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium argues that, while most species show little evolutionary change over their history, rapid changes can occur on the fringes of a species, where adaptive evolution kicks into a higher gear due to factors such as isolation. If you refocus that theory on death metal, and note the fringe-dwelling location of Ulcerate, the band's innovate adaptation of the sub-genre begins to make a lot of sense.

Based in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Ulcerate has been able to craft music isolated from the main branch of death metal. That's not to say New Zealand lacks other death metal bands, or that Ulcerate is immune to overseas influence. The band has toured internationally, overseas groups regularly visit New Zealand's shores, and of course Ulcerate's members have record collections likely to be filled with the works of Deathspell Omega, Immolation, Portal and, yes, Gorguts--all bands mentioned in relation to Ulcerate's sound.

However, New Zealand's geographic remoteness, and the nation's idiosyncratic and driven creative culture, has allowed Ulcerate to bring something fresh and unorthodox to the death metal underground. The band has developed a truly distinctive voice, one that was first heard by the majority of the international death metal community on 2007's Of Fracture and Failure. That album certainly put Ulcerate on the map, but it was a mere appetizer compared with 2009's Everything Is Fire, and 2011's The Destroyers of All. Both those albums were unquestionably intense and impressive displays of technicality and originality, seeing Ulcerate garner increasingly more attention and acclaim in the global metal scene.

The reason for that was simple: evolution.

Ulcerate has continually refined its sound over the years, bringing more artful sculpturing to its downtuned dissonance and complex time signatures, and setting that against a backdrop of often droning and industrial textures. The band's work has evolved to become steadily more nerve-shredding and formidable, with the usual riff-based shreds of death metal mutilated into a seething and polychromatic canvas of avant-garde atmospherics.

Ulcerate meticulously constructs its albums, including progressive elements from post-metal, glimpses of noise in the tone and distortion, a marked post-punk chill, and the fury of eccentric black metal. That blend of sounds, built upon a firm foundation of technical death metal, has led some to suggest that a post-death-metal descriptor suits Ulcerate best--because we're dealing with an entirely new species here.

No one makes death metal as cold, monolithic, or intimidating as Ulcerate. Bands like Obscura, Suffocation, Hate Eternal and Gorguts are awe-inspiringly technical, and Portal is similarly abstract and agitating, but those bands aren't mangling the rules of physics quite like Ulcerate. Debates about where the band sits in the taxonomy of death metal will no doubt begin anew with Vermis because, like Ulcerate's previous releases, the album is likely to evoke a powerful reaction.

The crushingly heavy technicality on the nine-song release will either be wholly attractive and hypnotic, or simply bewildering. There are no doubt a few metal fans who appreciate where Ulcerate are heading in theory, but are left scratching their heads trying to find an entry point into the band's works. The cryptic and claustrophobic vortex of Vermis won't make that quandary any easier, and if you felt Ulcerate's sonic template was a maelstrom of inaccessibility before, nothing has changed in that regard.

Still, challenging music is the point here, and if there's one thing Ulcerate demands, it's full commitment to its releases. Once again, guitarist Michael Hoggard provides deluges of malformed riffs and piercing notes plucked from the depths of the cosmos--all routed through his own disillusionment and disturbing visions to fire his outré creative spark. The slow hypothermic intro of "Odium", and mid-album instrumental "Fall to Opprobrium", show how effective and chilling the band can be when pared down to bare industrial bones. However, it's the multifaceted and atmospheric turbulence of "Clutching Revulsion" and "Confronting Entropy" that exhibit the band's prowess at splicing anti-harmonic insanity with maestro dexterity, to hammer the inhospitably home.

A mix of science run amok with organic madness and clinical atonality and brutality is what made Ulcerate's previous albums so successful, and Vermis adheres to the strengths of that distinctive formula. All the doom and despair of the band's aesthetic is ever-present, and it's evident from the thematic sophistication of Vermis that Ulcerate clearly concentrated on pre-production to hone its songs instrumentality--ensuring the album's velocity, rhythm and pacing was aptly portentous throughout.

As with The Destroyers of All, there's a complicated mix of squalls of noise, torrents of intricate notes and percussive patterns to be balanced here. However, Vermis's production maximizes the aggressiveness and impact of the band's sound, cutting dark churns with crystals of steel, allowing Hoggard's riff puzzles to be deciphered, and bassist and vocalist Paul Kelland's guttural growls to form another layer of voice/instrumentation. It's a mammoth mix, the best from Ulcerate so far, as bitter and oppressive as Everything Is Fire, and as strangulating and swarming as The Destroyers of All.

Production aside, Jamie Saint Merat's drumming on Vermis shows great agility in driving the blastbeats home, and providing more serpentine sprints around the drum kit (best exhibited on "Cessation" and "Await Rescission"). Both tracks see the band's progressive tendencies mining dread-filled terrain, and those ominous feelings, which Ulcerate evoke so well, ensure Vermis lingers. So much technical death metal is replete with impressive runs up the fret-board, but the über-technicality of it all blunts any long-lasting hooks. Ulcerate provides nothing along the lines of what you'd call a catchy tune either; there are no old-school riff grooves being dug on Vermis, just deeply discordant furrows gouged out of the earth.

However, what Ulcerate does provide, endlessly, is a bone-chilling sense of unrelenting darkness. Tracks like "The Imperious Weak" and "Weight of Emptiness" come with a strong sense of foreboding. That's something you'll come back to in the search for unnerving tunes that dazzle with the extremity of their sonic components, all perfectly matching their grim substance.

Vermis is a challenging album, and also electrifying. It's unconventional, and it transforms death metal into something transfixing and novel. It certainly fits into the wider ordo of death metal, resides in the familia of technical death metal, and you could rightly situate it in the genus of progressive technical death metal too. Still, it's the species that's most interesting. There's imaginative (and murderous) musicality here that would easily occupy space in the avant-garde metal realms. Ultimately, the fact that it’s necessary to debate how to best to describe Ulcerate proves just how innovative is the band’s approach to death metal.

Like Ulcerate's previous releases, Vermis is a forward-thinking album to savor over time. Repeated listening reveals more layers and buried detail, and there's abundant wrathful dynamics and density to luxuriate in. The songs on the album are constantly wrenched to and fro in an exceedingly hostile environment, and Ulcerate batters them remorselessly until only the strongest and most powerful elements survive.

That's evolution and adaptation in action.

That's Ulcerate.

That's why Vermis is one of the very best death metal albums you'll hear in 2013.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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