Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Cassette
On their second record, Providence, Bay Area blackened death trio Ulthar continue to plunder their way down bizarre pathways with careless abandon. The brainchild of bassist/vocalist Steve Peacock—who’s made his name exploring black metal’s outer limits in Mastery, Apprentice Destroyer, and Pandiscordian Necrogenesis—they sling death metal that’s as chaotic as it is catchy, grounded by a sense of restraint verging on pop-like (at least by Peacock’s standards). Like 2018’s excellent debut Cosmovore, Providence toes the line between explosive extremes and proggy weirdness, with guitarist Shelby Lermo (also of Vastum) and drummer Justin Ennis amplifying Peacock’s chaos-agent antics. This is no rehash, though: between a more disciplined, beefier death-metal heart slightly reigned-in sense of sprawl, Providence is a step up from its predecessor, and one of the year’s strongest metal albums to date.
Providence opens with “Churn,” an apt display of how toned they’ve become in just two years. With Lermo seamlessly transitioning between thick riffing and hypnotic tremolos, Ulthar would be any new OSDM band were it not for their manic fluidity; even when playing it straight, Peacock’s odd eye looms large. “Undying Spear” begins with Peacock’s deep horror synth and Lermo’s splattered acoustic guitar, grazing Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s evil sinister underbelly. The resulting jaunt recalls the spindly black-metal of bands like Ved Buens Ende, flashes of technical flourish in an otherwise singular death-metal storm. “Cudgel” also exploits convention and confusion: Lermo’s hefty downstrokes pump blood for battle, but for soldiers hopelessly outgunned against the multi-eyed, multi-limbed, ever-growing beast Ulthar conjures. It’s as fitting to the Lovecraftian nightmares Ulthar continually draw inspiration from as it is Starship Troopers’s scenes of human flesh torn and chunked en masse. Lermo’s growling lows and Peacock’s screeches are both familiar on their own; together, they form an illusion that their heads are attached to the same gruesome, hulking body. The beginning of the title track and the dying gasps of closer “Humanoid Knot” are where they voices harmonize in agony and summon Providence’s essence: what is before you is unknowable and foreboding, with shapes discernible and unrecognizable, and captivating for all those reasons.