FEATURES For Ulthar, Blackened Death Metal Is A Lifeline By Brad Sanders · February 16, 2023

Ulthar’s Anthronomicon is a vast labyrinth of charred black metal atmosphere, twisted death metal riffage, dizzying time signatures, harrowing vocals, and unnerving synth work, cloaked in a conceptual shroud of unfathomable cosmic horror.

Of the band’s two new albums, it’s the most accessible one.

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette

“The way I sort of envision it is, here’s this more easily digestible album, being Anthronomicon. If you can get through that and make sense of that, try this fuckin’ thing on for size,” says Ulthar guitarist and vocalist Shelby Lermo. “Put on Helionomicon and see if you can make sense of that.”

Ulthar knew they wanted to release Anthronomicon and Helionomicon simultaneously almost as soon as they completed their previous album, 2020’s Providence. Lermo, bassist/vocalist Steve Peacock, and drummer Justin Ennis all lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, and with nothing but time on their hands, they started writing. An idea soon emerged to assemble a “normal” Ulthar album, comprising eight songs of their trademark progressive blackened death, and a companion record comprising two 20-minute compositions. “I talked to Dave [Adelson] at 20 Buck Spin about it, and to my surprise, he was totally into it,” Lermo recalls. “So we just took it from there.”

As satisfyingly confounding as Anthronomicon’s eight songs are, it’s Helionomicon where things truly go off the deep end. Its two side-long tracks—helpfully titled “Helionomicon” and “Anthronomicon”—reveal a totally unleashed Ulthar, one so overflowing with ideas that even 20 minutes feels quick.

“It was challenging, but also it was really fun because it gives you so much more space to connect disparate ideas and explore weird themes,” Lermo says. “It’s not like they’re funeral doom songs. It wasn’t like we were getting lazy with it. We were just writing 20 minute Ulthar songs. So, it took a long time and a lot of effort, but the end product was totally worth it. It was a lot of fun to have that much space to get weird in and indulge every weird little idea that you have.”

Lermo and Peacock composed for the albums separately, with Lermo painstakingly transcribing every note he wrote and Peacock taking a freer, more improvisational approach. (“I think that’s where some of the magic of Ulthar comes from, the fuckin’ push and pull between chaos and order,” Lermo suggests.) They contributed four songs each to Anthronomicon and one apiece to Helionomicon. Lermo’s Helionomicon track was “Anthronomicon,” and it might be the most out-there Ulthar song to date. Think Tool’s Fibonacci-sequenced “Lateralus,” but a thousand times more esoteric.

“There’s a lot of numerology and weird little secret foundational bits that I put in as I went that are kind of just an inside joke with myself,” Lermo says. “I constructed the song like a pyramid. It doesn’t make sense to anyone besides myself, but there’s some hidden math in it that made it extra fun and challenging.”

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette

Ulthar also used the new albums as an opportunity to further explore the ambient and electronic elements of their sound—present from the very beginning but never as fully realized as they are here. Lermo gives partial credit for that to the fact that the band, once headquartered in Oakland, is now split between the Bay Area, Portland, and Washington, D.C. “VI,” an ambient experiment that they added to the end of a reissue of their first demo, was a crucial dry run for their new configuration.

“It was early COVID when we recorded that ambient track, and it was kind of our first time experimenting with all of us collaborating long-distance,” Lermo says. “And my first time fucking with electronic music, basically, which was something I just started doing at the beginning of the pandemic. I had all this time, and I was like, I’m gonna learn these synthesizers and learn ProTools and Logic and how to record at home. So yeah, definitely, I did more of that on Anthronomicon and Helionomicon.”

Ulthar went into the studio ready to kick ass, armed with as much new music as they’d released up to that point combined. But when Lermo went to track his vocal parts, something seemed off.

“I had warmed up my voice a bunch, and I started singing, and Justin and Steve were in the control room, and they were like, ‘You don’t sound right,’” Lermo remembers. “And I was like, ‘Really?’ And I listened back, and I was like, ‘Yeah, my voice does sound weird.’ Eventually, I just worked more and more, trying to get into the right range and got it to sound right.”

Lermo also noticed some pain in his throat while he was recording vocals: “It wasn’t a bad pain. It was just like a scratchy something-or-other.” When it didn’t go away for over a month, he started to get concerned. When he felt a lump on his neck, he got it checked out. A couple short months after getting through the challenging Anthronomicon/Helionomicon sessions, his biopsy came back positive. Lermo had throat cancer.

“I was treated with chemotherapy and radiation for two and a half months. I ended up in the hospital for eight days. I lost the ability to eat and drink and talk,” Lermo says, stressing that the voice coming through the Zoom call isn’t what his voice normally sounds like. “We’ve had a couple of tour offers that I just had to straight-up turn down, even though it’s a couple of months in the future because I can’t predict when I’m gonna be able to sing again.”

He might never be able to sing again, and if he does, there’s no guarantee he’ll sound the way he used to: “I’ve talked to doctors about it and stuff, and it’s kind of a very, very niche question to be like, ‘I sing for a death metal band. When will my ability to do death growls come back?’ Nobody has an answer for that.”

Music was a lifeline for Lermo during those interminable months of treatment. When he was weak and bedridden after chemotherapy, he picked up his guitar. (“I wrote several more albums for different projects while I was wiped out because I was like, ‘I don’t know, my hands still work, even if the rest of my body doesn’t.’”) During his first week of radiation, he did the layout and design for Anthronomicon and Helionomicon. The artwork, as with every other Ulthar release, was handled by the legendary British illustrator Ian Miller—but this time, the band used an original commission rather than a licensed piece. Miller’s Lovecraftian nightmarescapes have become a central part of the Ulthar aesthetic, but it turns out they’re also something of a red herring.

“We kind of play this game in Ulthar now,” Lermo explains. “When we named the band Ulthar [for Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar], we were like, that’s a cool word. We looked on Metal Archives, and it was like, ‘Nobody’s used it; we should use that name; it’s a cool name.’ And then everybody was like, ‘That Lovecraft band.’ And we were like, “We don’t have any lyrics about Lovecraft or anything! It’s just the name of the band.’”

After that, Ulthar started trolling. The title of Providence was a reference to the protective care of God, not H.P. Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. The -nomicon suffix used for Anthronomicon and Helionomicon has nothing to do with the Necronomicon; it just means “book.” And the Ian Miller art—probably best known for adorning the ’70s pulp paperbacks of Lovecraft’s weird fiction—is now tied to Ulthar’s mythos, not Cthulhu’s. “We’re developing our own mythology,” Lermo says.

He hopes they’ll get to take that mythology on the road sooner rather than later, but it’s a waiting game for now. “Everything else has improved, so this is sort of the last thing I’m waiting on, to see when [my voice] comes back,” Lermo says. “And if my voice doesn’t come back, well then I guess I’m just a guitarist, and we’ll figure something out.”

He hopes it doesn’t come to that, but don’t expect him to sit still if it does. “That’s just how I keep sane,” he says. “I have to be working on something.”

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