Ulthar are Back in the Eldritch Abomination Game with Providence
Let me start with the following: H.P. Lovecraft blows. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Some of my fellow English major nerds will fight me on the quality of his prose (it isn’t good), and others will argue that his virulent racism and antisemitism is excusable, because they like him and that qualifies as a reason in 2020. The only positive quality I will give him while he rots in the cold, cold ground is that the man’s shitty writing inspired an insanely diverse group of people, and even a century later musicians still find influence in his work and use it to produce art that is both good and not alarmingly bigoted.
All this is to say that from the penis-heavy cover artwork to the general “unknown abomination coming to kill you from the darkness between the stars” vibe, Ulthar are very much continuing in the tradition of Lovecraft metal. Cosmovore, their 2018 debut album, showcased a heady mix of black, death, and thrash metal. Individual songs lean more or less in the direction of one particular style or influence, but on the whole they dwell in a comfortable middle ground where big dumb caveman riffs, blastbeats, and thrash licks coexist in relative peace. I’m pleased to announce that Providence, their follow-up, continues very much in that same vein and hits most of the same highs as their debut.
Opener “Churn” launches forward in vicious fashion, with guitarist Shelby Lermo and bassist Steve Peacock’s dueling harsh vocals providing a remarkable amount of contrast for a song just over two minutes long. “Undying Spear” follows, starting with a suitably ominous synth and acoustic guitar figure that winds its way into the song’s first of several great riffs. If you’re anything like me, your first question is: Why not start the album with the fun, off-kilter acoustic intro? The answer isn’t clear, because from the intro to the meat of the track, “Undying Spear” would make a perfect album opener, setting the stage for what is to follow with an ominous intro followed by big riffs giving way to blastbeats and chaotic tremolo work, only to explode back into big riffs. Album sequencing is an underrated art, and it’s the one area where Providence consistently suffers. As the album’s songs are all generally about the same length and aren’t particularly diverse musically, ensuring the album flows well and feels cohesive should have been a more serious consideration. As it stands, Providence does feel more like a collection of songs that happened to be written at the same time than a cohesive album.
Sequencing issues aside, Providence is clearly the work of musicians who know what they’re going for and in a hurry to go about doing it. Lermo, Peacock, and drummer Justin Ennis have all been active in other bands for years, and they play together with a ferocious unity. Musically, Ulthar isn’t focused on individual showmanship so much as ensemble work that benefits their songs. While Ennis is generally going insane behind the kit at any given time, his playing never feels flashy or like anything other than the foundation on which Lermo and Peacock can build their twisting, otherworldly riffs.
Whereas Cosmovore was split between five shorter songs on side A and thirteen minute “Dunwich Whore” on side B, Providence is just 8 songs all under 6 minutes. Ulthar works well in this mode, and none of the songs on Providence are bad by any means. However, they do start to feel more like variations on a theme than truly individual songs. While I consistently enjoy the album front to back, it is hard to recall individual moments that stood out in the same way “Dunwich Whore” did. The general sameness of the songs on Providence is both a blessing and a curse; while the band is incredibly talented and dialed in to the style they work in, a lack of distinctive variation makes it hard for individual tracks to truly stand out from the whole.
When all their elements line up, Ulthar makes wonderfully raucous noise. “Through Downward Dynasties” and “Undying Spear” are two of my favorite songs of 2020 so far. With a little more dedication to varying up the songwriting, Providence could have been great. While that leaves an album that’s “only” good, I’ll still eagerly follow Ulthar and their future releases. These boys are onto something, and once they work out all the kinks they’ll be as out of this world as their dick monster artwork.