Written by Kep
Ulthar – Anthronomicon / Helionomicon
> Black/death metal
> California, US
> Releasing February 17
> 20 Buck Spin
There are precious few bands that could make the claim “No one else sounds like us” and have a convincing case. Even fewer have a catalogue that could back up the statement “No one else does what we do as well as we do it”. The list who can say both? I can probably count them on one hand, and Ulthar is absolutely one of those bands. Cosmovore and Providence are both excellent records—the latter was my #2 album of 2020 behind only Ulcerate’s Stare into Death and Be Still—and even 2022’s compilation EP of old demos and unreleased versions went harder than most of the year’s mini albums.
With excellence comes lofty expectations, though, and so the eyebrow-raising decision to release two LPs at once was met with both excitement and skepticism. Did they have the material to pull off two full-lengths at the level of sterling quality we expect? Would the albums actually be different enough to justify splitting them into two separate releases? I’m here to tell you that I had these questions myself, and also that the answer to both of them is a resounding YES.
Think of Anthronomicon and Helionomicon as siblings: built from the same DNA, with plenty of immediately noticeable elements in common, but with different personalities and focuses. It makes a lot of sense to experience them as a duo, given that they’re closely related, but each one stands alone just as naturally. Sure, both are exceptional records, and both sound precisely like we know Ulthar sounds—that distinctive two-headed black/death with all of its burly, tentacle-y goodness is as apparent and infectious as ever—but the listening experiences are surprisingly different; I’ve actually found that juxtaposing the two makes each feel fresher.
Anthronomicon is the more traditional of the two records, at eight tracks across a tight 40 minutes, and each one of those tracks packs a damn punch. The riffs are characteristically active, with near-constant lines that rise, descend, writhe, and jump at odd angles, and there are meter shifts and rhythmic trickery aplenty. Songs like “Saccades” pound relentlessly to start before shifting into off-kilter soundworlds built on wildly twisting lines that leap into nowhere but always seem to end up back home. The songwriting is laser-focused, with transitions that don’t waste any time with setup; they just go, unafraid to make hard lefts at any juncture, and the effect is head-spinning. One moment Ulthar is bruising along in a lurching stop-start riff, burly bass going absolutely ham underneath with that muscular steely tone, a split-second later they’re dropping into a goddamn drag race of a riff that speeds away in blazing sixteenths with syncopated melodic chugs, like in “Flesh Propulsion”. Their willingness to keep things active at all times means they can pack a ton of excellent moments into every single track, and no matter how unexpected the transition they always work.
Start to finish Anthronomicon is just like that: stuffed full to the gills with riffs and rhythms that will turn your head, spread across tracks that each have a distinct individual identity and energy. That means that each song is a concentrated dose of the punishing eldritch exotica that the band specializes in, despite the track lengths actually being substantial (only one, “Larynx Plateau”, is shorter than four minutes, and even then it’s just barely less). Certain passages are highly angular and more dissonant than others—the ominous opening to “Fractional Fortresses”, for example—while others wave and twist with tense lines that never find a place of rhythmic comfort (there’s a sweet recurring riff in “Astranumeral Octave Chants” with an unpredictable amount of beats that’s a trip to headbang to), while still others groove infectiously over thumping blasts and tremolos that feel almost normal in comparison. Even those more straightforward moments aren’t quite “normal” though; there’s always a clever rhythmic trick (syncopations, a couple added beats, etc.) or a melodic line woven in that conjures images of some unknowable horror rising from the earth, like the one three minutes deep into “Coagulation of Forms”.
Much of what defines Anthronomicon also holds true for Helionomicon, the more ambitious and exploratory of the two records. Its two 20-minute tracks (somewhat confusingly titled “Helionomicon” and “Anthronomicon”) are also packed with extremely active riffwork that covers a ton of ground and keeps the rhythmic interest high. The scope, though, is much wider: the music develops at a slower pace, allowing itself moments to breathe here and there, setting up transitions in a more deliberate way, and making use of longer and more elaborate riffs. I consider Helionomicon to be sort of the mature, fully evolved endpoint of what Ulthar did with “Dunwich Whore” at the end of Cosmovore: lengthy, multi-sectioned sonic vistas that push in all sorts of directions, all the while still feeling like a single hulking entity.
The breadth of these tracks is astonishing. The riffs are nothing short of mammoth, with particularly killer examples marking their big transitional moments. They tie them subtly together within the songs, too: for example, from the sludgey murderous groove at 7:18 (probably my favorite riff of 2023 so far) to the full-throated fury around 14 minutes in, “Helionomicon” uses writhing trills to great effect. They tip their toes frequently into crushing doomy vibes in “Anthronomicon”, and throw several doses of thrash into some of the track’s more headlong passages. And that’s not all: “Helionomicon” contains a couple passages of delightfully curious chthonic noodling and then closes with three minutes of ominous synth, while “Anthronomicon” lets a sense of uneasiness build through a substantial ambient noise interlude and later finishes with four minutes of unsettling cosmic dark ambient. These are the sorts of things that can easily feel forced or unnecessary, but here they only serve to widen the soundscape.
As always, across the entirety of both records Ulthar’s dual vocal approach shines. The unhinged madman snarls of bassist Steve Peacock and the harrowing screams and reverb-drenched, room-filling growls of guitarist Shelby Lermo are as dynamic (and distinctive) a pair as you’ll find, and Peacock in particular achieves some truly deranged sounds. Drummer Justin Ennis, for his part, lays down the sort of performance other drummers aspire to: powerful, intricate, fiery, with groove to spare and full of enough swerves and nifty fills to make your head spin. He’s simply outstanding from start to finish and then from start to finish again.
The sheer depth of sound Ulthar achieves is outrageous, especially for a three-piece, and it’s partially due to the way they write for the instruments—active and ranging wide on the fretboards but with a ton of low end work—and partially due to the production, which is a masterclass from Kevin Bernsten and Adam Tucker. Imagine a thick, juicy burger where you can taste every hint of seasoning in the patty, both types of melted cheese, the salt on the tomatoes, the tang of lime in the guac, feel the crisp on the bun: that’s the production on these records. The nuances in tone and the level of detail audible in all of that tumult are preposterous.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’m raving here, I know. But trust me: these records are that good. Truly, they’re the embodiment of those mindbogglingly detailed Ian Miller pieces on the covers (which fit seamlessly together as a single image if you put them side by side, by the way, with Anthronomicon on the left, which to me is as good a reason as any to have it be the one that comes first when you listen to both). I haven’t left much room for doubt at this point, but just in case, let me state the incredibly obvious: Ulthar’s Anthronomicon and Helionomicon are superb in every way and the best things I’ve heard this year so far, bar none.