20 Buck Spin has had an undoubtedly-phenomenal year. The record label has churched out release after release to critical acclaim. Culminating their 2018 roster is Ulthar, a blackened death metal band from California. The band is debuting with “Cosmovore”, with only a 2016 demo to their name; let’s see if this one lives up to the label’s high expectations.
You know your record label is successful when the marketing scheme around your last release of the year revolves entirely about it being your last release of the year. We’ve discussed this prior, but Pennsylvania’s 20 Buck Spin has been killing it with their roster. The label mysteriously emerged during 2018’s turn with a Schorched compilation, which led to an utter-unhealthy string of knockout releases. I’ll list them in order for you (when they came under my radar) with an attached review score from yours truly: Torture Rack – Malefic Humiliation (9.5/10), Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Forms (9.7/10), Khemmis – Desolation (no review), Extremity – Coffin Birth (9.6/10), Scorched – Ecliptic Butchery (9.5/10), and now Ulthar – Cosmovore (to be determined/scroll down).
In a past analysis I will admit my selective ratings may be somewhat bloated due to the hype surrounding this particular label, but all of the above titles have truly been stellar, including the ones I didn’t review, with the doom metal scene raving over Khemmis’ newest output.
Ulthar’s debut opens with a screaming fury with no silly melodic or soft intros to be found, those are for losers anyways. Conceptually, Cosmovore follows a playthrough path which expands in terms of complexity and grandeur. The first song, aptly being the title track, is the quintessential opening song as it simultaneously offers newcomers (which most listeners are, I’m sure) a bite-sized taste of the group’s savoury sound while also setting concrete layers down for a full-album listen.
You see, the band’s sound presents itself as a formula, to which all tracks follow apart from the monolithic 13-minute album-closer “Dunwich Whore”. Ulthar’s sound manifests as an ever-present all-encompassing entity created by an orgy of percussion, string, and vocal chords which are mostly always present in some shape or abhorrent form.
I’ll make a bold comparison to Bolt Thrower here, even though its completely out of place as I’m comparing a concluded, multi-release project which something as fresh and young as Ulthar. Bolt Thrower, being one of the most legendary and consistent death metal bands to date, operated with a decipherable formula that worked for them. Forget career creative U-turns or bad concept albums, these guys found their style, stuck with it, and dominated the industry with their secret sauce. I’m getting similar vibes from Ulthar, who have seemed to honed in on their construction of blackened death metal madness, albeit with a little more creative freedom than the band mentioned in comparison.
From “Cosmovore” to “Asymmetric Warfare”, each track falls within a moderate song length and a prescribed formula. Attempting to translate such an ingredient list from music notes to written words is futile, and you should probably just listen to the album instead of reading my attempt at deciphering this monster, but thanks for sticking with me.
As I said earlier, every aspect of Ulthar’s sound is constantly at work on this release. There are of course some short-lived intermediate portions whereby the vocals are found absent to emphasize instrumentation, but for the most part, there’s always a trio of percussion, guitar, and singing going on. The mix is undoubtedly full, chaotic, and jarring, but the songwriting and poise on Cosmovore saves this quality from coming off as being too much.
A topic of frequent discussion around these parts which few people within the metal world seem to understand is the important presence of balance. Metal is heavy, crushing, overwhelming, and all that jazz. However, if your content is filled to the brim with blast beats, maniacal screams, and record-breaking picking speeds, the heaviness you’re attempting to create all becomes flattened on a long, uninteresting plane. If its all heavy, none of it is heavy! This is of course irrelevant if your creative direction is leaning to the grindcore side of things, but for death and black metal, this aspect is absolutely crucial, at least for me.
Ulthar has mastered this quality on Cosmovore. Yes, there are blast beats, maniacal screams, and record-breaking picking speeds to be found, but they’re offset by healthy variance. First off, the back-and-forth between the two vocalists’ varying singing styles offers a both breaks for the listener, and interest as a result of the presence of two different styles. Secondly, the instrumentation is all over the place, and not in a bad way. The release comes off as meaty in the sense that there’s are a lot of primitive death metal drumming, decipherable riffs, and tempo changes, which all feel tangible and ever-present. However, there’s a simultaneous presence of chaos, which is achieved by the complexity of these tracks; but when Ulthar breaks from the chaos and hits you with some slow, stomping riff, it hits hard and leaves you craving for more. I don’t know if any of that made sense, give me a break.
Furthermore, I’m going to tie this review back to a concept I mentioned earlier on. Alike this review, Ulthar’s music is complex and all over the place, but in their case, in a good way. While the opening title track is a relatively straightforward sample of the group’s sound, each track further along the album gets a little more inventive. “Solitarian”, the next song, plays with time signature changes with its various slower points, which simply exude whatever your concept of heaviness is. Next, we have “Infinite Cold Distance”, a generally-slower number, and “Entropy-Atrophy”, which plays with some cavernous riffs here and there, resulting in a sound similar to what Tomb Mold would have if they played if they drank their coffee black.
The album ultimately concludes with “Dunwich Whore”, a 13-minute endeavour that manages to incorporate all of the positives mentioned above into one devastating equation. Words wouldn’t do the song justice, you simply have to listen to it for yourself. The album tails off with an all-out breaking-down of things, with the instrumentation getting more and more abstract in tandem with a vocalist losing his mind.
I hate to say it, but this is just another absolutely stellar release. I went in to this review with a critical mindset and I just couldn’t stop typing about how much this album impressed me. You’ve done it again, 20 Buck Spin. What are these guys eating for breakfast?
Obviously Ulthar is entirely responsible for the album’s well-deserved praise, its just remarkable how 20 Buck Spin has absolutely delivered this year album after album, alongside an incredible marketing scheme. Well done. I’ve rambled on too much; don’t sleep on this release, it may have been the label’s last, but surely not something to forget. This is the direction modern metal needs to be taken in.