Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Ulcerate

This is the 40th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Ulcerate

Album: The Destroyers of All

Year: 2011

Label: Willowtip Records

Favorite Song: "Cold Becoming"

The Bare BonesThe Destroyers of All is the third full-length by New Zealand death metal outfit Ulcerate.

The Beating Heart: Metal is often thought of in terms of the often erroneous dichotomies of aggression/melody or rugged/clean. And these aspects, so called, can find themselves in a variety of elements – from the use of melodic lines and leads as opposed dissonance, to the use of clean vocals and growling, and, famously, lo-fi and hyper-produced recordings. Since coming on the scene in the early 2000s, and most notably beginning with 2009's Everything is Fire, Ulcerate has been slowly and surely decimating that distinction, often using those very elements deemed "clean" or "produced" in order to introduce a whole new spectrum of deviant, crushing sounds. Weaving Michael Hoggard's waves of dissonant guitar, Paul Kelland's sinister, if somewhat melancholy growls over Jamie Saint Merat's precise drumming, the band has been able to toy with preconceptions of melody and clarity, eventually achieving a sound and style of metal that is really all their own. That elusive "dirty clean" aspect of Ulcerate's music really came to the fore, in my humble opinion, with their 2011 masterwork The Destroyers of All, which opted for a more spacious and somewhat clinical attitude that resulted in a shocking new dynamic balance of aggression and precision. It is for that reason that I have added that album to this ongoing project via an interview with Jamie Saint Merat.

As usual before we get to my exchange with Jaime this is my chance to encourage you to check out the rest of the Albums of the Decade series (and the rest of our interviews, including a news series about the great albums of the 90s) as well our new podcast (YouTubeSpotify and all that) and/or our latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL. 2. Also follow us on FacebookInstagramSpotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, if you like what you see here (for whatever reason). Thank you for your time and support. On to Ulcerate.

Do you remember a moment you had with an album or a song, perhaps as a younger person, and given that there are many such moments in one’s life, that completely changed what you thought about music up until that point?

I’d say age 11 or 12 with the tape release of Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. There were obviously all the radio hits which had captivated me in the first place as a kid, but there’s also a ton of very experimental music present, some of which borders pretty close to extreme metal in its vitriol and execution. It was the first time I’d heard a band with such a vast dynamic range, and they definitely opened my ears to rougher, uglier forms of expression – which is something you usually don’t get from radio artists.

As a kind of follow up – Often the music we react to viscerally when we’re young is experienced as nothing more than a reaction, an attraction. But, as an older person and more experienced musician, can you understand better what it was that made that piece of music attractive to you and how some of those elements are still present perhaps in what you do today?

Yeah as I mentioned the dynamic range and level of intensity tracks like "Bodies," "X.Y.U," "Tales of a Scorched Earth" for example and how they harnessed a certain level of filth was very intoxicating, still is. And having that album as a stepping stone to more aggressive styles really shaped how I heard other ‘heavy’ music – nu-metal for example was peaking around this time, and although some of those bands caught my attention, ultimately it all felt undercooked or juvenile in comparison to the aforementioned tracks – so I fast-tracked myself to seeking extremity and ugliness in music where the cringe-factor was absent.

I have something of an on-going fascination with what you might call isolated scenes, perhaps because I myself never felt like part of a scene in what is already a pretty isolated place. Sometimes these are isolated for cultural reasons, sometimes for geographical reasons. And while it seems that in a global world there shouldn’t be a sense of being isolated anywhere, there are certain spots that seemed to have developed a propensity for uniqueness or for not really “following the rules.” When I was growing up I thought a lot about Switzerland in that regard, but later added places like Iceland, Australia and New Zealand. To what extent, coming up, did you necessarily feel part of a scene and do you feel there is merit to this idea of developing one’s taste and abilities away from a larger scene?

When we first formed the band we were absolutely part of a burgeoning scene here, with a small group of like-minded individuals who really wanted to push metal orthodoxy out the window so-to-speak. For whatever reason a lot of us found common ground on how we thought extreme metal could move forward, while also stepping into an uncompromising and oppressive sonic territory. This sound is evidenced particularly in early releases from bands such as Vassafor, Sinistrous Diabolus, Diocletian, Dawn of Azazel, Forced to Submit, Graymalkin for example, and a little later with bands such as Witchrist, Heresiarch, Vesicant.

From my experience bands that are pegged as shifting genre boundaries do so both inadvertently and sometimes loaded with “outside influences.” What would you say are some of the artists or influences that you see as being a part of your sound of inspiration that have nothing to do with metal? At least on the face of it?

As I mentioned earlier we grew as a band in a climate of bands who weren’t willing to just re-tread paths forged by a million others. So it was less about trying to shift genre boundaries, and more about forging some sense of uniqueness that you can own. The idea of becoming a ‘touring’ metal band in the early 2000’s was unheard of (still kind of is in New Zealand if I’m being honest) so forming a death/black metal band was ultimately less about playing live and more about composition and ideas. Playing live was always the cherry on top.

It’s hard these days to quantify influences this late in our career, as for years now we’ve been very single-minded in terms of where we’ve wanted our sound to go, and most of our early influences were very much rooted in metal. Maybe some mid-era Ulver or Bohren und der Club of Gore crept in, some classical composers and film scores. I’d say most of our non-metal influences are more from a technical facility standpoint – for me that’s always meant a lot of jazz, fusion and funk drummers for example. But in terms of the music they play influencing our sonic approach in a visceral way, almost nothing at all.

The Destroyers of All seems at first to be a kind of logical conclusion from Everything is Fire, at least in terms of some on the things you were beginning to introduce into the music – dissonance, a play on harmony, dynamics, and so on. But there does seem to be a great level of refinement in how things are done and how they sound. So I guess my first question to that would be: was that the result of an an intentional focus on making things sound clearer or was that just the result of real-life conditions such as, say, more studio time, more money, different production techniques?

I’d say the cleaner and clearer sound was due almost entirely to us cleaning up our own playing. We did a lot of touring (for us at the time) between the two albums and I feel that really sharpened the knives so to speak. Certainly did for my drumming, in terms of my control and sense of time. There’s a lot of playing on Everything is Fire that’s for all intents and purposes pretty sloppy. But what we’ve found in hindsight is that with sharper playing comes a loss of aggression and attitude, of which Destroyers suffers from a little, it’s all very neat and tidy. And you can hear our objection to this with the following album Vermis. So it’s a balancing act of having command over your instrument, but also being able to inject ugliness and ferocity when it’s called for with no remorse.

And my second question regarding that would be more related to this general idea of balance in your sound. One of the things that I feel set Ulcerate apart, and that become much more noticeable with The Destroyers of All, is just how well-balanced your sound is given how heavy the music can get. And it’s my sense that one of the things that enables that is the clarity of recording and production. So, was The Destroyers of All the album in which you would say that became a practical goal for you and the band? To find way to maintain heaviness and aggression without compromising clarity and melody?

I guess my prior answer addresses this – it’s a constant tight-rope walk with this style of music – too far in one direction and you have cave-style productions that lack punch, too far in the other and you have the trendy gridded, sound-replaced, DI’d horror show of most modern metal releases. We like to go straight down the middle, clearly defined but with a true sense of ugliness, and with no augmentation of performances. In terms of albums, no, I’d say we developed that ethos with Everything is Fire. I guess it’s technically executed a little "better" on Destroyers. Depends on your taste, and it is absolutely a different scenario for those of us in the band. We tend to like things more on the mucky side.

I have always been fascinating by drummers, since sometime along the road I reached the conclusion that drummers really make that difference between an ok or tolerable band to something truly great. And yet for the most part drums are considered to have more of a functional role in metal bands, either keeping time, adding texture, or servicing the song. Obviously, however, your drumming is a very big part of Ulcerate’s music. Could you speak about where you feel your role as a drummer and the drums in general fit into the songwriting process? And, perhaps in addition, to the way you guys think of your Music?

I wholeheartedly agree with your first statement there. Second statement too, unfortunately. But my first introduction to death metal playing was through mid-era (late 90’s, early 2000’s) releases from Morbid Angel, Immolation, Gorguts, Angelcorpse, Suffocation, Today is the Day, Cryptopsy etc where the drums were anything but standard time-keepers. And around the same time I started paying attention to players like Dave Weckl, Carter Beauford, Jojo Mayer, Dennis Chambers and particularly how they utilized improvisation – I just saw this as two different sides of the same coin. So from age 15 onwards I began thinking of drumming in melodic terms, and how drumming can support, augment or lead the music. For better or worse my output over the next decade or so generally fell into over-playing territory, but it also developed into something which these days feels like a somewhat recognizable sound. And it’s been a long process of being able to know when less is more, particularly in a music style that favors an everything-at-11 approach. 

With regards to writing in Ulcerate – the drumming and melodic lines are completely symbiotic, they feed off of and inform each other. We write at all times with both guitar and drums, and we’ve always been a strict rehearsal-room band – there’s any energy transferral between instruments that you just don’t have when composing on a computer for example. I also find drums as an instrument can shape and phrase melodic lines in a completely different manner, as well as defining pulse and meter. Metric modulation is obviously the most obvious example of this, but it doesn’t have to be that extreme – syncopation alone can really make or break parts. I’d say 90% of the world’s most iconic contemporary music has drumming, that if changed, would drastically alter if not ruin the pieces together. 

I guess I also want to stress that drums are also the backbone of any band, and without a great sense of control and time-keeping any band is going to start to sound fragile. As mentioned before, it’s a fine balance between melodic and rhythmic playing – good drummers are typically good at one or the other, great drummers have both attributes in spades.

Is there something you’re especially proud of when you look back at The Destroyers of All? A song, a production decision, a moment?

Any album’s lustre will fade over time for those that created it, but I’m still very proud of the album, it’s a landmark in time for us. There’s also a handful of tracks that we still play live to this day where the song-writing still feels tight and cohesive.