Black metallers Ultha may espouse a different set of values than most. While not ends of the spectrum—Watain at one end, Antestor at the other—the Germans occupy a peculiar place, where the main thematic information isn’t part of an external mythology but rather a deeply internal input. Certainly, darkness prevails across Ultha’s three-album discography, but it’s not of or in response to Abrahamic tentacles. Or, anything inspired or informed by such things. Rather, Ultha convey the shadows of personal struggle, the demons of doubt, and the fires of failure. Both musically and lyrically, these factors play a role in the way Ultha approach the darkness in black metal. New album, The Inextricable Wandering, centers on these themes singularly as it probes the psychological abyss of self for greater meaning. That it continues yet expands upon 2016’s excellently received Converging Sins isn’t a given but rather a promise.
“[The vision] was totally different and kind of the same,” says Ultha’s guitarist/vocalist Ralph Schmidt. “The songwriting always pretty much revolves around what influences motivate me to write, the state I’m in, and what we, as a band, make of all this during the process of working out the songs together. This differed a lot from our second record Converging Sins and its predecessor Pain Cleanses Every Doubt. I was in a very lost, helpless, and self-destructive state of mind, as I endured one of the roughest six months I ever had to go through. So, a lot of bands that usually cradle me, and therefore have had an impact on my writing, were simply not doing the trick at this time. The bands that gave me stability, relief, and motivation were different from those when we wrote Converging Sins. Therefore, The Inextricable Wandering certainly differs in sound and style. It’s still very much Ultha, as the others and I balance the ideas until we all agree that a song works for us.”
Written between fall 2017 and spring 2018 by the collective members of Ultha, The Inextricable Wandering furthers the plunge into the deepest recesses of melancholia. By using repetition as a model and to its greatest strength, the Germans crafted an album that’s hypnotic and introspective (check out the 18-minute “I’m Afraid to Follow You There”) yet rapacious and aggressive (check out opener “The Avarist (Eyes of a Tragedy)”). Between the dark lines where insects crawl and nightmares manifest, there’s vestiges of Emperor, Fields of the Nephilim and Neurosis converged ghost-like. But these are just fleeting, filament-like references. On The Inextricable Wandering, Ultha have a sound furious yet inwardly directed, something that’s all their own.
“Chronic melancholia is pretty much the very core of me and I am sort of the core of what results in Ultha’s music and aesthetic,” Schmidt says. “This isn’t meant to sound posh, and we do have a very democratic way of conducting our art together, but I bring the riffs, lyrics and ideas for aesthetics to the table. So, therefore, Ultha is, ultimately, a product ofmy emotional state. We then work out all the details as a band in the practice space. I know that melancholy has had an intense grip on me for the better part of my 39 years on this planet and has influenced all my musical output. It’s not often that I feel well and there is not much I see in the future, so this omnipresent sadness and hopelessness is the key element to Ultha’s art.”
Whereas most black metal is direct, in-your-face anti-Christian, Ultha play down that role. Bogeymen and Rumpelstiltskins may be real, there’s nothing tangible in their expression that reveals darkness and evil to Schmidt. At least, not on behalf of Ultha. Rather, The Inextricable Wandering features lyrics that drive at the heart offear. From “With Knives to the Throat and Hell in Your Heart” and “We Only Speak in Darkness” to “Cyanide lips” and “The Avarist (Eyes of a Tragedy),” Ultha converse in the currency offear. And not the usual Jungian archetypes either.
“The Inextricable Wandering was laid out as a concept record about fear,” says Schmidt. “I had intended to write a record on this topic for a longer time. Over the last few years, the shifts in the world—may it be international politics or the small- town problems around me—all lead back to a fear of fear itself. Fear seems to be the only enemy people still have; a weapon to keep people in line. But I wanted to approach it from a different angle. A lot of (black) metal bands ruminate about fear, evil and hell in a more religious, horror story kind ofway—for me, this is not about a higher power, the devil or whatnot, it’s about this hell and evil within myself. Hell is a place you don’t go to. It’s a thing you carry around with you. Each of the six songs ended up being a discourse on a pattern offear and its consequences I felt or encountered. The whole 66-minute ride morphed into a diary about the general fears I feel, the mess I went through in the last few months, and their result in an omnipresent, heavy feeling of disappointment.”
Recorded and mixed by Ultha’s own Andy Rosczyk (electronics) at the band’s Goblin Sound Studio over the course of May and June, The Inextricable Wandering was realized in the “most relaxed atmosphere” possible for recording and subsequent sonic experimentation, where the only pressure was time. Architected not after Darkthrone or Wolves in the Throne Room but rather the heavier end of grunge (think Alice in Chains), noise rock (think Helmet), and gothic rock (think Fields of the Nephilim), Ultha have found between-genres space that affords clarity, coldness, power, and intensity to the soundscape as it unfurls into arboreal splendor. The Inextricable Wandering was mastered by Michael Schwabe (Einstürzende Neubauten, Phillip Boa and The Voodooclub, Doro) at Monoposto Mastering in Düsseldorf.
“Andy and I spent hours discussing sound references,” Schmidt says. “Most metal records didn’t fit our sound, as we don’t sound like or relate to a lot of metal bands. We play fast and aggressive music with hints of black metal; we have a thicker, heavier sound of contemporary doom/sludge bands; and we write songs that are closer to dark wave/post punk than to Darkthrone or Marduk. Even though the songs are very long sometimes, they are melodic and easily accessible, not unlike a The Cure record. This time the influences were clearly the ‘90s, an era we all grew up in. It sounds very direct, very authentic, and close to the way we sound live.”
With a new record in The Inextricable Wandering, a new record label (the group signed over from Vendetta Records), and fear, at least for now, in check, Ultha are positioning for not just sway in Germany but worldwide dominion. One step, one tour, a few festivals at a time, of course.
Ralph Schmidt – Guitars/Vocals Andy Rosczyk – Electronics Manuel Schaub – Drums Chris Noir – Bass/Vocals