Artist: Rings of Saturn
Album: Ultu Ulla
In recent history, few bands have had as storied a history and polarizing a reaction as technical deathcore or “Aliencore” outfit Rings of Saturn. Between allegations of post-production tampering on their early albums and a series of lineup changes that followed, Rings of Saturn have had a tough go of things to say the least—yet their dedicated fans and followers remain dedicated, and just about everyone else who doesn’t find themselves enraptured in their galactic soundscapes and extreme speed and technicality simply just…don’t get the band. For the most part, you either love ‘em or hate ‘em, and their previous releases haven’t done much to change that.
Until Ultu Ulla. Conceptual as always, and continually cosmic in nature, the fourth full-length release by Rings of Saturn is far and away the most balanced and well-written effort to date. Deviating from an obsession with ludicrous speed and almost absent song-structure (problems that plagued Dingir especially), Ultu Ulla is detailed and dynamic—without sacrificing jaw-dropping fretwork and incredible percussion—persuading skeptics of the band’s prior works to give them a second chance, all while pleasing fans of the insane intricacy that the act have become synonymous with.
Nearly three years since Rings of Saturn’s previous effort, Lugal Ki En, the maturation that has occurred in this Bay Area quartet in that three years is obvious from the first track, “Servant of this Sentience.” Ultu Ulla certainly still retains the extraterrestrial vibe and atmosphere that Rings of Saturn have spent their entire discography honing—in fact it feels weird to refer to them as a band from this country, let alone planet—but with more emphasis on writing catchy and engaging riffs and leads over a canvas of crushing, Mach-speed percussion. Drummer Aaron Stechauner maintains inhuman precision and unbelievable technicality, dominating Ultu Ulla with remarkable footwork from the first seconds of the album, all the way through the nearly-six-minute instrumental epic “The Macrocosm” and closing number “Inadequate.” Stechauner’s feet aren’t the only aspect of his awe-inspiring drumming, however—as his hands are just as fast, if not faster. With skin-peeling blast beats and dizzying fills abundant throughout every track Rings of Saturn throw at the listener (with the exception being the short interlude “Unhallowed”), Stechauner is skillful and diverse to a fault. Where Rings of Saturn have their biggest appeal, however, is doubtlessly through the leads, grooves, riffs and chugs of founding member and guitarist Lucas Mann, as well as second guitarist Miles Baker. Mann and Baker no longer sound cartoonish and juvenile with errant and disordered slews of sonic assault; rather, the guitar lines they write are as out-of-this-world as ever, while being ever so slightly more moderate in pace. By doing this, the opening riff of “Servant of this Sentience,” as well as the incredible “Harvest” stay stuck in the listener’s head for weeks, as opposed to simply reducing it to mush. “Harvest” is likely the single best song Rings of Saturn have crafted yet—with runners up being other deep cuts from Ultu Ulla, like “Margidda” and “Immemorial Essence.” These songs see Mann and Baker as skillful as ever, dropping jaws left and right with their incredible fretwork, yet including explosive, bone-busting breakdowns to add figurative reprieve from the overt intensity of their more technical proclivities. Together, Stechauner, Mann and Baker have developed what stands to be the apex of their sound—still fast, still technical and still relentlessly heavy—just better organized and more creatively written.
Where Rings of Saturn’s instrumental elements have always been a matter of contention, just about everyone on earth—and probably those from worlds far away—agree that the act’s vocal element has always been dialed in. Frontman Ian Bearer continues his legacy of lacerating vocal excellence from Lugal Ki En and, where he can, even improves on it. Bearer’s shrill, skyward screeches split eardrums with ease—while his gritty mid-range yells and blistering guttural bellows add a perfect complement to Rings’ lower and slower moments or a strong contrast to the high-and-fast leads Mann is known to sneak here and there. Even with a strong range and stronger energy and endurance, Bearer’s greatest skill is tolerance and patience—as he knows when to let Mann and Baker’s fretboards do the talking, and where his voice is needed to drive a track home. He gives excellent breathing room to the eerie leads and carnival-gone-wrong atmosphere of “Harvest,” yet knows when to speak (or scream) his piece. This gives Rings of Saturn appeal to both vocal-centric listeners and those just in it for the awesome riffs—pleasing both parties.
Even with brilliant instrumental epics and incredible vocal onslaughts both, Rings of Saturn remain a band that just aren’t for everybody. For More diehard fans of straightforward heaviness or strict technical death metal, Ultu Ulla will feel bland and non-committal. Meanwhile, if you still couldn’t bring yourself to tolerate any part of Rings’ 2014 release, then Ultu Ulla stands to be a long shot from winning you over. However, Ultu Ulla is—without argument—the band’s most diverse and engaging album to date, standing to appeal to more listeners and fans of more varied genres within the extreme music realm. Finally shaking off the cumbersome mantle of “that band that plays stupidly fast” or “sounds fake,” Rings of Saturn have crafted an album laden with incredible examples of technical death metal blended with deathcore creatively and intelligently. Finished off with strong production and a comprehensive storyline, Ultu Ulla is an album explosive enough to rival the devastating power of a supernova, and loud enough to be heard in Galaxies light years from our own.
For Fans Of: Cytotoxin, Oceano, Nexilva, Shadow of Intent, goddamn aliens.
By: Connor Welsh