Sound — 9
I'm going to start this review by expressing my awareness of the controversies that have plagued Rings of Saturn, from the accusations toward guitarist and arguably band leader Lucas Mann of inability to perform on stage and in the studio, his treatment of past bandmates, and even the idea that he had used digital samples from Guitar Pro in place of real guitar on playthrough videos and recorded works. Honestly, a lot of these controversies seem a little "DragonForce" to me, and it's clear that those who are ardently against Rings of Saturn because of them are not going to change their mind. But just like the aforementioned power metal band, Rings of Saturn have not let their music be defined by that controversy, and it has led to their last effort, "Lugal Ki En", being a very well-received album in the "aliencore" (a subgenre of deathcore that primarily deals with science fiction themes) scene.
"Ultu Ulla" presents a big lineup change for Rings of Saturn, with second guitarist Miles Dmitri Baker and drummer Aaron Stechauner being added not long after "Lugal Ki En", with vocalist Ian Bearer remaining. Lucas Mann continues to play guitar, bass and keyboards as well as composing the music, though Baker has also been credited for the composition on the album. The sound of this album straddles the line between progressive/technical death metal and deathcore, though some would argue that recent efforts from the band have leaned more heavily toward the former than the latter. Brutally low-tuned eight-string riffs that would not be out of place in many deathcore bands still feature quite prominently throughout the album, and Mann and Baker's harmonized hyper-speed technical lead playing is a huge feature, but there are a few surprising elements in the guitar playing through this album, such as the lyrical lead guitar playing on "Margidda", the Latin-inspired acoustic intro on "Inadequate" (as well as other places on the album, including the entirety of the short track "Unhallowed"), the epic progressive tendencies of instrumental track "The Macrocosm", and some overall sick riffing on "Parallel Shift". Synths are present in the mix as well, taking front and center in the solo section of "Immemorial Existence".
There are no bad tracks on this record, and its blend of deathcore and technical death metal works incredibly well. The guitar playing is incredible, and the addition of Miles Dmitri Baker adds another layer of virtuosity to the band's sound. Aaron Stechauner's drumming is supportive and effective. Whether or not there's any studio trickery to this album's sound is immaterial with the quality of the music, but there's very little on this album that suggests sped-up performances or sampled guitar playing. It's entirely possible that the drumming is programmed, but as a robotic playing style is considered de rigeur in deathcore, it doesn't really make much difference. Brette Ciamarra's mixing and production job is spot-on, as well, with a surprising amount of dynamics in the sound. The band's sound has also shown a lot of growth over the years, with less emphasis on shredding and breakdowns and more on carefully thought-out passages, and in a lot of ways, showing a shift out of deathcore territory into proggy technical death metal.
Lyrics — 9
The science fiction theme of this band has been a defining feature of their music, and they've even coined the term "aliencore" to describe their sound, and the band wastes no time playing on these themes on "Ultu Ulla". From the very first verse on the album, in "Servant of This Sentience", we know we're in for a hell of a ride: "Focus the radiation, set sights to the paradoxical happenings/Colonies of resistance form/Consistent clockwork throughout every parallel world/All will transpire at precisely the same moment/Yet, head the malicious portent in my message, and emerge as a servant of this sentience". The alien invasion themes are present on the album, as with all Rings of Saturn albums, and nowhere more so than the first single, "Inadequate": "My victory will be absolute/The only terms of surrender?/The living flesh of every man, woman, and child will be reaped as the spoils of war/Gaze upon my interstellar empire/Behold my being/This utopia I have constructed is at last complete", and on "Margidda": "All exists in the galactic radius/Uprise, survivors of this humanity/Molded from apocalyptic eras/That is endlessly provided in this plane/All exists in the galactic radius/Uprise, survivors of this humanity/Molded from apocalyptic eras/That is endlessly provided in this plane".
Ian Bearer's delivery of these science fiction-inspired lyrics is fairly typical deathcore fare, with lots of low, guttural vocals, but there is a bit more variety in the vocal style here than one would typically get from a deathcore release, and that has certainly played a role in the band's sort of branching beyond just your typical deathcore sound. While I'm not normally a fan of albums with only harsh vocals, this band seems to be one of the few exceptions to the rule for me. While Ian's vocal styles are nothing particularly fancy, they work well in the context of the music and the lyrical themes.
Overall Impression — 9
With so much controversy surrounding the band, it can be very hard to come to an informed decision on whether their music is good or bad, but I find myself enthralled by the music on "Ultu Ulla". Certainly, this isn't the first band to face accusations of speeding up their playing in the studio, but they've proven many times before, both through videos and live performances, that they certainly do have the talent to back up their outrageous music.
Taken for what it is, and all controversy aside, "Ultu Ulla" is simply one of the finest extreme metal releases so far in 2017. There's a finesse to the songwriting and playing that hasn't been found in a lot of other releases this year, or even some of Rings of Saturn's past works. A variety of melodies and dynamic changes that keep the album interesting to listen to throughout. And if you're a fan of extreme shredding, there's still plenty of that to be had on this album. I can definitely recommend this album to anyone looking for something a little more "out there" than other bands in the deathcore genre, or to any fan of technical death metal in general.