For Fans Of
I think there’s something to be said about an immensely technical band who despite their clear instrumental talents, you just can’t enjoy the songs they compose. For that’s always been my relationship with Rings Of Saturn.
Even in keeping up with this band’s release history – from 2010’s forgettable ‘Embryonic Anomaly’ to 2012’s meh ‘Dingir’ and 2014’s passable ‘Lugal Ki En’ (read: the two albums that people actually give a shit about) – the buzz and hype around this group has always eluded me. For me, the melodies and rhythmic ideas Rings Of Saturn partook with their music felt overdone and far too schizophrenic; what with the band cramming in as many ludicrous sweeps, seemingly random sections and messy instrumental licks as they could. Sometimes with little rhyme or reason other than that it sounded cool to them.
Then, of course, there was the song writing and recording controversy surrounding this group over the past few years that further left a bitter taste in my mouth on top of my already stark indifference to their instrumentally batshit insane approach to deathcore. For those who somehow don’t know, the controversy hanging around Rings was that their first three records were as artificial as extreme metal could ever hope to be. The first and indeed smallest issue was that their drums parts were all completely programmed, more so than any EzDrummer 2 session (which is probably the very program they used to write the drums in too). The second yet largest point of contention was that they recorded their guitars at half-speed (or at some form of lower speed), then sped them up to make their high-register, swirling sweeps and solos sound far more technical and impressive than they actually were; showing-off more artefacts than an archaeology dig site in the process. While the band supposedly can play all of their parts to-speed live – I personally wouldn’t know first-hand as even if they toured Australia, I highly doubt I’d want to watch them – they’ve now made their most organic sounding record to date, ‘Ultu Ulla‘.
Just one listen to the American group’s latest alien-worshipping space opera, ‘Ultu Ulla’ (which is Sumerian for “since time immemorial” because of fucking course it is), one can clearly tell Rings have excelled at structuring their songs and making them actually flow. Of course, don’t be fooled, while this new record isn’t quite the randomised, chaotic tech-wank fest that their past three albums were, ‘Ultu Ulla‘ is still a blistering, intensive and crazed progressive-deathcore listen nonetheless. Except that this time around, it feels like the band actually played and wrote their parts like normal human beings do.
Guitarist, bass player (not live, though), keyboardist and the essential driving force behind this band, Lucas Mann, has maintained all of the dearly loved and the dearly hated elements of his band’s sound – for better or for worse. As such, much like their other records, Rings’ approach to deathcore on LP #4 is that of the proggy kind, with both ludicrously drop-tuned, guitar chugs and churning bass underpinning their overbearingly constant high-register sweep arpeggios and million-miles-a-minute guitar melodies. (If you want any kind of an example, just look to eight out of these ten songs. Or the album’s two singles if you’re hard pressed for time).
New guitarist, the classically trained Miles Dimitri Baker, fits in very well with the band’s formula and approach, as does drummer Aaron Stechauner, who has really solidified into his double-kick blasting role behind the drum kit. Even if it took some real time to get there. Seriously, watch this drum play through for ‘Natural Selection’ from 2014, and then watch his recent drum play through of ‘Parallel Shift’. With the exception of the latter video’s odd sync issues, the dude sounds and looks so much more comfortable playing this band’s hectic music nowadays. And as a drummer myself, I really do appreciate the real, more organic sounding drum performances present here in general.
As for the vocals, the deep growls, shrieking highs and occasional pig squeals of vocalist Ian Bearer are indeed solid, but good grief, on ‘Ultu Ulla’ his vocals are just buried in the mix at times. With ‘Inadequate‘ being the worst offender of this. Oh, and another thing, the overall mix here doesn’t quite do Rings the full justice it should. Maybe that’s just due to the nature of the band’s “Guitar Hero on hard mode” music, the huge amount of low-end present, or because of the many moving parts held within it, the mix isn’t up to par with their instrumental skills.
On top of that, the album’s jarring MIDI orchestral instrumentation heard throughout these songs does give it a slicker, coldly synthetic feel. However, I will admit that they work well with the cosmic, outer space theme Rings insists on beating to death, what with certain synth parts sounding like they were sampled straight from the scores of 20th-century sci-fi movies. But while such parts fit, boy does it sound fucking cheesy!
I know I said that the band have gotten better at structuring their songs, but there are still some odd kinks to be found. On the third song, listeners receive this practically-throwaway pseudo-Spanish guitar piece, ‘Unhallowed‘. While it provides a nice break from the musical chaos, it does feel oddly placed in the larger scheme of the album’s track listing and breaks the flow poorly. This is something that the band later returns to on the intro of final song ‘Inadequate‘ (which is actually rather adequate) and even in creating a sense of contrast, that opening section does go on for longer than it should. On a positive note, the intro of ‘Harvest‘, what with its carnivalesque harpsichord and guitar melodies is a funny yet genuinely interesting beginning section, and the returning motif in the middle of the song is also well-placed.
Now, outside of the band’s occasional acoustic chords and quirky musical flares, ‘Ultu Ulla‘ does instil a sense of listener fatigue; something that was far more prevalent on their older records. Because when you’re constantly hearing slight variations on similar intense pairings of fast blast beats and fretboard destroying sweeps and lead work, you just start to become numb to it all as the impact lessens over time. However, the band does alleviate this issue somewhat with the colourful timbre and dynamically sweeping six-minute instrumental that is ‘The Macrocosm‘, a track where Rings reign in their sheer progressive-deathcore assault to create what really is this album’s greatest moment.
That one staggering standout song aside, yes, this record held a stronger sway over me than any other of the band’s releases. Granted, that’s not enough to make me suddenly fall head over heels in obsessive love with this extreme Bay Area band, but there’s no doubt a clear progression that’s been reached here with ‘Ultu Ulla‘ and its ten songs.
There is a fork in the road that you’ll come to on Rings Of Saturn’s ‘Ultu Ulla’. If you don’t care one alien’s backside about the musical authenticity of their sound and love their over the top progressive-deathcore sound for what it is, you’ll fuck hard and deep with their fourth record. However, sitting a little closer to my camp, if the band’s overwhelmingly technical sound do very little for you, then you may find ‘Ulla Ulta’ to be a decent release at it’s very best. Instrumental prowess be damned.
Also, before I go, the best song that Rings have to their name is their wicked, honourable cover of Suicide Silence’s ‘No Pity For A Coward’. Just sayin’.
1. Servants Of The Sentience
2. Parallel Shift
4. Immemorial Essence
5. The Relic
8. The Macrocosm
9. Prognosis Confirmed
‘Ultu Ulla’ is out now via Nuclear Blast Records. Check out the incredibly cringy music video for ‘Inadequate’ below.