There can be a temptation, when hearing a new album for the first time, to be blown away by the initial impression it leaves and to make an early declaration over its quality that maybe doesn’t stand up to repeated listens. Such was the worry with The Inextricable Wandering, the new album from German black metal band Ultha. After my first listen, it seemed certain that this was one of the greatest records of this year; an assessment that solidified after my second and third plays through. But, as time went by, doubt crept in, and I was right to let it. Now, some thirty-plus listens on, The Inextricable Wandering has revealed itself not only as one of the best black metal albums of the year, but as one of the best metal albums of the past decade, regardless of sub-genre, and sets a new benchmark for other acts to attain.
One of the most surprising things about the success of The Inextricable Wandering is that Ultha haven’t deviated in any great way from the sound they had crafted on previous records. The influence of bands such as Weakling and Ash Borer is clear to hear, and that’s never been truer than on this album. The opening track, “The Avarist (Eyes of a Tragedy)”, is the kind of epic that Weakling were crafting when they wrote Dead as Dreams; over fourteen minutes long, full of twists and turns yet never losing its overall atmosphere and identity.
In lesser hands, it could quickly have become indulgent and bloated; but the song glides by, immersing the listener in its dark waters, carrying you along on the journey. Full of pain, emotionally charged melodies, and an aura that promises suffering followed by catharsis (as exemplified by the largely shrieked vocals), it is a brave way to open the album; but also the perfect way to do so. By placing such a track at the start of the album, Ultha are making it clear that The Inextricable Wandering is going to be no easy ride, and it remains that way over its duration.
Taste the warm and deadly embrace of these “Cyanide Lips”.
At no point is The Inextricable Wandering even close to being a comfortable, straight-forward listen; it is the kind of album that grabs hold of your attention and absolutely refuses to let go – even when done, the impression it leaves will linger long after the music is done. From the ominous darkness and decaying grandeur conjured by “The Avarist (Eyes of a Tragedy)”, via the dark ambient interlude of “There is no Love, High Up in the Gallows”, to the soul-destroying fury of “Cyanide Lips”, The Inextricable Wandering is the kind of release that takes complete control of your senses, blocking out the outside world and pulling you in to its world of darkness and hurt.
What no description of the songs can adequately express, though, is how emotionally charged the album is. This is nothing new for USBM – and, in large part, is one of the defining characteristics of the sub-genre, along with the balancing of melody and aggression – but what Ultha have crafted here feels like a grand statement, at once intensely personal but also universal in scope. There is a damaged heart to this album that will connect with anyone who has ever known hardship, who has spent the night staring into the void of their soul, wondering what the point in tomorrow is and not liking the answers they find.
Yet it is never intentionally cruel in its delivery. Instead, this is the sound of humanity struggling against its own nature, hurting itself and others not because it wants to, but because pain is the nature of all things; and yet that does not absolve us of the guilt for the damage we do. As such, The Inextricable Wandering is the sound of searching for redemption where none is warranted; of asking for forgiveness that will never be granted, and of having to make some kind of peace with the darkness within you.
“The Avarist (Eyes Of A Tragedy)” is anything but tragic. Spin it now!
“We Only Speak in Darkness” is the point at which the album reaches its peak; a song that gradually builds up, adding layers and intensity until it reaches its spoken word climax; a moment that is pregnant with dread and anticipation, where the band could have exploded with fury, but instead step back from the edge. This denial of promised release is devastatingly effective, and is perhaps the perfect summation of The Inextricable Wandering – that sometimes in life, you will not get what is promised to you. The bittersweet way that closer “I’m Afraid to Follow You There” ends only emphasises that; marrying the viciousness of USBM with the kind of heartache more typically found in blackgaze, it is a devastating, soul-searing way to see out the album.
Ultha’s previous album, Converging Sins stopped just short being an absolutely mandatory listen for fans of modern black metal. Yet, as superb an album as Converging Sins was, The Inextricable Wandering makes it sound like the prelude to the main event; the warm-up act before the headliner. It may not do much to alter the template laid down by Weakling all those years ago; what it does instead is deliver the most captivating, cathartic, and emotionally punishing example of black metal since that mighty band released Dead as Dreams. That Ultha do so without any kind of grand reinvention makes the achievements of The Inextricable Wandering all the more notable. This is the sound of a band who are already at the forefront of their style and exceeding expectations, delivering a genuine masterpiece that is as close to perfect as any record can be.
The Inextricable Wandering Track Listing:
01. The Avarist (Eyes of a Tragedy)
02. With Knives to the Throat and Hell in Your Heart
03. There is no Love, High in the Gallows
04. Cyanide Lips
05. We Only Speak in Darkness
06. I’m Afraid to Follow You There
Run Time: 66:19
Release Date: October 5, 2018
Record Label: Century Media