It’s always a Hell of an exciting time when a band you really dig releases new music. As soon as that album gets announced, you circle that date on your calendar and now you’ve got something to look forward to, something to get you through the day and give you some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Bands sometimes make you wait for it and you end up building that anticipation over years and years between releases. Other times, like with Ulthar, the band keeps the good stuff coming at a pretty fair clip.
After releasing their debut, Cosmovore, in 2018 and the follow-up, Providence, in 2020, Ulthar is back with not one but two killer new records releasing tomorrow (Feb. 17). Anthronomicon, an eight-song blast of intricately controlled madness, and Helionomicon, a record of two epic, 20-minute tracks, are likely to be albums I’m talking about when December comes around and it’s time to compile a best of 2023.
Ulthar has never been a band to shy away from a challenge or to get complacent and these two records are proof positive of that. Whichever record you choose to start with, you are in for a ride through wildly composed arrangements and tight, locked-in performances. If you’ve followed Ulthar, you know what high praise it is to say that these might just be the best two albums they’ve ever made. I recently talked with drummer Justin Ennis about Anthronomicon and Helionomicon.
When did you guys start working on the new records?
Justin: We started working not too long after the completion of Providence. A lot of it was during the first few months of everything being shut down. Right now, Shelby [Lermo] lives in Alexandria, Virginia and Steve [Peacock] lives in Portland, Oregon. I’m currently the only one left in Oakland so everything is remote. Generally the way things have been is the dudes try and split the writing kinda 50-50. I’m not sure how it started but we came up with the concept for these two albums pretty early on. They both wrote half of one record with the idea in mind of the physical limitations of the media that you release it on. Everything is sort of geared to be about 20 minutes per side or less so that’s how that came out. That’s why there are two 20-minute songs because that’s about what you can fit on the side of a record.
Did you set out to make two records or did that develop during the writing and recording process?
Justin: We set out to write two albums. I’m not sure that there was a particular reason other than to just go for it.
So was the COVID lockdown kind of beneficial in a writing sense?
Justin: It’s hard to say. Yes and no. There was definitely more available time. I’m not sure that this would have happened hadn’t there been that much free time but I kind of feel like it would have happened either way. Being so far apart, we wrote Providence in a similar fashion, which is kinda funny because we didn’t realize that everyone was going to be living so far apart. We kind of wrote a remote-ish record. I guess Steve was already halfway in Portland but we sort of wrote the way we would if we were far apart so this wasn’t the first time we did it, which was kinda cool.
Basically, they write half the stuff each and then we share it with each other and I’ll make some drum demos and send it back and forth and then, at some point before we hit the studio, everyone came to Oakland and we rehearsed stuff for maybe four or five days. Then some minor changes were made but not too much. Generally, we’ve been doing this enough that we know what does and doesn’t work for each other so the editing process is pretty much complete by the time it’s presented by the other members. We rehearsed for a little under a week and then had a few months off. We actually pushed recording back three months. We were supposed to record in January but then with the crazy COVID surge, and rather than us all fly to Baltimore and risk it, instead of wasting money we just pushed it back to April, which actually worked because we had more time to prepare. It’s all about doing your homework.
What was the goal for these two records? Did you want to build off Providence or head in more of a different direction?
Justin: We’re kind of funny in that sense. We don’t really discuss a direction or what we want to do or how things are going to come out. It’s sort of an unspoken thing, we all just know. It’s like a stream of consciousness. That’s kind of the direction that we move in, we don’t talk about it. The only rule we have, and it’s not a crazy thing, is no solos. You can do whatever though.
Where did you record?:
Justin: We recorded with Kevin Bernsten at Developing Nations Studios. He’s an old friend. He recorded a bunch of records for an old band of mine and I’ve wanted to do a record with him for about ten years. Now that Shelby is about 45 minutes away, it kinda made sense. We flew out to Alexandria, rehearsed for a day and a half, and then hit the studio for 18 days.
How was the recording process?
Justin: 80 minutes is a lot of music [laughs]. We worked pretty much for 10-plus hours a day for 18 days straight. It was pretty insane. We didn’t really realize it until, ah what was it, I think it was day 12 or something and we were driving back to Shelby’s house. We had about 45 minutes or an hour, depending on traffic, to kind of decompress after the day and I think I was like, “Hey, we’ve been doing this for like two weeks straight.” We didn’t realize it. Time was flying by. It didn’t even seem like a chore. It was definitely a laborious process but we were all in it, you know?
You guys got really good production on the records. What do you attribute that to?
Justin: We changed a lot of the tones up between the records but we kept enough to string them together as sister releases. They’re definitely independent records on their own, production wise. I suppose it’s partly our ear and what we were going for and a lot of it’s Kevin. He’s insane. He’s really good at what he does and he definitely understands what we were going for. We need to have sort of a clearer production because of how much is going on but it also can’t be too clear or else it’ll sound weird, you know? It’s dirty, gnarly music so it’s kind of odd to have a crystal, clear production.
I’ve always felt like that has to be a tough line for more extreme bands to walk. You want people to be able to tell what the Hell is going on but you also want to retain some of that rawness.
Justin: Exactly. I think Kevin is really good for that. We’ve done our last few records with Greg Wilkinson and the only reason that we didn’t do this with him was just to do something different. It helps that Kevin is an old friend, same thing with Greg too. When you’re kind of doing something that’s out there, it helps to not be explaining yourself in the middle of the process of capturing it. I feel like if we went with someone that didn’t do stuff like this regularly, it would have been a lot harder and we might not have been as productive. There wasn’t too much discussion about the production, that’s kinda how we roll, I guess. Not a lot of talk, we kind of just know what we are doing and find the right people. The same thing [happened] with the album art. Ian Miller, this was the first time we had a piece commissioned by him. The other ones were all licensed but there was not too much direction given to him and he gave us exactly what we needed.
I wanted to ask about the album art too. How stoked were you when you saw those final covers?
Justin: Oh dude, I can’t even explain it to you. When we initially hit him up years ago. Shelby was kind of the one behind that. The rest of us have input but Shelby came up with a really good list. Ian was sort of at the top and we wrote to him and he wrote back within a day. You figure he’s a prolific artist, he’s probably got a secretary or something, but he wrote back saying that he’d love to.
Did you give him any kind of direction with these?
Justin: I know that some minor direction was given to him but I do not recall what.
Did you ask for two interlocking covers or was it a larger piece that you broke apart?
Justin: I guess part of the direction was that we wanted a piece that could be used for both record covers and sort of split in the middle. Initially we asked for something that we could interlock on any side but that was too much of an artistic feat. I don’t even know how you would go about that, that was just a crazy pipe dream idea that we gave him so yeah, just one large piece.
Back to the studio, with this being your third and fourth albums, are you guys pretty comfortable getting what you want out of your studio time at this point?
Justin: Oh definitely. The problem with us is that we are always pushing ourselves, so it’s always sort of a challenge at first. Right now, we’re gearing up to get a live set going so we are going back…it’s been a minute since we’ve played everything in a room together…we have to go and do our homework and kind of relearn and remember the old stuff. Shelby and Steve are going through and tabbing out some of the older stuff cause we hadn’t had that written out. I’m going back through playing some of my old drum parts and, while it’s all a lot easier to play, there is still some tricky stuff in there. After working on these last two records, the early stuff is a breeze and I’m happy to go back to it.
If you keep that pace up, albums five and six are going to be imposible to play!
Justin: But then we’ll be able to play albums three and four [laughs]!
How did you guys decide on the sequencing for the two records?
Justin: Part of it had to do with the physical limitations of the release formats. You can really only put about 20 minutes per side on a record, so we just went with a bunch of different ways of seeing what was 20 and 20. We had some tracks in mind for openers and some tracks in mind for closers, but I don’t know that the end result was anyone’s initial list. There’s not much disagreement or conversation in the writing process, a lot of things just come out and it’s been edited by each person to a point where everyone’s going to be happy with it because we know each other well enough at this point. That was kind of the one thing, the track listing and trying to figure out what works where and where to put an interlude.
For you, what were you looking to do with your drum performance on these records?
Justin: I always try and push myself and come up with some interesting things but part of this band, which matches with me well, is that I’m not the best drummer, I’m not the worst drummer. I’m an ok drummer but I always try and write interesting parts, something that someone wouldn’t necessarily think of. The other thing is that the strings are so busy that I kind of need to dumb it down a lot of times to make it palatable or even intelligible. When I get a bunch of riffs, it takes me a few minutes to even figure out where the one is. Especially because a lot of the way Steve writes, a lot of the riffs are variations of the same riff, so it’ll play the riff three times in a song, but it won’t play the same time. One time he’ll play the riff backwards like a palindrome or something. They definitely keep me on my toes and I’m always trying to keep it from getting too math-y. That’s my goal. They write insanity and I try and edit it in a palatable, for me I guess, way.
How happy are you with the two records?
Justin: I’m extremely happy. It’s definitely the most I’ve every pushed myself. It’s got some of the fastest blasting, a lot of the fastest double kick that I’ve ever had to do. I’ve never had to push myself like this for a record before and I enjoyed it. That’s what I like playing in this band for. It’s always interesting, it’s always challenging. It makes me a better drummer, for sure. Playing with these guys has made me a better musician.
What do you want listeners to get out of the records when they listen to them for the first time?
Justin: A headache [laughs]. No, I hope that it inspires people to break the mold. Not that we’re the newest, most innovative band in the world but we’re not another cookie cutter band that sounds like 55 other bands, which is fine, people can do that and it’s great. I think art should push boundaries and challenge yourself and others.
Photo at top: Anthronomicon album cover.