German black metal band Ultha released their debut full length ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ in Europe last year, and it was an absolutely massive record. Capable of reaching the type of sweeping atmosphere that listeners might typically associate with U.S. black metal while also heading into much heavier, grittier territory, the material remains appealing from beginning to end and delivers a consistent vision and drive. Translation Loss Records recently gave the album a North American release in order to further Ultha’s reach and with it came the news that they were already making progress on new material. I had the opportunity to send some questions over to the band to learn more about their writing process and upcoming plans.
Transcending Obscurity (Chris Dahlberg): ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ originally came out on a variety of record labels and release formats in Europe before receiving a U.S. release via Translation Loss Records. How would you compare the reception of the European releases to the press and opinions you’ve seen from the U.S. Edition?
Ultha: Mostly they were equally as positive. We’re happy that a lot of people overseas seem to enjoy what we do and that the feeling we try to create with our music resonates with people from all over the world. If we look at the interviews we do, there is a bigger difference though: The US writers focus on the way our music sounds, on the atmosphere, the lyrics, our approach on Black Metal and how we are Europeans being primarily influenced by the American interpretation of a Euro-dictated style of music. Those questions are appealing to us. They make sense. German interviews at the moment rather focus on us being people with a politically left-wing socialized background playing Black Metal. Unfortunately it often feels as if they try make us a left-wing Black Metal band, which just doesn’t sit right with us. There are some bands clearly stating this and that’s totally okay for us, but Ultha is by no means a political band.
TO: Translation Loss has historically been known more for their roster of sludge/post metal bands, but recently they’ve put out material from you as well as Sun Worship. What made them the right label to put out this record in the U.S.? I personally could see your type of sprawling, desolate black metal appealing to a lot of that crowd, but I’m curious on your thoughts.
Ultha: Actually it fits pretty well, as all in the band have a wide variety of musical influences and tastes. All of our old bands weren’t full-on Black Metal bands, but some heavily influenced by the music we all have been listening to for 25+ years. Bands like Planks and Ira for example would’ve matched the “classic” roster of Translation Loss fairly well. The bands that have been and are on Translation Loss all share a dark heaviness, a focus on atmosphere and execution of the very style they chose to play, apart from only repeating traditional patterns. So, why not play Black Metal and be on a label that has always been good in their selection of artists and that has artists we feel more related to than cheap Mayhem knock-offs that choke on their own sense of being “trve”.
TO: You’ve been a band for about two years now and have already released a demo and full length, with a split and second album in the works. For a group this new, ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ sounds much more focused and fully formed than one might expect. How did everything come together for this material, did everything click naturally and were you able to draw on the experiences of your previous projects to explore these new musical endeavors?
Ultha: Yes, that is pretty much the case. We’ve all known each other for years. We’ve played in bands forever, toured, recorded, rehearsed, changed influences, progressed our musicianship etc. Our old bands shared stages and we always felt there could be bands we do together. It mostly didn’t come to that as we all lived spread out far across Germany. By chance we all live in and around Cologne now and we had time to start a new project. The pieces just matched: The right people, the right motivation, a sense of friendship and a strict work ethic for executing a band despite that fact we all work full-time.
TO: Tying in to the previous question, your songs skew towards the longer side and build in a way that feels very natural. How does the writing process work? How do these songs go from individual riffs to ten to eleven minutes of cohesive material?
Ultha: Well, that again is just a testimony to the influences we as musicians have. Our guitar player R, who used to be in Planks, writes most of the material and the lyrics. He has a pretty clear view on how he wants Ultha to sound and his vision mostly clicks with the others in the band. He brings finished songs to the table we work on together then. The songs sometimes change, but in general you can see that he developed an ability with Planks to write proper songs, captivating enough to keep listeners (as well as us playing the songs) interested even through a period of 10+ minutes. The riffs and ideas are just stretched out way longer then with his or our old bands. You will be able to hear that on the new record we are working on right now. There are two songs which extend over more than 15 minutes.
TO: Album number two is set to be recorded soon, which you’ve said will feature electronic elements from member A. Aside from the addition of electronics, what elements are you approaching differently this time around as you begin to put this new material together?
Ultha: ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ was a fair attempt on a first record. We still like it but it doesn’t have a clear handwriting. The four songs are still very different in their feeling. At least that’s what we feel. The five new songs which will be on the second album feel more like one entity. We’re better in playing together, the electronics add another layer to the sound and also the two vocalists use their variety of voices better. In general the songs are longer and more repetitive whilst still luring the listener in. We’ve been playing some of the songs live already and we get a lot of positive feedback for them.
TO: It seems like some bands have trouble pushing into new territory once they’ve established an initial sound on an album. How do your members continually try to push the envelope so to speak, and keep yourselves from stagnating?
Ultha: Stagnation is death – but we’re also not big fans of totally abandoning your initial sound. So for us it’s rather a steady shift and natural progress, where other bands decide to go the extra mile very fast. You will never hear something like Oranssi Pazuzu from us, but you will also hear that we’re a more experienced, daring band than on the first album. We could write shorter songs, maybe more traditional or more brutal, but that’s not our thing. The main focus will always be on the overall atmosphere. And since gloom and dread dictate the overall feeling of Ultha, we will continue creating music matching these outlines, yet we will try to evolve within the frame we feel is honest for this band and its protagonists.
TO: The album art for ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ stood out to me, as the band logo over top of tombstones evokes the type of imagery a lot of black metal bands from the 90s were going for. Tell us a bit more about the artwork and how this visual aspect ties in to your material.
Ultha: The visual aspect is very important to us, equally as important as the lyrics and the music itself. Oddly enough we had no idea how the first record should look. The music felt very traditional, yet totally different from classic Black Metal bands. We went through a lot of ideas and artists and nothing felt right. R introduced the art of Nona Limmen to the band. Her great eye for mood in photography made her work appealing to us. We approached her, told her about the music and she was interested in working for us. She took a trip to Scotland and shot a lot of pictures. Amongst them were the two which ended up on the record. It was simple and very effective, but we tried to make the whole thing look like a contemporary interpretation of what Black Metal in the 90s looked like. Record number two will certainly look a lot different.
Stagnation is death – but we’re also not big fans of totally abandoning your initial sound
TO: ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ has come out on just about every format possible at this point, with CD, cassette, digital, and vinyl versions all available. What are your thoughts on cassette and vinyl becoming a popular format to release music on again?
Ultha: For us these two formats were always the true faces of music. We’re all fans of the vinyl + download code idea. It just makes perfect sense. But with this constructed hype around these ‘retro formats’ buying records isn’t as much fun anymore. Prices exploded and the bullshit Record Store Days is killing the opportunities for smaller bands and labels. We’ve just approved the master for our next release and the label said it will take AT LEAST three months until we have the LP with us. This sucks, and now they’re trying to do the same thing with cassettes.
TO: In other interviews I’ve seen you talk about other bands like Sun Worship, Unru, Fyrnask, Paramnesia, and their ability to think outside of the box. I haven’t had a chance to explore the new Sun Worship just yet but the new Unru blew me away recently. Where did this sense of kinship come from between Ultha and these bands? Do you take any inspiration off of each other or is everyone mainly doing their own thing?
Ultha: You really should check out Sun Worship’s ‘Pale Dawn’ very soon. It’s amazing. Both, them and Unru, are very much at the top of their game right now and released stunning records. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they have a musical influence on us, but both these records make us reach deeper down and try to make our new record also something unique and better than the last.
TO: In addition to the bands above, are there any other German bands (black metal or other genres) that you’d recommend?
Ultha: Germany has a shitload of copycats and trendhoppers. It’s almost scary how weak some of the music coming from this country is. But there are these few exceptions that stand out even more so. We decided to just name a few that we all in the band like a lot.
ANTLERS are amazing. Very powerful Behexen-like Black Metal. One of the best live bands in this genre.
RADARE are a very unique kind of post-rock band, but that washed out term doesn’t even come close to what they do. If you like Bohren & Der Club Of Gore or Low this might be something for you.
MORAST is a rather new band with players who have been around for a while. It’s kind of the same story as with Ultha: guys that have known each other for a while from other bands come together to start something new. They take a really nasty turn on Celtic Frost and Indian.
BLACK SHAPE OF NEXUS have been around for a while and just released another stunning album. They are total gear enthusiasts and play louder than Sunn O))). A lot of bands try to do this, but in comparison B.SON know how to use all this gear to create a super heavy low frequency assault.
(DOLCH) is probably the band of the hour right now. A girl and a guy started recording songs at home that sounded as if Urfaust wasn’t a metal band but rather influenced by dark wave and gothic. Totally unique, eerie and dark, beautiful and fragile.
I’ve always found the type of black metal that you play, which emphasizes longer track lengths and gloomier build-ups to be even more captivating live. How would you compare your live performance to your recorded output?
We’re definitely more a live band than on record. I feel that we sound heavier on stage and also the way we use light and fog underlines our music. It’s hard to say from the view of a person that plays the music, but that’s what people keeping saying about us. I think we all feel more comfortable playing live than recording in a studio.
The five new songs which will be on the second album feel more like one entity
TO: You’ve mentioned the possibility of getting over to the U.S. for a tour sometime next year. Are there any bands you have in mind that you’d want to try to play with if that comes together?
Ultha: There are serious talks with a band R has been friends with for a long time. If that comes together it would a terrific opportunity for us. But there are also two to three other bands we’ve been in touch with. They are all awesome and we would love to tour with them. Even though touring the States is harder and less comfortable than to tour Europe, we still would like to do this a lot. Let’s see how it works out. Right now we’re aiming for April of 2017.
TO: Is there anything else you’d like to say about ‘Pain Cleanses Every Doubt’ or Ultha in general?
Ultha: Not much, except maybe that Ultha is a band that puts a lot of work in all aspects: music, artwork, lyrics, merchandise, live performance etc. We strongly encourage everybody enjoying the music to also check out the rest, as it is part of the concept of the band. This also means that we love to get in touch with people enjoying our music or that are interested in talking lyrics etc. So feel free to contact us. firstname.lastname@example.org