Though self-professed "aliencore" outfit Rings of Saturn have always been controversial, they've won a fanatical core of fans to balance their legions of detractors, though their reasons are the same. This band has released three previous albums whose material sounds more like a sped-up pastiche of samples from lineage metal and video-game soundtracks and effects than songs. ROS' self-described "technical deathcore" is drenched in the imagery of sci-fi weirdness. They've been continually accused of using technology to accomplish their seemingly impossible-to-play meld of speed and accuracy -- indeed, they were once a studio-only outfit. For fans of other musical genres, this would make little difference. ROS are controversial among musicians, too -- they've been through 14 members (Dave Mustaine anyone?). Only guitarist/keyboardist/bassist Lucas Mann remains from the original lineup.
Ultu Ulla is the band's debut for Nuclear Blast. Its concept furthers the one on 2014's Lugal Ki En -- one only fans will care about. Interestingly, Ultu Ulla offers musical changes for the first time. It's somewhat more melodic, with slicker production, and may prove controversial among the faithful but more palatable to a heretofore dismissive audience. New guitarist Miles Dmitri Baker adds ballast to Mann's attack, while new drummer Aaron Stechauner is even faster and more brutal than Aaron Kitcher was. Vocalist Ian Bearer is, aside from Mann, the lone survivor from Lugal Ki En. That said, his previously dominant growls, grunts, and pig squeals are mixed further down here. To give Mann his due, the writing is much more cohesive. Opener "Servant of This Sentience" offers a somewhat conventional verse/chorus/verse structure; he brings back the dynamic shifting breakdowns heard on Embryonic Anomaly that were not as present on recent records. Baker's playing adds dimensionality and a more pronounced sense of melody, while Mann's use of synths in the backdrop adds an orchestral flair -- the latter trait proves true throughout. "Parallel Shift" commences as blazing chug-and-blast, but breakdowns are the pillars of its construction, with keyboards adding a near majestic adornment. The interplay between twin leads, counterpoint synths, and merciless blasts on "The Relic" offers a starling contrast with Bearer's alternating vocal styles, sometimes line by line. The sharply arpeggiated melodic guitar interlude sounds like any metal band but ROS. The crazy stop-and-start dynamics on "Margidda" and its careening synths amid downtuned guitars and basses is also unlike anything this band has ever done before. "The Macrocosm" is a six-plus-minute suite-like instrumental that directly nods at early Dream Theater with distinct parts, complex harmonics, and time shifts. It's a deft bit of musical storytelling with a melancholy piano interlude to close. It's followed by the maniacal "Prognosis Confirmed," letting the listener know that all is still crazy in ROS land. While Ultu Ulla is easily the most musical record in the Rings of Saturn catalog and will prove more controversial among longtime fans, it's also their most diverse and interesting.