Ultha: finding a way through darkness and fear

German black metal band Ultha released their killer record ‘The Inextricable Wandering’ this October. Metal-Exposure dived into the background and uncovered a little bit of this fascinating record and its dark themes. The interview was held with musicians Chris Noir (vocals, bass) and Ralph Schmidt (vocals, guitars).

‘The Inextricable Wandering’ was released on October 5th and it is your first album on Century Media. How did you end up getting signed by them?
CN: “We’ve been approached by staff of Century Media after our performance at Roadburn 2017. They said they were interested in working with us, which at first sounded quite insane to us. We see ourselves as a small act, doing our small, stubborn thing. CM is a big player who released a ton of records which forged our reception of extreme music – so it was kind of scary and overwhelming. We said, we might talk it through at some point. When we started actually working on new stuff, we talked the offers we got through. We got a bunch of offers from labels we never though would be into what we do. Most of those we’re immediately uninteresting to us, as they had must-dos in their contract our punk minds could not agree with or just left the foul aftertaste of “let’s get one of those new Black Metal bands that have a different background”. CM on the other hand were very much “we love what you do, and we just want to make it available to more people” from the get go. We talked very openly about things we were skeptical about, things we would never do as a band etc. – they met all our demands and just really proved that they’re just actual fans of music, loving what they do. That’s why we felt comfortable working with them, and so far everything has been great.”

With a bigger label comes of course more exposure. Has this always been the aim for Ultha?
CN: “No, not really. I mean of course it’s great to have your record sold and marketed on a much wider scale than before and therefore way more people get to know about your music and listen to it – if we wouldn’t want that there’d be no need to record music, play shows or do anything bands usually do. But even if a lot less people would give a shit about what we do, if we’d stayed a way smaller band, I doubt we would have done anything greatly different. We do what we deem is right, anything else comes after that. That we ended up with a label like CM and an exposure like this is more coincidence and luck than anything else.”

RS: “Also even the best marketing machine is worth jack if your music is bad. So I actually doubt that it would’ve been totally different if Vendetta or another label had released this album. Music speaks for itself and it travelles by word of mouth. Also the packaging is an appeal not to be taken lightly. The artwork is also attracting people who might think this looks like something that might sound interesting. That’s why I put so much work and effort into making an album a complete package.”

Let’s dive into ‘The Inextricable Wandering’. What is the meaning behind the title? Who made the picture for the cover?
CN: “We worked with our friends Ivan K. Maras and Sara Biscaldi of Deathless Pictures. The picture directly relates to the album title, The Inextricable Wandering: It shows a blurred figure, trying to find its way through darkness and mist – which in itself of course is a metaphor for life itself, which more often than not shows no clear contours and no clear path but darkness and terrible uncertainty, resulting in fear and thus disappointment and failure.”

What drew you to that picture and in what way did it resonate with you?
CN: “Ralph had the idea for the picture pretty clear in his mind, so we reached out to Deathless Pictures to have a shooting exactly for that. For us it’s very important that our albums are considered whole pieces of art, including music, artwork, lyrics, layout – everything has to go hand in hand.”

RN: “I met up with Ivan and Sara of Deathless Pictures armed with photo eqipment and a fog machine. We visited various spots, trying to get some shots in. Sara is actually the girl in the pictures. Ivan showed me a bunch of the shots and I immediatly thought that there is potential. Little did I know what would happen once he worked on the images. I was blown away by his great eye and feeling. We had about 10 shots we wanted to us, deriving the very best that perfectly give a face to the album’s mood and concept.”

Both ‘There Is No Love, High Up in the Gallows’ and ‘We Only Speak in Darkness’, slightly differ from the rest of the tracks. How did these songs come into being, given that they are different from the rest? Were you inspired by certain other bands when writing them?
CN: “‘We Only Speak in Darkness’ is the sole example of an Ultha-song that came into being through jamming – something we usually don’t do. Most of us are fans of Wovenhand, 16 Horsepower and Fields of the Nephilim of course, and although their influence is apparent in other songs, too, we let it shine through pretty clearly on this track. ‘There Is No Love, High Up in the Gallows’ on the other hand was mainly written by Ralph (like most of our material). He’s quite into movie scores of Max Richter, Clint Mansell etc., and we’re all listening to various forms of synth-driven music, so it wasn’t even such a revolutionary idea for us to have a track based completely on electronics. In the studio he and Andy reworked the song and worked out some more details.”

On the promotional sheet, you state the following about the album: “The bands that gave me stability, relief, and motivation were different from those when we wrote Converging Sins. Therefore, The Inextricable Wandering certainly differs in sound and style.” Which bands are you referring to here that influenced the record?
RS: “A bunch. I went through a rough phase which was closely linked to me being forced to listen to all sorts of black metal. I was so fed up with that sound, as it triggered my memory of that time, that I almost completely lost myself in non-metal music. Maybe that’s the reason this album sounds way more like a wave / goth record than our previous stuff. Of course, I can always listen to Ash Borer, Weakling or Fell Voices, as they are/were better than 98% of the stuff that is popular in the black metal scene. But to name one name, I would say this record would sound completely different if it weren’t for Dead Can Dance.”

Ultha’s lyrical themes are that of personal struggle, doubt, failure, fear (especially on this album). As they are heavy, personal subjects, but you work of course work within a group, are these topics that you discuss among each other?
CN: “We’re not just a bunch of random guys making music together. I consider these four people as some of my closest friends as well, so yes, from time to time we speak about topics like these, if not within the whole group surely when we talk one-on-one. When Ralph wrote most of the lyrics for TIW, we all knew that he was having a very hard time, to say at best. So of course the topics dealt with in the lyrics have been talked about in a way or another.”

The concept of fear is one that is mostly associated with the negative and with overcoming it. Is ‘The Inextricable Wandering’ a method of overcoming, or expressing?
RS: “It’s a means to get the fear and it’s consequence out of my system. So in a way it’s a way of overcoming my memories and experiences. It might be a means of overcoming, if someone else reads the words, finds a connection and feels enabled to face her/his fears.”

Given the tracks are laden with (negative) emotions, is it hard to revisit those moments when songs are played live?
CN: “Obviously I can only answer this for myself, but since I have to associate myself with the lyrics Ralph writes to a very high extend to bring them across properly, I might have a say in this, too. I wouldn’t say it’s hard to revisit the thoughts and images I have in my head, but it’s not exactly comfortable either. I’m pretty good in repressing negative emotions and thoughts in my life when I’m not on stage, just because I would easily get dragged down if I couldn’t. So letting these emotions happen when we play live can be quite challenging. But on the other hand the cathartic element in playing live is one of the most important things for me, just because it’s one of the few things I have in life that enables me to get my head clear and shit from my mind.”

RS: “On the recent tour I found myself on stage sometimes and drowning in a flood of memories while playing a song, to the point I even teared up on stage. But playing the way we play the songs helps me to use this as a sort of drive for a kinetic force that needs to leave my body.”

Last question, If someone wanted to start listening to Ultha, is there a specific song you feel best represents your sound?
CN: “A lot of people would probably answer “Fear lights the path (close to our hearts)”, which is on “Converging Sins”, but I’d go for “I’m afraid to follow you there” off the new record. It sums up most of our influences and the range of our style pretty well and has some of our best riffs to offer.”

RS: “Even though that seems to be a unpopular choice among people who have known us for a longer time, I’d go with “The Avarist”. It’s the most personal song, it’s a mindfuck of a piece, as it all revolves around to riffs played in different ways and with various harmonies; it shows our heavies doom influences, our most viscious fast parts and also the hypnotic ending which underlines all our work.”