Ulver’s new album Flowers of Evil and first book Wolves Evolve: The Ulver Story are both set for release on 28th August via House of Mythology.
Change is a process which can be difficult to deal with for some bands. Reacting to prevailing trends by aping them leads to accusations of genre hopping and lack of clear identity. A sudden and radical alteration for an established band may confuse and alienate their current fan base. Being reluctant to change at all can see the band being left behind as being washed up and passé. Even the most accepting of genres can react against it when implemented poorly.
It seems surprising then how many of the Norwegian second-wave black metal bands altered their approach as their careers developed. Especially given the movement in the early days set itself quite rigid guidelines regarding its style, recording and aesthetic. Mayhem embraced experimentation and the avant-garde, Satyricon infused aspects of gothic rock and electronics, Enslaved became more associated with progressive rock/metal, Arcturus have always played around with the experimental and Gaahl from Gorgoroth has delved into traditional soundscapes. Even Darkthrone have released some hardcore punk sounding albums.
But it was Ulver who most exemplified the transformative process. Coming out of the early nineties period, they released a trio of albums that were up there with any of their peers in terms of their critical appeal. Natters Madrigal marked a line in the sand though, and they were looking to move on and expand their sound. Themes from William Blake’s Heaven and Hell incorporated avant-garde, progressive metal, spoken word and industrial music. It was a startling change for fans, but it marked the point at which adventure and constant evolution was the name of the game. They have since delved into soundtrack work, live concerts with the Norwegian national opera and Tromso orchestra, collaborations with the likes of Sunn O))), cover albums, free improvised jam sessions and more besides. The electronic elements that have been associated with their music became more prominent on last album, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, to the point where it was akin to an eighties synth album.
They may have continued in the vein from their last album which moved deeper into focusing on grooves, hooks and rhythms set to a combination of synths and programming with guitars and drums. Each side allowed space to shine without competing with one another. The production work of Killing Joke’s Youth and The Orb’s Michael Rendell deserve a nod for how pristine the album sounds. The album shimmers and pulses with beats and effects which appears to be one of style over substance. It would be remiss to call this a ‘pop’ album though. A tag of ‘doom dance’ had been applied to The Assassination of Julius Caesar and darker themes are explored here in full. On ‘One Last Dance’ Kristoffer ‘Garm’ Rygg states “All come from the same place/All go to the dust returns” and “This is our song/We have loved/We have lost/We’re ready to go” in defiance of judgement from others or God. ‘Russian Doll’ tells a tale of corruption and disaster which unfolds over a night “It burns like hell/When things start crashing down”. ‘Apocalypse 1993’ references the tragedy of the Waco mass suicide in a year which the band formed. “They’re outside in the garden/Playing with guns/Coming soon at the crack of doom” and “Killed only young/Leave the family alone/23 holy children”.
‘Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers’ sees imagery related to end of days scenarios “All the evil/Michael and his angels/Versus the dragons” and “Fires are burning/Great art will be destroyed”. It is not all monochrome vocals and pulsating synths either. Anders Møller assists with sturdy drumming throughout especially on ‘Hour of the Wolf’ and ‘A Thousand Cuts’. The latter sees beautiful vocal delivery from Rygg which brings to mind the subtle and elegant work by Talk Talk. His get passionate when the occasion demands it and have effects applied to it elsewhere to heighten the atmosphere. ‘Nostalgia’ contains a segment that brings to mind 70’s soul and disco. It might seem odd but works to a tee.
Rygg may be the sole representative left from the original band, but here he is backed up by the gorgeous keyboards and programming of Tore Ylvisaker, the lyrics and arrangement of Jørn H. Sværen and the precise sequencing and arrangement of Ole Alexander Halstensgård along with the extended family of Stian Westerhus playing all guitars (except the first song), Ivar Thormodsæter (all drums) and Anders Møller on percussion and also productional duties. The influence of the likes of guests such as Michael J. York and Christian Fennesz also make important contributions. But for all the progression and evolution that has occurred in their music, Ulver have not left behind the aspects that have driven them and inspired them from the very beginning. Their hopes, fears and obsessions. They may sound different to the lo-fi recording, relentless pace and harsh vocals from those days but retaining the values which led them. The aspects of Wolves setting on their own path as the bloated and corrupt aspects of society falls apart arose at various parts throughout. The animals gave the band their name and have become somewhat of a mascot for them. It reflects the independent nature of the band and doing what inspires them. They are able to delve into new areas and make it sound natural rather than forced. And seeking inspiration from their own past, their country’s and world events from former days has and continues to serve them well. But not in thrall to it. Whatever their next step remains to be seen but will be highly anticipated.