on 26 May 2011
Ulver are one of those rare bands who not only manage to continually re-invent themselves without losing the idiosyncrasies of their musical identity, but also create music which communicates on a far higher level than any other generic or conventional band, group, ensemble or collective. Deeply philosophical and observational subjects can lose emotional weight when not treat with right sophistication in the arena of a concept album, but Ulver have managed to craft one of their heaviest most touching musical journeys to date out of just that.
This is the first time a recording has involved the creative input of Manchester born wolf, Daniel O'sullivan. Known previously for his work in Mothlite, Miasma & the Carousel of Headless Horses, Sunn0))) and Aethenor (just to name a few), his profile has reached prolific new heights since his adaptation into Ulver's circle. It's clear when you see Ulver live (which I have on four separate occasions now) that he is, in some ways, the unsung star of the show - taking up duties on piano, guitar, bass and vocals. Without him, I personally can't see how the live show could ever have been the massive success it is. It is also very clear that he has a massive bond and chemistry with Kristoffer Rygg, the vocalist and father of this evolutionary collective, as Dan is clearly trusted and given free range to express Ulver's music with added improvised trills or occasionally he cleverly repositions chords and adds jazzy steps into the melodies.
The inclusion of this new full time member has given Ulver's sound a new strength. Melismatic piano lead melodies in tracks such as providence are clearly the brain child of this new partnership, as well as the almost pop/prog opener, February MMX.
The subject matter on this record is a strange one. It seems extremely personal to the band and explores its individual's heritage, but no punches are pulled and the lyrics are very critical. February MMX literally seems to be describing the events of that month and year... the month that Ulver went on their first full live tour. The chorus lyrics reference the live setup directly (vertical lights of death in codes of red and blue. Birds in black and white and the drums of world war two), and the verse speaks of the sorrow and sacrifice in having to perform such harrowing material with a lot of personal events taking place behind the scenes.
Norwegian Gothic follows, and is about as far a polar opposite to the driving pop like conventions of the albums opener. The music itself reminds me of the last couple of minutes of 'Like Music', when the track dissolves into a fragmented, swirling whirl pool of bowed tones and agonised samples. Kristoffer Rygg's Vocals heave deeply over the top of this soundscape painting a most dreary picture.
Providence is the albums epic, with a massive crescendo on a melody that sounds like the distant cousin of the 'Not Saved' piano motif. It also features a female vocalist. Something that's definitely going to divide Ulver's fanbase even further. The inclusion reminds me of Lee's input on tracks like A Natural Disaster by Anathema. It's a really well performed part and delivered in a seductive tone which totally juxtaposes just about everything on this album.
September IV is hard to comment on. It is clearly a very, very personal song and having been through similar events to those described and had to witness people go through these events I can only say it sums up those painful feelings well, with an almost classic rock vibe to the melodies which for the first half of the track make up a sombre ballad. The song ends with a wall of sound that drags you along at a galloping pace, with very visual sound design making for a colourful and subjective little trip - lots of sweeping frequencies giving the sensation of ducking and dodging oncoming traffic.
England is a more structured piece which I actually witnessed being exhibited for the first time at Ulver's grandiose performance in Oslo's visionary Opera house. The last section in this song is the highlight of the whole album for me. Massive waves of crushing bass over drums that pulse in and out and vocals that hit whole new levels of epic with a piano gently story telling in the middle. I had to turn this song up as far as my headphones could stand. It's so good and very, very empowering.
Island is interesting and unique. It opens with some rhythmic found sounds (a break-beat convention) which quickly dissolve into acoustic guitar playing glistening and sad chords over yet more progressive soundscapes. This track sounds quite psychedelic to me, and has really wet my appetite for the covers album Ulver spoke of releasing containing the sixties protest songs.
The final track is another epic, Stone Angels... this track is just indescribable. Narrated by Daniel, speaking words by writer Keith Waldrop (a close friend of Jorn, Ulver's very own researcher/writer/lyricist/philosopher). I need to single this song out a few times and listen to it away from the shorter tracks before it. There's so much going on, if this track had been a little longer it could've been a unique release of its own and it would've been one of Ulver's strongest.
To sort of pinpoint Ulver with a reference for where their music is now, I'd say the melodies have the same surreal melancholy to the material heard on the two Silence EPs such as 'Darling Didn't We Kill You', but the experimental focus of those two EP's is swapped for the song writing heard in tracks like 'Let the Children Go', 'Little Blue Bird', 'For the Love of God' or 'Lost in Moments'. The music here is traumatic, lush and harrowing... It's an album I'd never have dreamt to hear from Ulver, and yet only Ulver could be capable of.
on 29 November 2011
As I write this review I have yet to stop listening to this album. I have a book of CDs I keep with me when I go out and this one hasn't actually left that book since I bought it.
Having never actually listened to Ulver before I wasn't really sure what to expect. I had heard Kristoffer Rygg on things like Arcturus and knew he was a great singer, but came to the album without too many preconceptions. As you have probably already gathered, I was extremely pleasantly suprised to find an album of intelligent and powerful music.
February MMX is a brilliant opener, powerful and driving the sound into your mind. This was then perfectly punctured by the haunting Norwegian Gothic that simply drips into your ears as leaves behind a beautiful feeling.
Now, here goes the difficult part. I don't like "Providence". There, I said it. I have never been one for breathy vocals, and sadly the guest singer, Siri Stranger, just stomps all over this one and I can't get on with it. However, this is a personal idiosyncracy and I can't actually fault the song for anything other than not making more of Attila Csihar also being on that song. I had to listen about four times to even hear anything by him.
All that out of the way, September IV, England and Island are all amazing songs that have their own unique sounds and processes. My favourite is England just for the first two lines: "Mount the high horse, and dogs will follow".
Stone Angels can really be taken apart from the rest of the album, as the words aren't written by the band. It's essentially a poem set to music. I personally think the music is far superior to the words, as some of it comes across as a bit odd, and sometimes nonsensical. I always hear "...it's internal asymmetries and also the broken symmetry we wander through" and think What?. Maybe it's not delivered right or something but I feel that the words and how they are said strip it of meaning. However, as a whole, it is beautiful.
So, while not a "perfect" album, this is a very good collection of beautiful, interesting and personal songs that will not appeal to everyone in the same way, and will not be acclaimed as a masterpiece by the mainstream despite it's relative accessibility compared to other Norwegian contributions to music. I would recommend any intelligent music lover to try this as they will probably find something they will love about it.
on 14 June 2013
If you are feeling a bit low or down, put this album on. You'll feel suicidal by the time it's finished, lol.
Seriously now, i'm really pleased with my purchase. This is my first introducion to Ulver. Very dark, very moving material.
Nothing quite like it, that i've heard. Certainly can't be pidgeonholed. If you like bands like 'Anathema' 'Porcupine Tree' ect, this might appeal to you. Even hints of Katatonias dark vocal style. But not conclusive. There's a lot going on here. It grows on you with every listen. Must admit i took the plunge, because of it's bargain price of just £4.99, deluxe edition too.
I'm glad i did. Looking at the rest of their catalouge now.
I've given 4 stars because of it's measily 45 mins length, bearing in mind the last track is'nt exactly what you'd call music. More like ambient poetry.