A band that’s worth your time

Diane,

I rarely use these communications to pimp one particular album, band, movie, director, actor, author, etc.  It just seems like a blandly straightforward thing to do, and this FBI agent would rather zigzag a bit.  Today, however, I am going to make an exception.  And fittingly, it’s being made on behalf of a band that has a serious zigzagging addiction.

I found out about Ulver (the name is Norwegian for “wolves”) during my heavy metal explorations of the last couple years.  The easiest metal for me to comprehend is low, rumbling, full-throttle stuff.  The hardest is melodic, screechy, and tinny – what is known to the metal community as orthodox black metal.  For a long time I thought that’s what black metal was all about (also sub-Kiss makeup and spiky armbands) so I just steered clear of it.  Eventually my curiosity got the better of me, and I started asking the old-timers if there was any black metal that someone who’s more into Slayer and Dismember (slay! dismember! no commands are more metal!) might appreciate.  They chewed it up and came back to me with lists.  I got some recommendations.  I got some Ulver.

Ulver’s long discography starts in 1994 with the release of “Bergtatt,” which is now my favorite black metal album, and the best argument I can make in favor of the genre.  It’s an eerily beautiful piece of work, with long and meandering melodies and clear, ghostly vocal harmonies.  That’s right – actual singing.  There is a little extreme metal growling throughout, but the predominant vocal flavor is closer to Scandinavian folk music or Gregorian chant.  “Bergtatt” rarely tries to go faster or be more eeeevil than its contemporaries from the likes of Immortal and Darkthrone; it’s content to lull you into feeling like you’re in a forest, dreaming.  Or dreaming of being in a forest.  Or something foresty and dreamy.  In any event, it’s a remarkable album that completely defied my expectations.

After “Bergtatt,” Ulver got weird.  First they released “Kveldssanger,” an all-acoustic, all-not-metal album of lovely folk tunes.  It maintains some of the dark and haunting aspects of “Bergtatt” but doesn’t even remotely try to ROCK.  Quite a bit of the album is nothing but chiming acoustic guitars supporting a dark, sonorous cello.  For a “metal” band this was a hell of a twist – but nothing like what was to come.  More on that momentarily.  Ulver followed up their folk album with “Nattens Madrigal,” a leap into utterly orthodox black metal.  It’s fast, it’s shrieky, it’s extremely poorly produced – it’s the Ulver album I have the least interest in, though to many black metallers it’s the high point of their discography.  Its biggest problem, in my opinion, is that it preserves so little of the loveliness of its two predecessors.  There are melodies in the guitar lines but they are playing too quickly and sound like they’re coming out of seriously overdriven 1-inch speakers.  And the band does away entirely with clean, melodic singing, which proved both before and after this release to be one of their best weapons.

In any event, after “Nattens Madrigal” is where Ulver started really throwing curveballs.

For one thing, they gave up on being a metal band.  They went from their most metal release to one of their least.  “Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is some sort of dark ambient/electronic/gothic music, utterly sans distorted guitars and rock drumming.  In place of those things, Ulver used – well, let me refer to the musician credits: “Programming.”  “Generation.”  “Cables, wires, & sounds.”  “Vinyl scratching”?!?  “Say it ain’t so, Ulver!” was the reaction from their fanbase, and I can only conjecture that Ulver’s general reaction was, “Sorry, dudes.  It is so.”  In fact, their entire subsequent output has restated and underscored this sentiment repeatedly.

Post-“Nattens Madrigal,” Ulver has turned out six full length albums and a handful of EPs.  Among the albums, three were soundtracks for films (“Themes from…” was the first of these).  Most of these releases were heavily electronic; many were slow or completely ambient, and a couple were completely instrumental.  “Lyckantropen Themes” is an excellent example of this – a voiceless electronic/ambient voyage through auditory shadows.  On the other hand, their second-most-recent album “Blood Inside” is a brash avant garde-pop-rock-electronica affair with clear but “difficult” melodies and a notable kinship to the work of Mr. Bungle and Mike Patton’s other releases.  It has heavier drumming, brass sections, and at least one sudden veer into jazz that sounds like early Sun Ra.  I can only imagine that anyone who had heard only “Nattens Madrigal” and then jumped straight to “Blood Inside” would suffer from rapid-onset cranial explosionism. 

Their latest release is “Shadows of the Sun,” another change of direction from the noisy, complicated “Blood Inside.”  “Shadows” is a smeary, semi-ambient album of vocal chamber music.  Deep, dark vocal harmonies sing lyrics like, “The sun is far away/It goes in circles/Someone dies/Someone lives,” over a minimalistic bed of piano and synth washes.  No drums, no driving synthetic bleeps and blips – this is nearly New Age Ulver.  Except it’s a whole lot more melancholy than anything Windham Hill ever put out.

If you want to hear the gamut of Ulver, try these two MySpace pages: black metal-era Ulver; the rest of Ulver.  The first has two songs each from “Bergtatt” and “Nattens Madrigal.”  I can’t recommend the latter album but the former I think is kind of brilliant.  The second is a sampling of different, later albums, including the track that convinced me to buy “Shadows of the Sun,” called “Funebre.”  Also check out “In the Red” from “Blood Inside,” which might be the single best taste of how strange Ulver can be.

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