Mostly Norwegian sonic explorers Ulver have over the two decades and more of their existence steadily built a reputation for never standing still, of always looking to see where that rugged path over there – yes, that one disappearing into the fog-shrouded yonder – may take them. Ulver’s motto is “everything is permitted”, not for them finding a winning formula then repeating it ad nauseum with minimal variation for the rest of their careers, oh no. This is a band who apparently either invented black metal or played a large part in its evolution, but soon tired of being genre-bound. Me, I wouldn’t know, for I only jumped on this careering Norse lumber truck about five years ago, by which time the band had long since left their origins behind, something that still rankles with a few change-phobic diehards to this day, if a recent disgruntled and witless Kerrang! review is anything to go by. It should not surprise anyone that Kerrang! miss the point entirely, not that any of this would bother band leader Kristoffer Rygg in the slightest, and more power to him, I say.
However, there is a problem. How do you follow something as starkly beautiful yet emotionally devastating as 2013’s Messe I.X-VI.X? This magnificent statement was recorded with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra and is possibly the band’s creative peak, and an album that opens with a sadly now even more relevantly titled track by the name of As Syrians Pour In, Lebanon Grapples With Ghosts Of A Troubled Past, a harrowing piece of music haunted by keening violins. If ever there was proof that the best and most lasting art comes from the dark places, this glorious and thought provoking album was it. Undaunted by the sheer presence of Messe…, the band have taken inspiration from the album before it, the decidedly unexpected Childhood’s End, an album of covers of esoteric psychedelic rock songs where the wilful experimentalism of the originals fitted right in with Ulver’s raison d’etre. And so we arrive at ATGCLVLSSCSAP, which takes another sharp fork in the road less travelled, it too using psychedelia but in a completely different way.
Back in early 2014 the band completed a European tour under the aegis that a lot of it was to be improvised around established themes. Kristoffer explains: “The tour was to be an experiment, kind of loose and scary for a band as ‘set in their ways’ as us.” The irony in that statement, whether intentional or not, is very juicy indeed! Recordings were made over a number of dates, and thereafter sound guru Daniel O’Sullivan beavered away on the “tapes” at his North London studio, fitting together the best bits. The results were then tweaked some more back in Oslo, with Kristoffer, percussionist Anders Møller, and keyboard player Tore Ylwizaker now joining in with the sonic manipulation and knob twiddling. After more travelling through wires back and forth across the North Sea what we end up with here in our eager little hands is not a live album in the traditional sense, but a new work fashioned from those inspirational and improvisational beginnings. The end product is what I’m listening to right now at ornament-rattling volume while my better half is away.
The number ’12’ is of great significance to this album, from being its working title to the dozen letters of its eventual title – have you worked it out yet? – to the 12 tracks, to the source material being recorded at 12 different live dates, to the 12 masked figures on the inner sleeve of the first record, and the 12 wartime ambulances pictured on the sleeve of the second. Even the band’s in-house record label has a dodecahedron as its symbol. The soundscapes are therefore suitably mystical and indeed, magnificent, and, oh, THIS THING IS MASSIVE, it will blow cobwebs from your mind you had forgotten were obscuring your thought processes. It will render your synapses asunder and re-connect them in revealing ways, all things are possible. ATGCLVLSSCSAP is as ancient as the unending Norwegian pine forest, and yet it is as modern as can be. It conjures strange magick using justified Ur-Rock of Krautrock-inspired origin. Here walks the spirits of Amon Düül II, Florian Fricke, Guru Guru, Can, Philip Glass, and all manner of horror movie soundtracks, all the while shining a black light into hidden recesses where disturbed wood trolls grudgingly scuttle away, muttering darkly.
Themes are slowly revealed and subtly referred back to as the album progresses, some harking back to the band’s earlier work. Opening with the eerily impressionistic Gothic horror soundscape of England’s Hidden, seguing into the Sturm und Drang of the percussive and heavy Glammer Hammer, our trip into the land of permanent night begins in thrilling fashion. The percussion elements play a large part in this recording, from the subtle interplay between the individual components on the superbly named wah-hymn Moody Stix to the upfront shamanic clattering beast on Cromagnosis, they are something to behold.
Improvisation in the wrong hands can become an endless and formless dirge that degenerates into jamming, which can only be truly appreciated under the influence of perception altering drugs, and there are one or two West Coast bands who built entire careers on that. Jamming can be fun and it has its place but improv, done properly as it is here by a group of musicians who intuitively know each other’s moves, can be an inspiring, uplifting and occasionally terrifying thing.
Our craft is now bobbing around on the irresistible Stygian currents, its course determined by fate, for this is music crafted on a Ouija board, guided by unseen forces. Venturing beyond the first side of the heavyweight vinyl we find the deeply hypnotic grooves of Cromagnosis giving way to a bass-led tribal mantra, the percussion infused with the spirit of Shrat, speeding through the boundless cosmos towards an unknown destination. The second side ends with a modern hymn from the text of Space Ritual, later to reprise an earlier theme.
The third side sees our ship sail a stately progress through Herzog soundtrack territory, shining its dark light on war with deep swirling high church keyboards and electronica marking a path across a gently undulating landscape. The sonic theme is set, and the ominous beauty of D-Day Drone casts its unflinching eye over eviscerated scorched earth, eventually landing on a wasted Gold Beach.
There’s a pop song on here too! Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen) opens side four, and harks back to the dark electronica of the now 16-year old Perdition City, the “Sweet Sixteen” appendage perhaps referring to the age of the original. It is a towering Gothic construct built on solid foundations, turning the refrain “Nowhere, catastrophe” into a righteous declamation. That is followed by a sombre neo-classical piano vying with swirling electronica, over which the opening verses from Eccelsiastes are recited in Norwegian, and later sung in English. Written down that comes across as somewhat pretentious, but trust me, it is anything but. This of course is Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Equinox), which reprises the song Tomorrow Never Knows (not that one), also from Perdition City, an early example of Ulver’s deviation from its black metal roots, and something of a new beginning for the band. Returning to the scene of their early experiments, it seems that all roads do indeed lead to Rome.
If you have any desire for music that dares to be different, music that likes to muck about with that tired and tatty old envelope, then this album is for you.
[Also available on CD or download, for this review I have used the vinyl version, as I have recently bought a new record deck. A damn good way to break it in, methinks!]
A1. England’s Hidden (7:39)
A2. Glammer Hammer (4:50)
A3. Moody Stix (6:44)
B1. Cromagnosis (9:48)
B2. The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible (3:16)
B3. Om Hanumate Namah (7:43)
C1. Desert/Dawn (8:35)
C2. D-Day Drone (9:21)
C3. Gold Beach (4:53)
D1. Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen) (5:56)
D2. Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Equinox) (9:01)
D3. Solaris (2:13)
Total time – 80:00
Seth Beaudrealt – Audiovisuals
Ole Alexander Halstengård – Electronics
Anders Møller – Percussion
Daniel O’Sullivan – Bass, Guitar
Kristofer Rygg – Electronics, Percussion, Voice
Jørn H. Sværen – Voice
Ivar Thormodsæter – Drums
Tore Ylwizaker – Keys, Electronics
Record Label: House Of Mythology
Catalogue#: HOM 002
Year Of Release: 2016