My mental image of The Progressive Aspect’s demographic dictates that I should warn you:
What I am about to say must not put you off. Please read all of this review!!!
Questions. I have loads of questions about Ulver.
What makes them a collective and not a band? Is there an underlying religious or spiritual agenda to their music? What’s their favourite effects pedal manufacturer? Is it Dark Glass? I bet it’s Dark Glass.
Long ago, Ulver were categorised as “Black Metal”. As they are from Norway this is hardly surprising. Norway is a hotbed of bands associated with this genre. Black Metal music and the ideology of some of the followers of the genre is extreme. But Ulver left that behind in the 1990s. Whether or not this was the band’s (or more accurately, collective’s) deliberate strategy to distance themselves from Black Metal, I can confirm that they most definitely have. In fact, the opening paragraphs serve no purpose other than to give context and to illustrate that the Ulver who I have heard could not be further removed from that ugliness.
What I am hearing in contemporary Ulver’s music isn’t extreme. OK, Flowers of Evil sounds really “metal”… but their latest incarnation, into which they have evolved, is seemingly one of electronic-based music, (lightly) peppered with guitar and real(istic) drums. There are no fast tempos, heavy distortion, or shrieking vocals. Not at all metal. The albums I have become acquainted with have always seemed to me to have had, if not a quasi-religious whiff, at least a spiritual edge to them. For example, 2016’s much art-rockier ATGCLVLSSCAP sometimes left me struggling (probably too strong a word there) as to whether I should be listening to them on a stereo or in a church. Apart from the rockier bits. Definitely not church music. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Ulver has been a rock band, but they have long since progressed beyond the death metal masks beloved of the ilk and all the associated affectation, if they had ever been, and now they do music without regard for genre. And I like that. That’s progressive, that is.
When I started listening to this album, a few months ago, I was disappointed. I thought I heard a few lyrical clichés pop up. I heard a slick production and I was comparing it to ’80s pop music. Consequently, I stopped listening and got on with other things. I returned to it only today and found that the familiarity and fresh ears dissolved my initial superficial and dismissive assessment. What initially had seemed like a slick, electronic pop album replete with Kristoffer Rygg’s lush baritone vocals, a production that could have come from any of the more refined late 1980s Sheffield bands, is in fact a thought-provoking collection of songs, rich with intriguing imagery. The more I listened, the more I was hooked and the more notes I made. And I became curious and suspicious. “We are wolves”? Hello, what’s all this then? Ulver is Norwegian for wolves! It seems that this isn’t simply the band’s moniker. Curiouser. Is this, in fact, a concept album?
Well, there is assuredly more to this album than meets the ear. This is a more cerebral experience than the “pop” label I alluded to earlier would suggest. Ulver are not only the storytellers in this World, they are participants, they ARE the wolves. Even though it seems that Ulver are, on occasion, focussing on a World more akin to The Witcher (perhaps a nod to their metal past) than to the World which their instrumentation and production values would suggest, they also reference historical events ( I say “reference” – I sort of used the lyrics they provide to conjure up images of the aftermath of a disastrous World War II beach landing, with two lovers inexplicably exploring the carnage – damn you, imagination!) and more contemporary and realistic events, such as the 1993 siege of Waco, Texas.
I’m reluctant to say that Ulver is a progressive rock band. Furthermore, I would be reticent to say this is a concept album by a progressive rock band. But if I was pushed, then I’d suggest that the concept of this album, as a concept album, if concept album it is, is good versus evil. But then… We may be following the victorious wolves after an almighty battle between mythical beasts and apex predators, while an unredeemable corrupt Mankind still battles against demons and primordial spirits, but it’s all a big analogy, I reckon.
A word on the production. From my studio monitors to two different sets of PC speakers via a car stereo, this production is second to none. Producers Michael Rendall (The Orb) and Martin Glover (“Youth” from Killing Joke) have engineered/mixed this to perfection. The less-is-more approach absolutely suits the music.
It has the feel of a 1980s Heaven 17 album, the one that parodied the bombastic brashness of the times in which it was made, but Ulver, Rendall and Glover have given it added modern crispiness. If the production isn’t actually stripped to the essentials, it really does sound as if it is.
So, questions. Questions are moot. The only valid thing that anyone should ask themselves is:
“Did you enjoy it?”
01. One Last Dance (5:53)
02. Russian Doll (3:55)
03. Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers (3:54)
04. Hour of the Wolf (4:26)
05. Apocalypse 1993 (4:32)
06. Little Boy (5:23)
07. Nostalgia (5:20)
08. A Thousand Cuts (4:41)
Total Time – 38:04
Kristoffer Rygg – Vocals, Additional Programming
Tore Ylvisaker – Keyboards, Programming
Ole Alexander Halstensgård – Electronics
Jørn H. Sværen – Miscellaneous
Christian Fennesz – Guitar, Electronics (track 1)
Ole Henrik Moe – Viola, Cello (tracks 2,6 & 8)
Anders Møller – Percussion
Kari Rønnekleiv – Violin (tracks 2 & 8)
John Stark – Bass (tracks 1 & 8)
Suzanne Sumbundu – Vocals (tracks 3 & 7)
Mimmi Tamba – Vocals (tracks 3 & 7)
Ivar Thormodsæter – Drums
Stian Westerhus – Guitar (tracks 2–4,6 & 8)
Michael J. York – Bagpipes (track 6)
Record Label: House of Mythology
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 28th August 2020