After two folk tinged classics, the Norwegian masters crafted one final lycanthropic furor before dipping out of metal forever.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
Black metal. Just the name of this subgenre can elicit any number of responses from any kind of music listener. To the outsiders, the term incites images of burned churches, corpse paint and album covers of dead frontmen. Those who have been in metal for a while often love its greatness and legacy but also love to poke fun at its sometimes overt goofiness (see Immortal circa Blizzard Beasts). But at the heart, there is and always has been a primal force behind what black metal was meant to achieve. The usual ingredients used were of the Satanic/Anti-Christian variety that had already been pablum in metal since the genre began in the 70’s. However, during the rise of black metal’s second wave in Scandinavia, a crop of different bands eschewed the devil lyrics for ones that reflected their mighty Nordic heritage. Bands like Enslaved, Bathory in the later years, and Borknagar began to mine the ore of pagan storytelling in metal and it worked to profound effect on the growth of black metal.
But one band that stood above all in this department was Oslo’s Ulver. Formed initially in 1993 by vocalist Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg, the band was rounded out by guitarists Håvard “Haavard”Jørgenson, Sigmund Andreas “Grellmund” Løkken, Ali Reza, bassist Robin Malmberg and drummer Carl-Michael Eide. The band began modestly with a rather amateurish demo entitled Vargnatt that would be released in November of ‘93. The demo would serve as a very necro statement yet also reveal different layers of nuance that weren’t super prevalent in the early Norwegian scene. The addition of acoustic guitars from Haavard added a folk tinged texture to the bastard mixture of Celtic Frost meets Mercyful Fate and Bathory. Garm had moments that would shine but the band’s ultimate statement would come on their debut full length.
1995’s Bergtatt would showcase a fully realized blending of second wave black metal and Norwegian folk music. Unfortunately around this time as well, Grellmund would leave the band and tragically end his life a year after Bergtatt’s release. This allowed for the then new duo of Haavard and new guitarist Aismal aka Torbjørn Pedersen to bring the majestic sounds of Norway’s forest mythology to life. The rhythm section of Ved Buens Ende/Arcturus bassist Skoll and new drummer Erik Lancelot would prove invaluable, especially on the album’s iconic opening drum fill. On the vocal end, Garm would immediately cement his legacy as one of black metal’s greatest frontmen with his mixture of clean vocals throughout the duration of the first track and his troll snarls and banshee screams throughout the remaining tracks. He even sang in a very low gothic baritone on the acoustic Een Stemme Locker. The album would become a massive statement to a scene filled with Satan worshipping heshers as Ulver flexed the homeland muscles and would do so to polarizing effect on the following record.
1996’s Kveldssanger would be a very tough pill for metal fans to swallow. Reason being that the record had absolutely no metal in its runtime. The album further accentuated the band’s fascination with folk music and the album is filled with beautiful acoustic work from Haavard. Garm only makes a few vocal contributions and Erik Lancelot provides flute and drum work when needed. This album would prove influential to latter day neofolk artists like Musk Ox and Tânahanner and would also serve as another wheat in the tares moment for Ulver fans. An all folk record from a metal band was near unheard of at a time like that and especially in a scene like black metal, but thankfully, most fans stuck around in hopes that the band would return to the folk/black forests of their debut.
And thus we come to 1997 and Ulver’s third album, Nattens Madrigal - Aatte Hymne Til Ulven I Manden. Many would’ve been anticipating a return to the sounds of Bergtatt. But for their debut on Century Media, Ulver had something else in mind. Everyone more than likely expected an album that would’ve felt like a moss covered blanket during a cold autumn night. What the fans got was essentially the musical equivalent of sitting behind a jet engine at takeoff. Translated from Norwegian to English, the album’s full title is The Madrigal of the Night - Eight Hymnes to the Wolf in Man. At eight tracks and 44 minutes, the band took everyone by storm with the most recklessly caustic album in not only their catalog, but possibly in most second wave Norwegian black metal. The album’s production is as thin and icy as you could get and the guitars, vocals, drums and bass create a wretched tidal wave of noise.
Originally released on March 3rd, 1997 by Century Media, Ulver’s third album was a very hard album to take seriously at first. Gone were the acoustic guitars, save for the opening track, and any sense of beauty and majesty was violently shoved into the corner. It made it even harder for some fans due to the fact that most of the album’s songs only had Roman numerals as song titles. The band would later fix this on subsequent pressings yet some fans would just refer to each song numerically. To begin, Hymne I is one of the coldest songs in black metal history. The immediacy of the tremolo picked guitars combined with Garm’s wolfish snarls make for a record that would be a major wake up call after an album like Kveldssanger. What is also striking here is how the tracklist itself unfolds. Whereas Bergtatt focused on a small number of incredibly quality songs and Kveldssanger made use of a long tracklisting with shorter numbers, Nattens Madrigal found the grey area. Songs never go over six minutes and the shortest song barely eclipses four and a half minutes. The “hymnes” never linger more than they should and they are effective enough to keep you wanting more.
One of the biggest things that really throws most people when getting into Ulver is how ugly and raw this album is compared to their first two records. Sculptured frontman and ex-Agalloch guitarist Don Anderson explained this perfectly when I asked him his thoughts on the record. As most know, Agalloch would take a major page from the Ulver handbook in that most compare the former’s debut to Bergtatt so much that it’s often seen as a spiritual successor. But with Nattens Madrigal, Anderson pulls no punches. He writes:
"I was doing a fanzine at the time and was lucky to receive a promo copy of Nattens Madrigal before it came out. John (Haughm) was with me and we put the CD in the player. I think we knew it was going to be a "Metal" record, and so we anticipated a return to Bergtatt. We were very wrong. I was pissed. I felt so incredibly let down. I've rarely been angry over an album, but hearing this for the first time had me literally seething. I thought they were squandering their talent and felt the production was just a waste of their time and ultimately the fan's time. Obviously, over time, once I put my preconceived expectations aside, the album revealed itself to be filled with incredible riffs, melodies, and compelling song structures.”
The production job is of course the stuff of urban legend that may or may not have involved heavy cocaine use, Armani, and a Corvette, but that won’t be discussed further here. My personal experience with this album was very similar to Mr. Anderson’s experience. I fully expected another whirlwind of folky black metal, but I was greeted with sonic teeth and claws to my torso and throat. Hymnes II and III especially feel like something stalking you in the nighttime. As for the lyrical content, it’s a goldmine of devilishly evil yarns about wolves and their allegiance to the Lord Below as well as to their guiding force, the moon itself. This is most strongly felt on Hymne VI where Garm releases the final paragraphs like an exorcism:
“The Moone comes forth
Born anew above her Soule -
Stolen here by the dark
Binding Magick of olde
Frighten'd she nears him
Thou, messenger of the Devil
Who brings fear into lovers' hearts
Thou, elixir to the hatred of men
And air to my Soule, now dying;
Leave me not, O shadow
Before I give myself away
To these long denied desires
Thy gift to my dying heart.”
Prose mighty worthy of any dark creature of woods if you ask me. Although the album doesn’t exactly “let up” on its gas during its duration, the moments that do seem to breathe show that this album is something that Ulver needed to flesh out. It’s as if their very pagan spirits were calling forth these hymns from the blackest parts of their souls after the neofolk melancholy of Kveldssanger. The record feels like pure rage and it never seems edgy or amateurish. The raucous nature almost feels addictive. Amun drummer CJ Yacoub put his experience with Nattens Madrigal this way:
“When I finally got around to Nattens Madrigal, my mind was fucking blown. I didn’t like it at first, but I couldn’t turn it off. Never had I really heard anything this aggressive but with such a dark atmosphere. It was really strange yet alluring to me. It left me wanting to find some bands that did what they did but in a more atmospheric direction, ultimately leading me to some of my favorite projects of all time like Paysage d’Hiver and Wolves in the Throne Room.”
It’s interesting to see the influence this would have on bands like those Yacoub mentioned. You can hear it in the riffing on a record like Black Cascade and it doesn’t feel derivative.
So now, we come to the end of one era of this legendary band. For those who aren’t fully aware, this would be the final metal album Ulver would ever make. 1998 would see the release of the epic mindfuck that is Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a record that would have heavy guitars but would be more in the realms of darkwave, drone, industrial, dark ambient, and electronica. According to Garm, the black metal scene became too commercially exploited and on top of the fact that Ulver simply wanted to experiment outside the bounds of Norwegian black metal. Most fans held on for the ride, some abandoned ship. But the fact still remains that Ulver went out with one hell of a bang.
Nattens Madrigal signaled the beginning of the end of Ulver’s metal years but in all honesty, you couldn’t ask for a better swan song. The rawness of the album left its mark and influence on bands that would continue in Ulver’s footsteps long after the former had abandoned the blast beats and shrieks. It's a record that feels evil without sounding overly corny or cringe because the band had a vision to create something that eschewed Satanism for hellish wolf worship. And let’s be honest, running into wolves in the dark of a forest is the last thing you’d want. Ulver were able to channel the lycanthropic spirits of Fenrisúlfr and Váli to create the sonic experience of being hunted under the full moon. Just know that when you throw this album on keep this words in mind: they’re on the hunt, they’re after you.