After the fan acclaim of 'The Assassination of Julius Caesar', the Norwegian black metal turned darkwave pioneers return with an entry fit for the clubs and the philosophical intelligentsia.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
Like most people, I feel like I came to know ULVER through the classic Trolsk Sortmetall collection that dropped in the early 90’s: the Vargnatt demo in 1993 and then the classic trilogy of albums that came after in the forms of Bergtatt (1995), Kveldssanger (1996) and Nattens Madrigal (1997). These records are absolutely foundational to the second wave of Norwegian black metal that emerged during that time. As with most pioneering acts in the world of music, ULVER decided to do the unexpected for their fourth outing. It wouldn’t bring in folky or raw black metal that would be fit for a weekend excursion in the woods, rather they dropped another game changer in the form of Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1998). This wasn’t black metal or even a rock album, it was an electronic/dark ambient masterpiece that saw the group abandon metal all together. In true pioneering form, they’ve never looked back.
While most fans have clamored for the return to black metal, ULVER have stuck to their proverbial guns and have released some of the finest electronic music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Albums like Perdition City (2000), Blood Inside (2005), Shadows of the Sun (2007) and Wars of the Roses (2011) would no doubt influence everyone from GOST and PERTURBATOR to DOMINICK FERNOW (PRURIENT, VATICAN SHADOW) and KYLE DIXON and MICHAEL STEIN, the composers behind the hit show Stranger Things. These are wolves who have run by their own rules and have inspired many.
When the group released their last album, 2017’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar, ULVER really dug their claws into fans old and new alike. Even as someone who would not consider hisself a humongous fan of electronic music at the time, I had to concede that the album was killer. Ever since that time, I felt obligated to go back and explore more of the band's catalog, including their black metal roots. In doing so, I was also extremely impressed with the records that they had put out in the early 2000's. You can only imagine my excitement when I saw that they would be playing this year’s version of Psycho Las Vegas. Unfortunately, COVID derailed that like so many things this year that would’ve brought so many people joy. However, there is light at the end of this tunnel and that light comes in the form of Flowers of Evil, the group’s sixteenth full length studio recording.
In doing press for the record, frontman Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg has stated that this record follows a conceptual theme of the fall of mankind from it’s redemption. With such a heady and gloomy subject matter, one would astutely observe that this could be the darkest ULVER record since their early black metal days. In certain respects, yes and in others it is not. If you were to ask me if it’s their catchiest record, I would give you an enthusiastic “Hell yeah it is!” What could ULVER bring on their sixteenth record that could be so captivating and replace The Assassination of Julius Caesar as the new fan favorite? Well first, get your 80’s dance and pop records ready to spin slower because that's the general direction.
Opener One Last Dance opens on a swell of keyboards before Rygg waxes about the despair of God’s children in our modern world. He comments, “What can we do other than eat, sleep and do the best we can?” Its a valid question, especially in our COVID ravaged world that has seen tragedy at every turn. The keys begin to twinkle before giving way to a very sexy beat that could fit onto a soundtrack for a neo noir film, which ULVER are in fact no strangers to. Small glimmers of noise complement Rygg’s sultry tenor while the drums create an urgent motion of pure sweat soaked glory. If clubs were now like they were in 2019, I guarantee that this would be one that gets all the goths and guy liner enthusiasts out on the floor. The track's swagger is only matched by a graceful balancing of competing synthesizers.
When Russian Doll first debuted, I was left speechless and the track remained in digital rotation ever since. Weaving a story of a girl born in 1989, “in a hidden corner, by the White Sea”, the dark undercurrent of synth contrasts with Rygg’s harmonies and a chorus that is similar to DURAN DURAN if they were schooled by BAUHAUS and ROXY MUSIC. It also has a distinct CHEMICAL BROTHERS feel, especially during a section that begins roughly around 2:28. Longtime member Tore Ylwizaker commands the keys as Stian Westerhus' stray guitar lines and drumbeats propel the track. It's easily one of the finest songs on the record and one of the best of the year.
When initially told by a colleague that Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers would be a spine tingler, it became something I looked forward to and became delighted when it began. An 80’s-esque synth gets things moving before some welcome guitar riffing plays along and allows the song to breathe. It almost feels like a semi distant cousin of Julius Caesar track Southern Gothic or even Echo Chamber from Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (2017) albeit less dark and more pop driven of course. Before long, female backing vocals come in and add an even stronger feeling of 80’s excess and glory. It’s as if THE SISTERS OF MERCY walked in as the GO-GO’s were doing mass amounts of downers and said, “Lets make a song”, or at least that’s how I visualized it.
Hour of the Wolf is one of the album's darker cuts, reverting at times to the darker soundscapes of Perdition City without most of the chaos. It’s a mid paced number that has a grandiose yet down to earth vibe all contained under layers of dissonant guitar and breathy synth work. The song carries a distinct weight that never really gets too melancholic before fading away.
Despite it’s namesake, Apocalypse 1993 definitely doesn’t follow much with 90’s electronic as it does with certain beats from TALKING HEADS or early MINISTRY. Although it does have a bit of a PORTISHEAD meets an EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL vibe. Shining disco inspired keys glimmer as Rygg sings of holy children while the rest of the group, especially Ivar Thormodsæter's drumming patterns, create a fun hybrid of laid back new wave and goth tinged electronica. It rides out on some very angelic sounding piano and keys before ascending to the clouds.
Second single Little Boy doesn’t pull any punches on what it’s about. There's no doubt the group had some inspiration from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when penning this number. Rolling drums and caustic synth attack the eardrums as Rygg describes a world of solar symbols that spark movements that lead to mankind’s downfall. The track descends further into darker NEW ORDER territory as guitar cuts in and out sporadically. After this, we are treated to keys that sound not too dissimilar from the ones that are heard LED ZEPPELIN’s In the Light with a more sinister ambience as they fly off, dust like.
Third and final single Nostalgia has a dark undercurrent of guitar and a distinct DEPECHE MODE-esque mood. Female vocals join with Rygg to create a stronger melodic core that reveals a fun yet elaborate song fit for entertaining guests at a whiskey party. The synth takes center stage towards the end of the song to create a lush atmosphere that really brings out the cosmopolitan in all of us. The stray guitar plays perfectly to the strength of the keys and eventually dares to get a bit whiny towards the end.
Closing track A Thousand Cuts begins very much like the score for the Halo series before Rygg returns and the song gets into it’s darkwave territory with ease. A cutting bass guitar dances along with Rygg’s smooth as butter vocal delivery and a distant violin plays ever so delicately alongside the drums and synth. The track eventually glides away on ocean waves and the newest ULVER opus comes to a brilliant and somber close.
On Flowers of Evil, ULVER have once again tackled the world head on with their ambition and love of all things imposing. While many feel that the group’s black metal era is their only “great” material, I would call that a lie. Yes, they did amazing and groundbreaking things in that arena, but that was over twenty five years ago. Much like Julius Caesar, Flowers of Evil updates the vocabulary for what modern electronic music can do when in the hands of artists who have shaped the craft to their own mold and liking. This genre often gets a bad rap for creating artists that simply molded it into catchy dance music yet ULVER have once again been able to create a dour record that one can also dance to and feel the weight of every sentence that pours from Kristoffer Rygg’s lips. It may seem heavy handed but you definitely won’t feel that weight once the infectious beats of Russian Doll or Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers hit your eardrums like MINISTRY and COIL hit the eardrums of this wolf pack so many moons ago.
Flowers Of Evil arrives on August 28th via House of Mythology. Pre-order yours HERE.