Review Summary: Ulver transition from metal to electronica on this release and despite a few hiccups are fairly successful at it.
Anyone that has followed Ulver
’s career knows to expect the unexpected as they’ve always been notorious for making every album much different then the previous one. Here was a band out of Norway that started out with a folk-influenced black metal album that broke from the norm by featuring an abundance of clean singing and folk influences. On their second release they dropped the metal entirely and released a fully acoustic folk album with hardly any lyrics at all. To follow up an acoustic folk album they subsequently released one of the noisiest, most primal, black metal albums of the late 90’s. With that diverse collection already behind them, no one ever thought that Ulver
’s fourth release would stand still or offer something similar to what they had already done, but no one expected this either. No one expected a double album full of Industrial and Drum&Bass influenced music mixed with a slight nod to their folk roots all created specifically to present the epic The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
by William Blake in musical form. Even their label was caught off guard to the point that Ulver
was dropped and forced to find someone else to release their album. If the label dropped them, then some might assume that it was because the music was terrible, but that is not the case. Actually, much like the subject matter within the poem, there were both good and bad forces at work within this release.
It should be expected, in hindsight, that there would be both good and bad on this album since it turned out to be a transitional release on their way to becoming a fully electronic band. One of the good benefits we get from this being a transitional album is the presence of guitars; both electric and acoustic. The acoustic guitars take exclusively from the folk-leanings of the first two albums, in that they are very melodic and atmospheric, the difference being that they are played over electronics and programmed beats this time. The electric guitars are actually a departure from the past as they have more in common with industrial-style guitar playing then that of black metal, although there are occasional melodic leads thrown in from time to time.
Another good holdover from the past is the increased use of vocals compared to later offerings. Almost every song has some kind of vocals on it, from spoken word parts to Garm’s unique clean singing, but Garm isn’t the only one you can expect to hear on this album. A new feature added just for this album was the use of female vocals. The female vocals are used in a lot of varying capacities on this album, from spoken word, to singing, to simple background chants and they go a long way towards making this album a much more diverse offering. In addition to Garm and the female vocalists, the final track also features a guest appearance by Samoth and Ihsahn of Emperor
reading some parts from the book, and they do a great job as well.
Not every part of this album can be considered as great as what was already described above though. It becomes very obvious by the mid-point of the first disc that there was still a lot of missteps taking place, things that probably would have been left out if they had more experience with this new style of music. The main one is the overuse of minimalism and silence to try to set a mood. In subsequent releases Ulver
would learn to perfect that skill but on this one a lot of the minimalist parts are just boring due to the fact that nothing is going on. In fact, if they had just cut all the random pieces of silence and mild droning, this could have been turned in to one very solid offering, but as it stands, this album requires patience or the “forward” button to reach the actual songs from time to time.
Something else that should come as no surprise when listening to a transitional album is that there are some places within the songs that just sound quirky and out of place, but not in an intentional manner. It more seems like they got a song to sound as close as they could to what they heard in their head, but lacked the experience to fully develop what it was they were shooting for. So, while that fact creates some awkward sections from time to time, the songs are still developed well enough that it is generally only a mild and occasional irritation.
The opening track of disc one actually features almost everything I’ve already spoken of. It starts with a slow industrial beat, a few different synth lines and Garm’s vocals, except he seems to be trying to reach something he is not capable of, causing them to sound flat and monotone through the first quarter of the song. Soon after Garm starts singing in a more typical fashion the song picks up and adds some distorted guitars and some interesting electronic effects at which point you realize that this album, while good, is going to be a challenge for both good and bad reasons. The second track starts with a lone guitar harmony and a pair of female vocalists, but as good as the song is, it still does not seem to go anywhere and ends with a minute and a half of a mild bass drone which just kills the quality of the song.
Fortunately after that droning, we are spared anymore minimalism until near the end of the disc. What we do get, though, is an awesome mixture of beats ranging from trip-hop and Drum&Bass to Industrial mixed with some well done electronics as well as folk guitars and industrialized riffs. All of that peaks on the best track of the first disc which is track ten, “A Memorable Fancy Plates 12-13”. It starts out with just a few keyboard sounds followed by a trip-hop beat that quickly morphs into an acoustic drum beat playing a variation of what sounds like a military marching rhythm. Over that is a mixture of Garm’s spoken word vocals, female vocals (both spoken and chanted), and some very mournful sounding string instruments. After a few minutes the beat slows down to a more trip-hop beat while retaining all the elements that were already present, but that only lasts a minute or so as well. Soon, the drums have returned to their military rhythm and Garm’s vocals are distorted into a sinister and evil sounding voice to end the song on a dark note. Unfortunately the disc does not end on the same high note, with track 12 consisting of almost five minutes of virtual silence, which leads into another 30 seconds of silence on the closing track only to slightly pick up with a bass line and some processed mumbling vocals.
Disc two is definitely the more consistent of the two discs featuring more actual songs and none of that boring silence occasionally found on disc one. It opens up with one the most solid songs of the album, the eleven minute, “A Memorable Fancy Plates 17-20”, which features everything that is right with the album. It has some great industrialized beats, the very capable singing of Garm, some cool distorted guitar riffs, interesting use of electronics and many different movements and moods. The disc continues this high quality ending with “A Song of Liberty Plates 25-27” which ends the overall album on a very high note. That song starts out with an almost danceable beat and the spoken words of Ihsahn. Soon, the spoken words of Samoth replace Ihsahn and the beat adjusts slightly as if to accommodate another vocalist. After that the song really breaks out with Garm’s vocals and a guitar harmony that for whatever reason reminds me of “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen
. Soon another guitar comes in under the vocals playing a fairly fast guitar solo and the vocals become processed into a growl similar to the chorus on “Nowhere/Catastrophe” off of Perdition City
, before slowly fading out.
Overall this is a very good album full of experimental music and poetic lyrics. Due to the nature of the lyrics and the broad scope of musical influences though, this disc will take a lot of patience and many listens to fully get into. Due to the fact that all the lyrics are from a book, there aren’t any choruses or anything that you’re going to be able to immediately latch onto or get stuck in your head. Instead, it will just take time and the willingness to give it a chance to sink in (as well as the occasional use of the “forward” button to pass the minimalist parts), because despite a few short comings, this truly is an excellent album.