Review Summary: The soundtrack to a civilization on the decline.
Ulver’s sound and musical identity has always been quite transient, but the level of consistency of the material they produce is admirable, to say the least. Always exploring and never complacent with a certain niche, the group simultaneously redefines and sets the bar for what experimental music can and should be, and their tenth album is yet another step in a different direction. Wars of the Roses
is a prodigious menagerie of influences that culminates in a distinct yet virgin sound. Ulver combine their signature minimalism with a certain bombast that makes for a powerful and cinematic body of music. Each track is marginally different than the one that precedes it, but together, they comprise an album that is coherent and unified. Conceptually and lyrically, Wars of the Roses
deals with issues of human condition and a world approaching demise in a way that manages to be both scathing and introspective. This thematic cynicism in wordplay proves to be appropriately paralleled in the oft dark and brooding music that supports it.
“February MMX” kicks off the album on an uncharacteristically energetic note, piano bouncing along with analog rhythms and electronic tinkerings. The track captures the essence of new-wave and even pop influences while receiving the type of twenty-first-century facelift that only a group like Ulver can provide. Excellent as it may be, it’s a beginning that proves somewhat misleading in both its immediate accessibility and upbeat nature. “Norwegian Gothic” forays back into more familiar territory for the group with its down-tempo melancholy and spacious ambience as it segues the opener to the heart of the album. At the album’s epicenter, one can witness more of the carefully conceived electronic arrangements many have come to expect but also, a grander focus on baroque instrumentation that establishes atmospheres resonating with both majesty and surrealism. Nuance abounds, aggrandizing each piece from simply good to something special, whether it be in the form of electronic gull caws or Attila Csihar giving his best demonic frog impression. Throughout, Garm maintains his powerful vocal presence when delivering driving melody or haunting monotone. Standout track “Providence” sees his deep register paired with the strikingly powerful vocals of Siri Stranger for an ultramodern power ballad of epic proportions. The album closes with its longest track, “Stone Angels”, an ethereal narrative comprised merely of Ulver newcomer Daniel O’Sullivan reciting a most poignant and applicable excerpt from the poetry of Keith Waldrop to an underlying ambient soundscape. It drones on, beautiful word and dreamlike noise elevating one another to meditative splendor. The track unfolds like a meander through a long forgotten city enveloped in vine and ruin, a memorial to the neglect of its inhabitants and a sanctuary of reflection for those that might happen upon it.
For most artists, what would be a liability in stylistic leap is to Ulver but a calculated progression. The group’s experimentation lacks little polish or “zazz”, to be assured. While this may prove to be one of their most challenging releases, in time, it may also prove to be one of the most rewarding. Garm and company have prepared a bleak and entrancing journey meant to be taken time and again. Regardless of favor, it accomplishes that which true art is purposed - making one think. Wars of the Roses
’ thoughtful conception and execution serves only for a thoughtful listen. After all this time, it still remains a privilege to bear witness to these wolves evolve once again.