Review Summary: Ulver deliver one of their most ambitious and rewarding albums to date.
One thing that epitomises Ulver’s illustrious career is their unpredictability. Since moving away from the black metal and neo-folk sounds of their earlier albums, Ulver have explored numerous directions and in doing so have released a string of highly acclaimed albums, which, although primarily based around electronic music, each have their own distinct style and sound. From the trip-hop inspired electronica of Perdition City to the much more accessible ambience of the beautiful Shadows of the Sun, Ulver have continued to surprise their ever expectant audience. One thing that has remained a constant factor however is the quality of their output. While some fans may consider 2011’s Wars of the Roses to be a step down from their previous releases, that album is never the less a more than solid release in its own right. The same could be said for last year’s Childhood’s End, which consisted of a collection of classic psychedelic pop cover songs, a move that further cemented their reputation as one of the most unpredictable acts in modern music.
With Messe I.X–VI.X
, it seems Ulver have managed to surprise and delight their audience in equal measure, delivering an album that has more in common with the likes of Shadows of the Sun than it does with their two most recent releases. However, having said that, it’s hard to liken Messe
to any of Ulver’s previous albums, as, like its predecessors, it has its own distinct sound. The similarities between this and Shadows of the Sun don’t extend far beyond the fact that both excel in creating a unique atmosphere.
The most notable difference between this album and previous Ulver releases is the inclusion of a full orchestra. Recorded with the Tromso Chamber Orchestra, Messe
is a fascinating blend of classical and electronic music that makes for one of Ulver’s most ambitious album projects to date. Album opener, “As Syrians Pour In, Lebanon Grapples with Ghosts of a Bloody Past” is perhaps the most intriguing piece on the album, building an intense, dark atmosphere and combining eerie orchestral passages with haunting ambience and sound effects. The darkness briefly gives way to a slow, calming piano melody just over 8 minutes in which is then augmented by further orchestration, which manages to be incredibly powerful whilst remaining fairly restrained.
Following track, Shri Schneidr is in contrast a much more accessible number. With its hypnotic electronic groove that dominates its middle section, it manages to effectively build on the atmosphere created by “As Syrians Pour In…”, whilst serving as a precursor to the superb “Glamour Box (ostinato)”, a song which stands out as one of the album’s highlights. The pulsating electronic sounds of “Glamour Box” are beautifully accompanied by the powerful, tension-building sounds of Tromso’s orchestra.
One of the most surprising things about Messe
is how sparingly Garm’s haunting vocals are used. His voice is only featured in two of the album’s six songs, the excellent “Son of Man” and the beautiful, almost uplifting “Mother of Mercy”. While this might be somewhat disappointing to some it certainly doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the album, in fact it makes Garm’s vocal contributions all the more powerful when they do appear. “Son of Man” is particularly effective in this regard, with its vocal passage standing alongside “Glamour Box” as one of best moments on the album, with Garm’s superb yet somewhat understated vocal delivery complementing the dark atmosphere of the music perfectly. The vocal section reaches its climax with the line, “what kind of choir, of angels, will receive us”
; a line which Garm delivers with such emotional intensity that it sends shivers down the spine. The ethereal “Mother of Mercy” is a much less intense affair, bringing proceedings to a somewhat calming end, with Garm’s vocals at their most melodic.
If there was one weak moment on Messe
it would have to be the penultimate track, “Noche Oscura Del Alma”. This dark ambient piece stands out as the least memorable of the album’s six tracks, although it does have some redeeming qualities. While it doesn’t offer an awful lot to the album musically, the song’s incredibly dark and claustrophobic atmosphere adds to the album’s ever changing mood, providing a complete contrast to the feelings of comfort and contentment that the first half of “Mother of Mercy” evokes.
is a phenomenal album, combining intense atmosphere with the sort of cinematic sense of drama akin to some of the most powerful film scores. While it may not possess the more immediate impact of Shadows of the Sun, when given repeated listens Messe
reveals itself as one of the most rewarding albums in the band’s discography. The band’s decision to work side by side with an orchestra is one that has certainly paid off as they have managed to create one of their most intriguing works and one that is right up there with the best albums of their career.