Review Summary: A beautiful, revolutionary dark folk record that embodies the first major display of the more contemplative and haunting side of Ulver.
There is no band quite like Ulver, seemingly exploring every musical style imaginable in their 20+ year career. With bands like this, humble beginnings are an interesting starting point in seeing how they tread the musical paths that they end up exploring. Ulver's origins revolve around folk and black metal, emphasizing beauty, atmosphere, folklore, and other such themes. With full-length debut Bergtatt
in 1995, the young musicians established a masterful combination of black metal and folk, one that the Norwegian metal scene had never seen before. Nattens Madrigal
, their third release, would contain almost no folk elements in favor of a lo-fi, beautifully pure black metal aesthetic. Sandwiched between the two is an entirely dark folk outing full of mysterious, meditative acoustic guitar melodies, tranquil flutes, and bellowing Norwegian chants. Ulver would go on to transform into a wholly different beast after this “Black Metal Trilogy
,” with rampant experimentation outside the boundaries of only metal or folk. Kveldssanger
is their first release with no black metal elements, containing nary a distorted guitar riff or shrieking vocals of any sort, standing as a deceptively easy listen. Written and recorded when the band members were still teenagers, Ulver unknowingly created an original, game changing record for metal and folk alike. The thoughtful, yet straightforward acoustic arrangements and dark atmospheres bring together a truly magical and epic feel, in a way that only Ulver could.
One quality that makes Kveldssanger
such a gripping listen is the vocals. Kristoffer "Garm" Rygg chants, bellows, and croons throughout, even layering his voice at times for a haunting echoing effect. This allows for unique harmonies to juxtapose with the strings, the reverberating chants working beautifully with the melancholic twin guitar melodies within “Utreise", before dropping out and letting the guitars march along to the end. These almost Gregorian chants are a major strength of Kveldssanger
, though much of the album is without vocals. Many of the solely instrumental pieces are album highlights, such as the adventurous “Kveldssang” and the more optimistic “Søfn-ør paa Alfers Lund.” The standout however would be album closer “Ulvsblakk.” Climbing guitar melodies and stomping percussion begin alongside the powerful and urgent vocals of Garm to set the mood. It then gives way to more haunting, contemplative acoustic guitars reminiscent of earlier melodies in the album, percussion and vocals drifting in and out for one of the most adventurous songs Ulver ever recorded.
The magical feel of Ulver’s early material comes about in many different forms and musical styles of its formative years. The lead instrumentation is sparse, being mainly composed of acoustic guitars and sometimes a cello. The sparse uses of the flute form a particularly strong highlight of Kveldssanger
, rarely coming up again in the vast Ulver catalogue. It’s difficult to imagine songs like “Østenfor Sol og vestenfor Maane" and “Naturmystikk" having the same impact without their brief, beautiful interplays of flute and guitars weaving together magical sounds of Norwegian folklore in truly original and dynamic ways. While some songs feel a bit too underdeveloped or amateurish, it hardly takes away from the enjoyment when everything remains so compositionally focused, and at times even hypnotic. It is as a whole straightforward, with understated, yet superb musicianship throughout. It is clear the band was going more for setting a tranquil, melancholic atmosphere here than the far-reaching experimentation of later releases, and in this way succeeds massively. There are plenty of bands out there that try something new with each release, with no musical act embodying that quality quite like Ulver. Before dabbling in classical music, electronic, ambient, or avant-garde, it’s easy to forget that they began as one of the best and most influential bands of the 1990s Norwegian folk and black metal scene.
The experimentation Ulver has always explored is indeed present within Kveldssanger
, though remains perhaps the most digestible release of the band’s massive discography. Being sandwiched between two metal masterpieces, Kveldssanger
is a rewarding listen for anyone willing to explore an early display of the band’s numerous musical styles, being simultaneously rewarding, haunting, and intriguing altogether.