Review Summary: Ulver goes pop? – And to no surprise for those familiar with these “wolves from Norway,” it sounds nothing like you would expect.
You can never know what to expect from Ulver. The band, or “experimental collective,” are so intent on never stagnating that genre changes and record label-hopping are regular activities between album cycles. Is this an unwise strategy for maintaining and growing a consistent, loyal fanbase? The answer is probably yes, but this is of no concern to Ulver. People who can handle the fleeting explorations of ambient, electronic, neoclassical, and other genres can appreciate the surprise of new material from Ulver, and they’ve been fervently creating music going on twenty-five years now. Leaving the success of revolutionizing both black metal and folk music in the late 1990’s was the right decision for them, and continuing the same effort of escape from a concrete identity is just as important so many years later.
They may have finally settled however, at least for a while. The Assassination of Julius Caesar
is their third album in just two years, and on the same record label. It has also been dubbed by the group themselves as their “pop” album, though it can hardly be considered as much in the context of modern music. Song lengths can progress towards the ten minute mark, and the group’s always engrossing atmosphere is in full effect. The largely ambient, abstract sounds of recent albums like the excellent Messe I.X-VI.X
are now evolved into more percussive and visceral territory. The Assassination of Julius Caesar
sees Ulver delving into electro-pop epics and gothic elegies for a resounding meditation on the dark side of history, mythology, and human nature.
Unlike the largely instrumental nature and soundscapes of so much recent music from Ulver, The Assassination…
is among their denser and more vocal albums. The consistent presence of Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg’s vocals is more than a welcome return after such a long absence. Images of mystical visions and epic battles alike are shown to the listener by Garm’s excellent singing and lyrics. His singing has highlighted albums like Blood Inside
, Shadows of the Sun
, and Wars of the Roses
, becoming infrequent in recent years until now. His voice suits the more accessible style of Assassination…
in the way that it made their hit songs “Nowhere/Catastrophe” and “February MMX” such successes. He shines especially on album highlight “Angelus Novus,” and the addition of female vocals in a few tracks add even more dimension to the epic “Rolling Stone” and theatrical “1969.”
These further evolutions for the musically shape-shifting collective makes for a highly focused and engrossing listen. Tracks will change and surprise you frequently, like the slow dirge of “So Falls the World” transitioning to an IDM section for an enchanting outro, flowing right into the urgency of “Southern Gothic.” Despite these genre shifts, the hypnotic ebb and flow from Ulver’s mind-bending ambient side is still felt here. Dark synth passages vaguely recall some moments from masterpiece Perdition City
and the absorbing ATGCLVLSSCAP
, but this remains another impressive watershed in their discography. The Assassination of Julius Caesar
is an embodiment of their musical identity: the frequent state of flux that makes their music so interesting to get lost in, no matter what styles are being explored. They are masters of atmosphere and intrigue, and flirting with pop music has only further aided their chameleonic nature, with this being their most satisfying and diverse effort in many years.