Saturday, March 30, 2013

The genius of Ulver in 5 clips

It's hard to imagine a better way for a band to be insulated from the alternative mainstream than Ulver's triple whammy:

1. Be Norwegian
2. Don't perform live for 15 years.
3. Start out as part of the early 90's black metal scene in Norway which, whatever else it was, was certainly not indie-friendly.

As it is, they've quietly gotten on with becoming one of the best bands on the planet without much serious English-language coverage outside the world of metal, which seemingly hasn't rescinded their membership of The Club (they're still a bunch of intimidating looking guys with tattoos, after all)

I'm also hard pressed to think of a group which has made music in so many styles - black metal, folk, instrumental hip-hop, ambient, prog, dream-pop - and made darn fine records in all of them. 

I'd shorthand them as the Norwegian Radiohead or the Norwegian Notwist if I didn't think I was going to be struck down for lazy pigeonholing if I did.

So let's take a quick tour through their back catalogue, starting with their good-bye-to-black -metal third album, Nattens Madrigal.(1996)..

The lead off track, Of Wolf and Fear, is a fuzzy blast of barely discernable noise, with themes and vocals lycanthropic in equal measure. It's strong medicine, indeed.

But even before then, Ulver had shown exciting signs of eclecticism - album number two Kveldsanger, from the previous year, was a full-on excursion into beautiful, austere acoustic folk, with singer Kristoffer 'Garm' Rygg's vocals multi-tracked over classical guitar and strings. Check out Østenfor Sol og vestenfor Maane here for a flavour.

By 2000 and Ulver's fifth album Perdition City, shedding members as they went, they'd arrived at instrumental hip-hop soundtracks to imaginary films, five years after the high-water mark of tr*p-h*p. Garm was now referring to himself as Trickster G and barely sings at all. You don't need me to tell you how bad this could have been.

If it wasn't apparent before this point in their career that Ulver didn't give a damn what anyone else thought, it was now.

Except, against the odds, Perdition City is great - atmospheric, brooding, applying the sound-scaping lessons of their black metal apprenticeship to a different, no longer fashionable genre and making it work.

Here's Hallways of Always (a Nearly God/Tricky reference?)

Fast forward through ambient and soundtrack works of the early 00's which build on the platform of Perdition City and push it out further, and by the middle of the decade Ulver decided to become more of an orthodox (for Ulver values of orthodox) band again.

Of the three original, for-want-of-a-better-word-proggy albums that followed, the mother bear and #7, Shadows Of The Sun (2007) is my favourite. A set of slow-burns for late night listening, with some of Rygg's best singing accompanied by droning, hymnal keys, glitching and jazz playing, it's really rather wonderful.

And they even find time to cover Black Sabbath's Solitude.

Last year's album was a set of covers of 60's psychedelia, Childhood's End. By far and away, the most straight-ahead thing they've done, their own take on Nuggets it was what reeled me in to Ulver when I came across it in (yes) the metal section of the record store when beginning my odyssey from indie towards stranger shores.

Here's their take on In The Past by the Chocolate Watch Band which manages to be perky and slightly unsettling at the same time, very much in the psych spirit.

Ulver square the circle between constant reinvention and authenticity to themselves so well that you have to ask how they have managed it when so many others have tried and failed before? Certainly, I think they've been both lucky and smart in their relationship to the alternative mainstream; circumstances and their own efforts have created a space where they can be their awesome selves.

But they've also been consistent in their own vision of music and their own themes and motifs - melancholic, brooding, Byronic, subversive - whatever genre they've been operating in and whoever the core group has drafted into help. 

Scratch the surface of any of these albums and you find the same Ulver genius.

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