Ulver: Shadows of the Sun

A repetitive, and sometimes monotonous, aspect of journalistic music reviews is the excess attention paid to musical aesthetics. Considering the appropriately ever-changing and ultimately forgettable nature of pop music, the most tangible elements which initially appear to a naive listener are the surface values: production and trinkety abrupt chord changes. This is why a large number of my audiophile friends have no interest in actual music reviews. Such reviews often do not do justice to the experience of the album itself; album reviews often are as quaint and forgettable as kitschy pop music and do little justice to the inspiration behind the music. It is with such journalistic shortcomings in mind that I try to adequately write an album review for the Norwegian band, Ulver.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Ulver, the Norwegian project which started as a solid black metal outfit (one of the few whose albums have held up over time) and went on to become some kind of post-black metal electronica pioneer. Ulver has managed to weasel their way into every internet music reviewer’s heart partially because their melodic flourishes are so tasteful, the aesthetic and production choices are absolutely masterful, and the vocals are always downright sexy (in a platonic way!). In 2005, I bought the limited, signed, velvet edition of their album Blood Inside. That album, somewhat like their first “proper” album before it, 2000’s Perdition City, featured some of Ulver’s strongest moments ever — some of the best songs they’d ever written and some of Kristoffer G(arm) Rygg’s strongest vocals to date at the time. Yet overall it did not flow together as one consecutive listening experience as well as some of their older (now famous) material.

In 2007, Ulver released the clumsily titled, Shadows of the Sun. I heard the album shortly after it was released and was put off by the title, lyrics and related musings Garm wrote on his Jester Records website. Ulver’s music has always been genuinely melancholy, minimalist and charmingly pretentious. This album is no different, but in the past Garm’s lyrics have usually attempted to remain cryptic, hiding direct explanations pertaining to his outlook upon the world and life at large. The more tangible moments have been hinted at with greater clarity on other projects, such as Arcturus, but more recently have had a tendency to “bleed through” as they did on the aforementioned Blood Inside album (a track such as “Blinded by Blood”, which was dedicated to one of Garm’s children, leaves little speculation as to the subject matter). The lyrics on this album are very straight-forward, which struck me as somewhat tacky at first.

Over time, however, this album has grown on me and proven to be one of Ulver’s finest moments. Many contemporary and younger bands cite Ulver as a major inspiration in their development, a fact which is very obvious upon listening to newer post-black metal projects like Agalloch or Wolves in the Throne Room. Yet nobody really sounds like Ulver, and though I would say the same thing of a band like Agalloch, Ulver has such a different emotional resonance than almost anyone else. They seem to have really pursued their lamenting sense of loss and melancholy that initially characterized young black metal. A friend of mine once commented that Bergtatt, Ulver’s seminal 1994 debut full-length, emotionally illustrated this contemplative and natural sensation that one’s heart hardens and fades with time. More deeply, their music evokes the realization of the great Hindu god Brahma, as related by Joseph Campbell in one of his books, that although each night the entire universe comes to being and passes away as his dream, even he must ultimately pass away.

But what makes this unique to Ulver? After all, a lot of other people invoke a deep sense of melancholy (just listen to later Leonard Cohen!). But the difference in the emotional qualities between two deeply sombre bands like Ulver and Agalloch is subtle but distinct. Agalloch’s music is apocalyptic and imbues one with awareness of mankind’s foolish self-destruction. It does this not only through a fearful sense of melancholy, but the implementation of various layers of deep and subconsciously effective aesthetics. In Agalloch I hear not only the black metal melancholy of Bergtatt, but Native American folk music, electronic drone and doom metal’s ominous crescendos, as well as the strange, sad and spunky apocalyptic warnings of The Legendary Pink Dots. And on top of all that, Agalloch also has this weird evocation of pop culture behind it… like, there is some awareness or participation with the iPod/Indie Rock chic of today’s youth culture (even though the band obviously detests it) as well as a sense of environmental unbalance.

Ulver, on the other hand, has ceased to blatantly display their influences. Gone are the goofy rants about Coil and Arvo Part, those electronic homages to film noir, Darkthrone and Emperor as well as that angsty romanticism about a pre-Christian Norway. Not that I didn’t like that stuff. It was awesome. But Ulver now has a sound that builds upon Ulver itself. I know, I know — that sounds so cheesy and pretentious. But I think that is indicative of an artist’s growth (to give an example, in his book Extreme Metal, Keith Kahn-Harris defines the genre of extreme metal as, “a genre that takes inspiration exclusively from metal”). Whereas a band like Agalloch solemnly gives warning of mankind’s demise, Ulver is the sound of mankind’s epilogue. On Shadows of the Sun, Ulver is delivering the eulogy, reflecting upon the aftermath of our self-destruction.

It is with this feeling in mind that I reassessed the lyrics to this album. I still think the title, “Shadows of the Sun” is a bit too… obvious, but their “message” at this point is pretty obvious too. The vocals are some of the best Garm has ever pulled off. They are not crazy virtuoso stuff, but downplayed and professional. His harmonizing is so well thought-out and melodic; they’re pretty damn alluring. The throaty, low-end moments are emotionally heavy-duty and evoke Leonard Cohen’s later post-Zen musings (incidentally, it’s weird the way Ulver has once mentioned Cohen as an influence before but rarely mentions him despite the clear connection; as opposed to say, Townes Van Zandt, who is linked on their website). The samples on this one are as high-quality as they could ever be. Everything meshes together so fantastically, the chant at the end of the first track “Eos” and the organic-sounding electronic harp sound that introduces the main melodies of “Vigil”.

Of course, Ulver is not a band that I associate with individual and memorable songs. They are memorable, but as themes and moments. This album, like many of their best ones, flows together seamlessly as one idea. There’s a good Woody Allen quote where he says of Bob Hope, one of his favorite comedians, “I forget his jokes but not his character.” With Shadows of the Sun, Ulver solidifies their persona, their character in this way. This is the difference between mere hobby-ism, craftsmanship and art. Art is distinct because the artist’s wide range of works are merely metaphors or fleeting windows into their creative archetype and personal existence. It is not the pieces of art–the forms themselves– which we are supposed to see. It is the energy and inspiration behind the artist, of which their works are only embers.

I find this to be a great companion piece to Vegard & Heidi Tveitan and Knut Buen’s Hardingrock project, released a few months earlier in 2007. Whereas that one sounds more solemnly timeless, utilizing Norwegian folk legend and traditional folk music, this album echoes and welcomes the impending timelessness of the collective experience that is just around the corner. This is pretty amazing considering Kris G. Rygg and Ihsahn are still in their early-mid 30s, but the maturity of their musical reflections has quickly aged like fine wine. Despite the tragedies they lament about, as individuals they seem fully active and alive.

I’ve already written way too much on the subject and I hate being pegged as some kind of Ulver fanboy. I wouldn’t have written as enthusiastically about Perdition City or Blood Inside. But: Ulver has made one of the saddest and most inspired “evening” albums of all time. They’ve gone back to the emotional resonance found in the strongest moments from Lyckantropen Themes and Svidd Neger, two of their film soundtracks which are perhaps my favorite post-metal Ulver albums. Add some of Garm’s finest vocals, ingenious sampling and some classical arrangement and piano composition by bandmate Tore Yliwizaker and you have a real masterpiece.

Purchase:

Amazon

Jester Records

@ The End Records

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~ by chaosrexmachinae on June 29, 2008.

5 Responses to “Ulver: Shadows of the Sun”

  1. Very nice!!

  2. Wonderful review, that finally gives justice to this unique gem of an album.

  3. Hey, thanks for the kind words!

  4. Just came upon this review,

    kudos for mentioning the soundtracks. I love them, and they don’t really get recognized in the Ulver canon very often. Great review.

  5. […] now I am thinking of Arvo Pärt. For those who do not know, Arvo Pärt is non-poseur dirge music; modern Ulver meets European renaissance chamber music. That’s almost not a comparison, considering said […]

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