without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
I can’t think of another band that has so constantly and successfully reinnovated themselves as have Norway’s Ulver. Like a modern day King Crimson, Ulver have never stayed in one spot for too long, always pushing towards uncharted territory even well into their maturity. While I’ll always have a soft spot for 1995’s Bergtatt, their decision to swerve away from their roots in black metal has given Ulver a much longer-lasting musical relevance than most of the bands from the Norwegian Second Wave. No matter where Ulver has travelled with their sound, it’s always resulted in something interesting and sincere.
Of course, none of what I’ve just said should come as any surprise to anyone who has experienced Ulver before. The questions then are: where have they gone with their latest opus Messe I.X-VI.X, and what musical stones are yet unturned?
Teaming up with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, Ulver’s latest incarnation is based in minimalist neoclassical music. Slow, brooding and steeped in their unique brand of experimentation, this orchestral approach seems a logical evolution from the band’s previous ambient work, particularly the sombre Shadows of the Sun. Messe I.X-VI.X may suffer the pangs of an uneven flow and a few less impressive moments, but its unique marriage of chamber music with dark ambient, electronic and jazz is impressive, and at its best, some of the most sublime material Ulver have ever produced.
Calling Messe I.X-VI.X an ‘album’ may be improper, as it has more in common with a modern classical work than anything in the popular canon. “As Syrians Pour in, Lebanon Grapples with Ghosts of a Bloody Past” introduces the album with a hauntingly profound soundscape. A hurdy-gurdy carries on a sombre dirge over the crackle of distant gunfire and grim wartime ambiance. Although the exotic atmosphere makes for a slow start to the album, the track ultimately evolves into a more focused modern classical composition. A string section gradually adds layers to a sombre arrangement that immediately recalls Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”. Although first impressions had me yearning for a quicker start to the album, the track is damned near-perfect, both in its composition and execution.
Although Messe seems predominantly inspired by neoclassical composers, it most strongly gives the impression of being the soundtrack for a film that exists only in the listener’s mind. “Shri Schneider” and “Glamour Hole (Ostinati)” would be fitting scores for a tense espionage thriller. Blending electronic experimentation with the neoclassical template, Ulver are exploring a fusion of genre I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing before. The resulting atmosphere is immense and futuristic. While Ulver may have been influenced by tradition and longheld conventions on Messe, the music is anything but.
In homage to Western classical tradition, Messe I.X-VI.X adopts a liturgical theme, reflected in the work’s solemn atmosphere, use of choirs, and minimal, religiously-oriented lyrics. Kristtofer Rygg’s voice has remained a constant throughout Ulver’s work, and the common utterance of Rygg as one of the most powerful, diverse vocalists out there does not go unfounded. Especially on Shadows of the Sun, his deep, gloomy vocals were profound and emotionally penetrating. Having been a fan of just about every vocal performance I’ve heard from him, it was all the more surprising and every bit unfortunate that Rygg’s vocals seem out of place here on Messe. Although the first half of the album is nearly-perfect in its instrumental ambiance, the vocals on “Son of Man” have never struck me the right way. Maybe it’s a result of the lyrics- the religiosity of which feels contrived and minimalistic without being particularly profound- or perhaps I simple became so immersed in the atmosphere of the album that lead vocals of any kind would have hurt my enjoyment. “Mother of Mercy”- the album’s other vocal track- fares better both lyrically and musically. Rygg’s voice retains its trademark depth and resonance, but the band’s neoclassical direction doesn’t fit his voice nearly as well as the electronic approach of yesteryear. Although I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Ulver will find a way to make lead vocals work for this neoclassical style, I’m left with the (possibly) unpopular opinion that Messe I.X-VI.X could have been even better if it had been kept purely instrumental and ambient.
“Noche Oscura Del Alma” is a solid ambient piece, with warped samples of Helen Forrest’s “Mad About the Boy” conjuring an impression of the post-apocalypse. Especially compared to the three other instrumental tracks however, it’s the weakest offering here and doesn’t really work without the two vocal tracks around it. Really, I’m left with two impressions of Messe. While the first half of the album is downright masterful, the second side is disappointing by contrast. The misguided vocals aside, Messe loses its sublime sense of pacing after “Son of Man”. To the album’s credit though, it would be difficult for any music to follow up the near-perfection heard on the first track and “Shri Schneider”. The second half of Messe I.X-VI.X is quite good, but I’m left longing for a more consistently satisfying experience.
The title Messe I.X-VI.X implies the coming of a second installment to comprise the last four movements. If that’s true, then I have high hopes for more of Ulver’s neoclassical-electronic fusion. While the album does not impress me as much as their best ambient work in Perdition City or the devastating Shadows of the Sun, this next evolution leaves plenty of room for Ulver to create something worthy of awe and wonder.
Rather unsure what was going to happen with this album- Childhood's End was pretty good, if not the most earth-shaking thing ever, but I'm still somewhat traumatized from the flat out awfulness that was War of the Roses. Ulver's awful fanbase rarely helps.. it's hard not getting totally burnt out from the avalanche of Ulver: MOVING BEYOND BLACK METAL, ECLECTIC MUSICAL OPEN MINDEDNESS (really? wow! how about that, crazy innit) reviews that were plaguing my news feed/everywhere I looked. Therefore, it's rather lucky that Ulver have done a very good album here- maybe even their best post-Bergtatt effort, because when you have such a cloying, massively over-the-top fanbase it's hard not to write off everything the band do. This stuff kills and I really enjoy it, despite the baggage that comes with it.
Yeah, Messe is a pretty all-time effort. The simplest way to describe this is: get Shadows of the Sun, strip away all the rock music elements and voila. This is a simplification, though; it's not just a Godspeed You Black Emperor ripoff (and I'm really grateful for that!)- it's based far less on repetition than you may think, and it's definitely been super thoroughly composed. I don't want to say "this defies description" but this sort of contemporary, very modern, rather academic "modern classical" stuff is hard to describe unless you're doing modern composition at a music college. Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is to imagine a very engaging soundtrack for an extremely depressing movie.
It does the slow and somber thing remarkably well, and it's a pleasure seeing Ulver throw an occasional electric guitar or bit of electronics (the sublime Shri Schneider a fantastic example) into an otherwise very familiar sonic palette. Here, I think, is where Ulver really succeed in this album- there's an accessibility to this whole deal, even though it's generally just a whole lot of gentle, string driven depression. Textures are introduced, key changes happen- Glamour Box's fantastically paced, perfectly placed outro-, things are often morphing into new and exciting things, going in unexpected directions, etc. There are flaws- the first song does stretch the attention somewhat, and Garm's vocals seem to be getting increasingly bad as he gets older but yeah, this stuff is good man. Again, it's those little things- that awareness of when to change things up a tiny bit, or to throw a subtle, somewhat dissonant interval in a place to throw you off guard and get you engaged. Really, really good composition throughout.
There's little to criticize here, if we're being blunt. Certainly, the minimalist, fairly quiet tones throughout make this a bit of a challenge to listen through super actively, but it sure as hell makes hanging out the washing a dense, thought provoking experience. Much respect is due to Ulver for releasing a record that's fascinating, deep but most of all, an almost immediate pleasure to listen to. Their best in a long time, and well worth yours!
As time goes by one loses the ability to be surprised. This has often more to do with the fact that things in general tend to be less surprising as time goes by, technology evolves and ideas become immediately stale as soon as they come out of the oven and less to do with the oft forgotten fact that, as brains decay, functions such as the release of hormones and neuron syntax take toll. Not only that, but the more information and experience you gather from a particular field, in this case music, the less likely you are to be surprised by a musical work. Again, often a lack of response is well earned, but it's not rare to succumb to the automatic deconstruction, dissection and classification of all new experiences based on older ones.
What a lousy introduction to a musical review.
Moving on, I'd like to tell you a short story about musical vanguards of the first half of the XXth century. Namely I'd like to mention, if only just for the record, the Futurist adventures into the realm of mechanic noise by the likes of Luigi Russolo, the electric adventures of Pierre Schaeffer and his Musique Concrète, where electrically produced sounds and textures mingle with more Academia-approved instrumentation, not unlike the acosumatic orchestras for amplifiers and microphones, and the emergent world of electronic music, by the hand of Stockhausen and Varèse alike. I'm chiefly talking about their common explorations of both the borders of the role electricity plays in music and how to go beyond them, and the borders between music, non-music and noise, and how to blur them. What are you going on about, you verbose lunatic?
These might not be the most complex, most daring and challenging compositions; neither the "classical" bits nor the electronic bits are especially of note, from a technical point of view. A few violins play mournful and elongated melodies while cellos and contra-bass serve as both a guide and a support, and you've got yourself a dandy, accessible yet refined piece of contemporary classical (or academical) music. It's a formula that's been with us since, at the very least, the advent of Godspeed You Black Emperors. The electrical components of the music are perhaps of more interest, if a bit unsurprising if you're familiar with either Ulver's electronic forays since 1999 or that of some of the bigger names in Krautrock-derived electronic music (such as Manuel Göttsching) and the more successful (artistically speaking) Industrial acts such as Coil and Throbbing Gristle. These two sides of this coin result in a contemporary response (or reflex, even) to the base ideas those musical movements I mentioned earlier were trying to put to trial and did with historic success. Their influence, or rather, the influence of their ideas, made ripples that are still being felt today. This is called a segue.
So, you might be a bit confused now, and I understand your confusion. On the one hand I'm ranking this album rather high, but on the other I'm implying this album amounts to little more than a response to old vanguards. Well, you see, many people have, since the late 60's and especially in the 90's and 00's, either tried to recreate or simply continue the great ideas those men of vanguard had, to varied degrees of success. I would usually accuse them of being lazy revivalists or even worse, pretending to be pioneering something that had a name and a theory before they were even born. That is not the case in this particular department. Academic music does not evolve at the same rate than popular music, and the reason, more often than not, is technology, and the limitations of those who use it.
I cannot imagine what works like Mixtur (Stockhausen), Suite Pour 14 Instruments (Schaeffer) or even Risveglio Di Una Città (Russolo) would sound like, had they been composed today, with today's mindblowingly advanced recording, sound-producing and sound-managing technology and techniques.
If you've humoured me enough to read this far, feeling a distinct feeling of lack inside the little space in your head you were going to use to store the gist of a proper musical review, here's my best attempt at narrowing it down: The Tromsø guys do their very best to give Ulver's eerie and everchanging Elektronische/Concrète landscapes both a foundation upon which unfold and a structure through which raise and play, from which suckle and on which play and dance. And they managed like champs. Imagine Shadows Of The Sun processed through a polarised filter made of equal parts Svidd Neger and Perdition City and you might get a glimpse at this work. But there are surprises in the way. Things I don't think I can describe in simple words. Experiments that perhaps force me to give the band credit where credit is not actually due. I've no idea whether Mr. Rygg even knows about Pierre Henry or Bernard Parmegiani, but it sure feels like an attempted hello and a very subtle one-up from him. Either way, the music, as usual, speaks for itself. And even though I understand its language, for I have heard it before, I've never heard it expressed in such a refreshed, resourceful and more importantly personal fashion.
This album is a great example (even for today's cynical and overexperienced standards) of contemporary academic music mixed with the very edges of Ulver Brand post-industrial ambient. While not nearly as ambitious, complex nor encompassing as the attempts of their predecessors (all the weird german, french and italian dudes I named throughout the review as if I was trying to impress someone), and definitely not as influential (this is not a "time shall tell" situation, sadly), this work gets a shining golden star from me because it is the image that the mirror of Today offers to those often frustrating albeit always awe-inspiring first steps towards contemporary experimental music, and Ulver are, in my mind, the only ones who were able to take such challenge. They took the challenge of being Today's representation of explorations more than seventy years old, and they managed. Not only that, but they managed to also remain Ulver in the process. Tracks like Son Of Man and Noche Oscura Del Alma retain all the tense emotion and almost cleric impetus of vintage Ulver, while, as a whole, the compositions are a strong response, a loud and clear answer to the call of yesteryear's vanguards: We Are Still Able.