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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.