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It kinda goes without saying but Ulver were never the most committed of black metal bands; they always had that streak of genre-hopping, ‘a pinch of this and a pinch of that’ about them and regardless of the actual quality of their output (I personally think it’s pretty ropey), they’ve done well out of constantly shifting shape and changing form much like some old Norse god. I mean I’m sure that Garm and the boys have certainly graced the Norwegian Grammys with their presence and I’m certain that some of their glitch ambient pieces have been played in allsorts of funky, upmarket Oslo bars where, for the price of a small Mediterranean island, you can purchase a gin and tonic (bar snacks are on the house, however). Again, it almost goes without saying that since Ulver were never the most committed of black metal bands, they were also never the most convincing. Bergtatt is a fine album to be sure, but the more aggressive, ‘typical’ black metal moments are often quite lacking – they’ll simply blast for 30 seconds over a standard issue Norse riff and then move on to something more interesting. So what of this, then? Well, it’s Ulver playing a harshly produced black metal album, or rather, Ulver playing tribute to harshly produced black metal with some of their own melodic flair.
I’d be lying if I said that the album played to Ulver’s strengths; they’ve never been the strongest band when it comes to more ‘normal’ black metal, so, it makes sense that their two previous albums are better. The production is supposedly ‘terrible’, too, with its piercing high-end sound, as if you took Darkthrone’s early black metal works to an extreme. Unlike Darkthrone, however, the production isn’t quite masterful – there’s a bit too much presence on those guitars and the snare sound does leave something to be desired. It seems likely to cause ear fatigue to the uninitiated and leaves some riffs sounding a little static-y. So, yeah, I’d like a little bit less treble and presence on the guitars and the drums could be a bit more roomy (after all, Nattens Madrigal was recorded in a forest, right!?). That said, it’s far from a bad production – you can make out all the instruments and the initial impression is quite striking. Claims of Nattens Madrigal being ‘unlistenable’ are quite ridiculous that’s for sure. I mean, sure, your mother won’t like it… but she thinks Sons of Northern Darkness is Immortal’s best album and she keeps on buying Ihsahn’s solo albums.
I guess what it really boils down to is that Ulver aren’t really strong enough riff writers to make this style work. They’re at their best when they’re writing flowing, beautiful melodies rather than vicious black metal riffs and as such they just can’t make this album work in the way they’d want to. The best tracks on this album are, unsurprisingly, the ones that remind me more of Bergtatt. The opener ‘The Wolf and Fear’ is genuinely great and that acoustic break is something else (Ulver always had excellent acoustic passages and, tellingly, my favourite Ulver album is Kveldssanger). And there’s the fact that there are some ridiculously happy sounding parts on this album, too. The opening to ‘The Wolf and Passion’ is probably one of the earlier examples of the dreaded shoegaze influence on black metal that we’ve come to suffer so much in the past few years and it’s really no surprise that Ulver is a huge influence on all those worthless bands. Simply put the band really fails to capitalise on their strengths here. ‘The Wolf and Man’ has some excellent riffs but then they intersperse it with some completely unmoving stuff and so what should have been a fantastic track (oh, sorry, a hymn!) ends up being quite drab.
It’s often been said that this album is a sort of tribute to Darkthrone or, rather, Transilvanian Hunger. I wouldn’t go that far, myself, as Nattens Madrigal is certainly full of Ulver’s trademark mournful melodic sense. However, there’s a lot of that simplistic Transilvanian… riffing here and it’s really rather poor. It seems to me that, Transilvanian Hunger – however good an album that is in its own right – should never have been copied ad nauseam, because its copycats are can never make much of interest from such simplistic rhythms and droning riffs. However, it’s telling that Ulver – one of the least convincing and certainly the least metallic bands of the original Norse scene – chose the said album as an inspiration. It’s certainly hard to imagine them coming up with riffs akin to those heard on Under a Funeral Moon.
Nattens Madrigal is certainly a divisive album in the metal community – both revered and reviled – but, as per usual, I find that the truth is somewhere in between. This is neither a classic, nor a phoney attempt at cosying up to big boys of Norse black metal for some credibility. Nattens… has some highly successful moments and the opener is some really riveting black metal, just as ripping and powerful as the rest of the album wishes it was. Elsewhere, it’s a very mixed bag; when Ulver combine their typical melodicism with a harsher aesthetic, it certainly works. When they coast by on lifeless tremolo riffs… well, it’s just as dull as any other Transilvanian Hunger-inspired act who drone on and on until they start foaming at the mouths and falling over backwards. A rather sheepish effort overall, I’d say.