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It was hard not to be stylistically infatuated with this release when I was first exposed to it, as I was in a permanent film-noir state of mind, and the quality of the slowed-breakbeat-style-drum-loops + plus melancholic-yet-energetic voice/keys/samples formula is quite catchy and alluring. Having listened to this album rather obsessively for over five years now, my view has changed and settled somewhat, and I appreciate the songs involved in a different way.
These songs have a wonderful texture and atmosphere, although they do sometimes border on the self-indulgent. Where the previous EP Metamorphosis, thought to be a companion to Perdition City, announced (if the title didn't already suggest) that Ulver was revamping their sound, Ulver seizes and expands on the efforts of Metamorphosis, stretching and reworking the ideas of two of those songs across Perdition City. You can see the emphasis of "Gnosis" from the EP in four of the tracks on Perdition City; Lost in Moments, Porn Pieces, Hallways of Allways and The Future Sound of Music. All feature driving drum loops, the gradual dynamic build of a single texture coupled with sharp dynamic contrast, and sharp synths and piano riffs slowly building on the original texture. Meanwhile Limbo Central (subtitled The Theme from Perdition City) is reincarnated in Catalept, which pairs what seems to be a sample from Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho with a stumbling, drunk drum loop. Where there is melody and musical organization on Perdition City, it is tense and unresolved but not particularly challenging. When Ulver scraps tonality and goes sheerly for atmosphere/synth texture combined with occasional vocal elements, the album becomes almost unbearably tense. We Are the Dead and Dead City Centres are the two pieces of this nature, and are extremely effective, with Garm alternating low mumbling vocals and a sleazy noir narration style. Tomorrow Never Knows seems to foreshadow the ambient jams of the Silence EPs, working with a brooding instrumental texture. And Nowhere/Catastrophe is the only piece on the album in concise song-form, maybe a first for Ulver. It offers a catchy, vocorder-layered chorus with Garm utilizing his somewhat-croony, neo-soul voice from earlier pieces in the album on the verses, an early-jazz inflected piano solo and a fairly concise length. The style is something of a rarity in Ulver's work.
I find that the formula approach heard in tracks 1-3 and 5 is rather unfortunate, since although Ulver explores a full range of textural possibilities with that form, it definitely feels as though it gets old fast, and certain moments amongst those tracks are definitively better than others. (See the hyper-speed V-drums on The Future Sound of Music, and the return of the loud, close-miked breakbeat in Lost in Moments especially after that thickly sentimental soprano-sax solo, which is a good idea frustratingly misapplied.)
Also, the fact that the thick layer of reverb on much of the vocal and instrumental textures is somewhat oppressive, although thankfully not present throughout the entire album. Certain tracks, through a combination of the low volume, high mixed piano and the general production, get a very intimate, chamber feel, an astonishing job of production for an album with as many electronic elements as this does. But in many cases, the reverb feels overdone and the atmospheric ambition of the album is somewhat broken.
I was forced to reconsider Perdition City after hearing Shadows of the Sun, which uses the same levels of reverb and acoustic piano to achieve a different atmospheric affect. In many ways, Shadows of the Sun is a low-energy opposite to Perdition City's sometimes-repressed, nervous energy, although I've definitely found that Ulver's gotten better compositional grasp of their electro-acoustic craft over the years of soundtracks and EPs, Perdition City seems very well polished, though the downside is, perhaps at the expense of some of the diversity of texture and form they continue to achieve.