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Ulver progressed with this album out of their own shadow and self-limitation; from Nattens Madrigal - Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden, towards a new direction, a new approach and certainly a new facet of the metal scene. Basically, the band had two options: copy the style of their early releases or split-up. As both of these might not have been something the band looked upon as reasonable alternatives, they proceeded on a different path: out of the barriers and onward to something new... something fans of the band would hardly expect. Themes From William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a rare example of what level music can be brought to, once the artists attempt (or maybe risk) to create something fresh or unique. Sadly, it also points to an aspect the black metal scene is somehow prominent for: bland and plain lyrics or concepts. Actually, with all the hatred that pours out of the black metal genre towards monotheistic religion or Christianity in particular, it is surprising that hardly any band even considers to use excerpts of philosophical books as a background for their music. Aside from William Blake's work, the writings of Milton or Dante, to name only the most prominent ones, would most certainly be an adequate background for this extreme kind of music; the contrary could also be imagined: mocking about Christian literature. Yet, a lot of bands refuse to use any them and accordingly remains the black metal genre is a stalemate; poisoned with an odour of self-imposed inferiority.
In order to do Ulver justice with their attempt of creating some form of an 'audio book', this review cannot be written in a normal way, simply because the emphasis of this piece lies not on how the songs had been composed or how catchy the tunes are. It is important to find out whether the music and the text are somehow related to each other and how this had been established. In this respect it necessary to emphasis the structure of the tracks as these are predetermined by William Blake's texts -- or to be more precise: by the plates. Those who are familiar with these and the music, might have already attempted to compare these two aspects in order to find some form of coherence between them. Was Ulver influenced by the drawings or was the music written without considering the design of the plates? This review is far from being able to give a definite answer to this. Those who do not own a copy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with reprints of the plates, should draw their attention to websites which would provide them online; currently, there are several who offer this service and Wikipedia can help in this respect.
For this review these books were used:
William Blake – Zwischen Feuer und Feuer (3423125489) (*1)
William Blake – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (0192811673) (*2)
Ulver used several concepts for expressing the contents of Blake's writing and these differ from plate to plate; sometimes even from segment to segment. Accordingly it is necessary to discuss each of them separately:
Code (top): (Title) (Track/s) (Plate/s)
Code (text): (Track/s, Plate/s)
Part I (1-5):
The Argument (1-3) (2-3)
William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell's first segment is broken into three tracks, which come each with a different kind of sound and atmosphere.
(1, 2) would open rather calm with a neat mixture of drums, keyboards and samples which are later joined by vocals and progress then into some metal influenced music. The second plate is basically an introductory 'free verse', with which the stage is set for the Manichaean universe apparent in Blake's writing. An interesting side note: the decoration on the plate has similarities to “The Echoing Green” in the Songs of Innocence (1789); an interesting interpretation of this poem had been done by Allen Ginsberg and others and can be listened to at the Internet Archive. The name Rintrah may be understood as Blake's wrath (Keynes).
Plate 3 was divided into two tracks and of these each would have a different concept; interestingly, the way Ulver separated the 'text' reflects Blake's concept neatly.
The first six lines are a reference to Swedenborg and his works (including Heaven and Hell); further does As a new heaven is begun point toward 1757 and therefore to the birth of Blake. Moreover, the Swedish mystic is the 'good angel', who sits on the tomb of Christ (Keynes). In terms of the music, a female voice rather speaks than sings the lines, while in the back a guitar plays some simple structured riffs. There is also a crackling sound, similar to the one when playing a vinyl disk. Presumably, Ulver wanted to express that this part is old and done -- such does not appear on the 'second part' of the plate -- something that was recorded before and is now listened to again. The track closes with ambient soundscapes while the aforementioned noise effect has vanished; a transition towards Blake's view of the matter and therefore towards a more 'recent' one is taken.
How this would be expressed might surprise: there is still the female voice, but now accompanied by a distorted male one. The latter one is mixed in the back and sounds like coming from far away. Yet, towards the end a clean on joins in for a very short moment (Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.; see below) and by uttering these words Blake has finally arrived. Beyond the difference of the two vocalists, also the music is much calmer and plays hardly any role in this track. There is an acoustic guitar in the background playing some chords, yet the instrument's impact can be neglected. In terms of the 'text' in this segment, a light on Blake's view and his diametral concept of the world respectively metaphysics is being shed; Heaven – Hell; Good – Evil; Active – Passive; Reason – Energy.
Some words on the illustration:
On the top there is a woman, who enjoys the flames of Hell, while Keynes speculates that the person on the bottom (left side) is in fact Enitharmon who gives birth to Orc, the Newborn Terror, the spirit of Revolution. The two persons on the right side are a man running way (from the other scene), while a girl kisses him goodbye (see Keynes).
The Voice of the Devil (4-5) (4-6)
The last part of The Argument closed with glimpses of clean vocals and a reference to Blake's concept, while with this one Ulver take their music to a new level. Here, a clean male and female voice appear, while the latter plays a minor role now; she introduces the phrases of the 'devil' somehow. A continuation from the earlier tracks would be the 'reading style' of the writings and the absence of real singing or any form of passionate expression. Again, the music is nothing but a texture in the background (guitar) with the exception of the drums, which give the track a nice beat.
Once the end of the plate four is reached the atmosphere erupts and the minimalist approach of before switches to a mixture of rock/metal one with long solo-like part played by a lead-guitar, accompanied by rhythm-guitars in the background. In terms of style, the sound and tempo remind on something like celebrating what has been sung before. A positive vibe, maybe even cheering vibe, can be felt in the rest of the track, but this picture crumbles as the track closes. The time has not come for unleashing the hounds … yet.
The conceptual progression of Ulver continues here and the female voice is gone for now; it will appear shortly in the succeeding track (A Memorial Fancy) again, but in a style that resemblance the male on in (3, 3); like a vague memory from the past or something from far away. This second part of The Voice of the Devil opens with an ambient-like guitar melody in the back, but 'eruptions'-like sounds created by drums appear twice over the course of the tracks. Each of them is used to support the atmosphere and to emphasize certain passages in the text:
1: [...]is call'd the Devil or Satan and his children are call'd Sin & Death.
2: Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah.
But in Milton; the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses, & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum!
While the first one would be the end of a line of reason, the second provides the reader with a reference to Milton and how his works are seen by Blake. To quote Keynes: Blake supports this theses by quoting Milton's Paradise Lost, with a side glance at The Book of Job, concluding that 'Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of the Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell.' He had created a Satan endowed with energy and fire, more attractive to the perceptive reader than his God, who was destiny, an inescapable despot. His Son had become an uninteresting abstraction, or 'Ratio'. Derived from the senses; the Holy Ghost, because ignored by Milton, was 'Vacuum'. Milton was therefore 'a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it'.
In terms of the structure Ulver separated this segment again into two parts and also this time it actual makes sense; see above. Plate 4 has first the errors in the biblical or sacred codes listed, then the contraries that are -- according to Blake -- true. Interesting is the following negation: “3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies” with “Energy is Eternal Delight”, as well as Blake's “belief in the doctrine of the ultimate forgiveness of sins” (Keynes).
Plate 5 is slightly different as it does not contain a juxtaposition of in-/accuracies of the Christian religion, but rather provides an attempt to further develop the afore listed lines of reasoning; especially in terms of Milton's Paradise Lost and The Book of Job. The gap between the two compositions is appropriate as each 'segment' appears in a different style and Ulver gave the listener some time to breathe. Further, the music at the end of (4) supports the discussed fallacies and accuracies; the 'delight' becomes real throughout the instrumentation and the somehow cheering atmosphere created by the guitars.
Both tracks are rather minimalist in their arrangements and there might be a reason behind it: with the focus set on the voices and the instruments reduced to nothing but an occasional support (to emphasize certain passages for instance), Ulver is able to draw the attention of the listener on the conceptual framework created by Blake. These plates (4-6) are important in this respect as they reveal glimpses of how he saw the world and what he wanted to express through his writings or painting respectively. While The Argument (in the here offered interpretation by the Norwegians) was rather a play with the Swedenborg vs. Blake motive, the succeeding tracks unleash a variety of atmospheres and tensions on the listener. So, with the switch to more complex music in A Memorial Fancy, it is fair to say that at the end of the fifth track there would be a first break and a new part is introduced.
Part II (6-17):
A Memorial Fancy (6) (6-7)
With this track a different type of music takes over. Unlike the preceding ones with their often rather minimalist approach, now arrangements have been added and a larger emphasis on the song-writing can be identified. This is not surprising, when looking at the following plates, which leave the theoretical or conceptual paths behind and progress into something less abstract. These plates were partially inspired by Dante's 'Divina Commedia' (Engl.: Divine Comedy) and Blake takes the listener deeper into his world now and presents to the reader his mental framework towards religion and philosophy; he also provides some information on his way of printing plates. This first A Memorial Fancy is nothing but an introduction to the Proverbs of Hell though.
On the music: The female vocals appear here only at the end of the composition, but the text sung by them is nevertheless important, as it is a reference to Plato's Allegory of the cave. Here, the reality is not perceived by the individual through the shadows on the wall, but rather with the help of the five senses; see also the plates (5-6). Yet this covers only a small part of what the track has to offer. Here, the music has a metal touch and has even some amount of heaviness, but it is quite avant-garde in style and shows influences from the Trip Hop and Industrial for instance; these would appear over the whole length of the album again and again. In terms of the male vocals can be noted that they appear in a slightly distorted style first but change to clean ones for the middle part of the composition; the phrase Fires of Hell is especially emphasized by these. Yet, this is rather a reference to the content of this plate and how it was depicted by Blake, than to something he wanted to put draw special attention towards. Due to a transition of the music to the next compositions, the music breaks down to some sort of minimalist ambient at the end.
Proverbs of Hell (7-8) (7-11)
This part is perhaps the most interesting of the whole text by William Blake. Here, his ideas and concepts are laid out and even though one might think to understand the meaning of the phrases at once, then this person is mistaken; there is much more than meets the eye.
Ulver separated this part of the writing into several parts again and what might have influenced them to do it in this particular way, hm? Well, it should have been obvious by now or? Exactly... the plates themselves were the guiding line for the Norwegians. See here:
Voice 1: plate 7 (00:00-01:45): one murmuring one
Voice 2: plate 8 (01:46-03:07; 03:08-04:22): switch in the middle (variation)
Voice 3: plate 9 (04:23-06:57): a dominating one, while a second one emphasizes certain passages
Voice 4: plate 10 (06:58-09:06): basically two kinds of vocals
With each of these comes a different style of music; especially on plate 8. Proverbs of Hell continues with the style of the end of the preceding compositions, but due to the murmur-like vocals and their low overall volume, some form of dark atmosphere is created; the pondering sound of the drums and the guitar texture in the background further increase this impression. The listener has to concentrate on what is going on here, because otherwise this person would be unable to understand anything of the vocals. With the end of the plate the music shifts to something more listenable and catchy. The shift comes as a surprise, especially to those who do not have the plates at their hand, but the switch to something less minimalist is positive as the satirical intention of Blake's goes hand in hand with such an approach. Maybe the variation of different vocals styles and atmospheres in this quite long track by Ulver should be seen in the light of attempting to reflect some of the writers underlying thoughts in Proverbs of Hell with the use weird arrangements. Also the emphasis of certain passages (The weak in courage is strong in cunning.; [...]lift up thy head!; Prayers plow not! Praises reap not! Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!) do not only help to break monotony but also to avoid playing the music in a sterile as well as unemotional way. Again, the mixture of different styles makes it hard to clearly categorize this kind of music. There is metal, influences from the electronic music scene, rock etc.
A last solo part by the female voice appears on the eighth track and there may be two reasons for it: either Ulver decided to vary their concept a bit more or they have been influenced by the plate's drawing: the Nature is depicted in its spiritual form and in the front a stream drawn as a naked woman can be found (source: Keynes). In terms of the music, this part of Proverbs of Hell wakes some memories on the tracks 1-3 (The Argument). A simple pattern played by the guitars in the background, while a voice sings a melody; in the first part of the track it is manipulated with some reverb though.
A Memorial Fancy (10-11) (12-14)
Once a quite interlude has passed and the calm first part (piano, drums) of the track faded out, electronic rhythms take over and Ulver takes the listener into a philosophical discourse. A discussion between Isaiah, Ezekiel and Blake is the topic of this plate and the topics among others are God and the subjection to the Jews (code/god).
In terms of the vocals three different types can be found here: a normal one which performs the text in a mixture of singing and speaking, while the last three paragraphs [beginning with This said he...] have a distorted one. The way the writings are expressed here, they give the impression of disgust, as if it would be difficult to utter the words. Further, this track would also mark the last time the female voice appears on this release. Interestingly, it would be her part to take over the part of Blake question in this plate: Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?. Noteworthy is also that this one would come with a break and then with a change in the motives.
In terms of the music Ulver continues to proceed on the electronic/industrial/trip-hop pathways and wrote music that works quite fine to keep the dynamics up, while neat little variations maintain the atmosphere. Drums give the beat, samples and keyboards create additional layers to support the vocalist(s).
Ulver continues with the approach from the preceding composition in terms of the music and the vocals. The resemblance between them is quite close and could be described as a further variation of the motives. Nearly over this whole track a voice narrates the text in a slightly monotonous way; some reverb and distortion makes it a bit difficult to thoroughly understand everything. Further, as the music plays a rather dominant role here, the whole perception of this two minute composition is a bit ambivalent.
A Memorial Fancy (12-13) (15-17)
Even though this track begins rather calm with an ambient introduction, it becomes a really interesting piece later. This is not only due to the interpretation done by Ulver, the plate itself contains a fascinating reading on the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. Here, the vocals are performed in a quite peculiar style and they remind on a reporter whose transmission has some difficulties in getting through to the receiver. It is too low in the sound and lacks of bass. While this 'message' is being sent, some dark ambient texture with industrial effects plays in the background and give this composition some volume. Even though this might be the most minimalist composition of Ulver on this release -- left aside the interludes – it still has a dense atmosphere and the listener is fixed on the vocals once they appear.
The drawing on the bottom of plate 15 would be the Eagle of Genius carrying the viper of Reason. Together they co-operate in the progressive improvement of perception; (Keynes).
With this track the first CD of Themes From William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ends, but before the discussion of the music will be presented, some words are necessary on the topic of this plate. The drawing found on the top of it cannot easily be understood. They refer to the five senses of Man (plates 5-7), the sources of our energies. Keynes explains further, these giants live in chains, controlled by the cunning, weak-intelligences of the Reasoners.
In terms of the music a strange combination of elements have been used for this composition. While the instruments create a slightly symphonic melody with industrial/electronic influences, the vocals have been distorted to some form of croaking. It is rather perceived as contrasting elements that have been combined into one piece of art. Ulver try to experiment a lot on this release and this one is certainly not one of the pleasant examples.
A Memorial Fancy (14) (17-20)
Not only is the fourteenth track the longest on this 2CD album, it is also one with a lot of content that needs to be explained in order to understand what is actually going on here. Some aspects will reveal themselves easily, but others, and these might be how to interpret certain passages and phrases, require some knowledge which the 'normal' person would not have at his or her disposal. Remember what Sherlock Holmes once said in A Study in Scarlet: [...]a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, [...].
This Memorial Fancy carries on with an almost comic argument with a pompous Swedenborgian Angel; a mouthpiece of conventional religion. He warns him of his dreadful fate if he continues to pursue his chosen course. Blake replies by suggesting that the Angel exhibit to him his (Blake's) eternal lot and that they then contemplate whether his or the Angel's lot is more desirable They accordingly descend into an abstract world described in concrete terms of great satirical power, both visually effective and humorously absurd (see Keynes). It should not surprise that the writings by Blake contain here a lot of metaphors and allegories. For instance: the church in which both descend would be the house of orthodox religion with a vault that represents the tomb of dead passions. The scared oak on which Blake later sits is the sacred tree of the druids, while the inverted fungus, the seat of the angel takes place, refers to the blind dogma; something that gives pleasure to him. Keynes suspects that the Leviathan was taken from Thomas Hobbes' works and is to represent the materialism. Blake has a drawing of it on plate 20, but further ones can also be found in the Songs of Experience.
The latest paragraph gives a glimpse of the amount of the variety of different symbolisms and references. So, to those who are familiar with the concept of Blake the anticipation of Ulver's interpretation might have been interesting. Basically, the Norwegians did the following: they separated each part into a sub-part:
Voice 1: [An Angel came to me … the black & white spiders.]
Voice 2: [But now, from between … & his theme was]
Voice 3 (Interlude) [The man ... reptiles of the mind.]
Voice 1: (2nd time) [But I arose ... & the fixed stars.]
Voice 2: (2nd time but with variations) [Here, said I! ... true Friendship.]
Unlike on several other occasions here the switches in the vocal styles were not influenced by a new plate or any other change in the topic. Ulver analysed the text in terms of characteristic elements or segments and such can be found here. They interpreted the second paragraph of each ones 'lot' as something which deserved more dynamic and power; while the first switch was performed more accentuated and is perceived therefore as being more intense. Further, as the first voice fades out the first time also the music becomes less complex and even takes a short break (half a second?) but then the guitars and drums together with the clean vocals create an eruption like impression on the side of the listener. Such a level in intensity is not perceived in the second larger transition; V1->V2. There, the mixture or the composition of the arrangements is of a different kind and it is unable to reach for the intensity that had been created earlier. Actually, the later proceeds into a surprisingly calm motive and atmosphere. So, Ulver want the first transition to remain as a vivid imagery in the mind of the listener.
A Memorial Fancy (16) (21-22)
Each 'Memorial Fancy' differs from the other ones and offers new facets and atmospheres. This one is nothing but a mocking about the writings of Swedenborg and the fallacies and short-comings that these contain. Blake really crushes them and describe them as nothing but an eclectic of earlier written works; including all of their errors. Blake, originally a follower of Swedenborg, Church of New Jerusalem, expresses his disappointment with these writings in quite a radical way. When it comes to Ulver, then this band did a pretty good job interpreting this rant and 'converting' it into music.
First, there is an organ in the back, which gives the impression of this composition being played in a church or to say it in other words: having an sacred aura. To this a clean and cheery vocal style was added and it works not only as a counterpoint to the aforementioned background texture, it further supports the way Blake arguments here. A different one would have given the impression that the topic would be a serious or deeply philosophical one, which would have required a different style; see some of the other tracks on this 2CD release. Yet by offering this particular type, the listener is rather encouraged to 'sing along' and to join in as well. It is easier to get the listener participating in the mocking of Swedenborg's writing this way. Also the orientation on rock/metal elements in the song-writing makes it easier to enjoy this composition than other ones, whose concept is rather abstract. This would be one of the rare example in which Ulver do no attempt to overdo it, but rather try to stick with certain basic song-writing elements.
A Memorial Fancy (17) (22-24)
This is the last of the Memorial Fancies and it is an important one. Here, a transition from good to evil, from angel to devil is described. Here, the marriage between heaven and hell actually takes place.
Ulver varied the text in a neat and interesting way. Several kinds of vocals appear:
1. an opening one, speaking, slight distortion (Once...words.)
2. first time devil: chanting the text in a clean but also commanding voice (
3. angel answer: an attempt to imitate the devil, but later reverb and additional (wrong sounding layers) 'ruin it'. The 'clean' imagery cannot be kept/upheld.
4. second time devil: distortion of vocals (like a megaphone?), again the tone is very commanding but this time also aggressive. It is of a kind that leaves no doubt about what the intention of the speaker is. Further, a good amount of disgust can be felt.
5. law sentence: the clean one from the opening appears again; reminds on rejoicing (and laughing) about the absurdity behind the laws and what they prohibit people from doing.
(note: actually, another switch would have been necessary after the second devil part, but maybe Ulver continued with the (4)-voice in order to avoid confusion.)
The instruments mimic the vocals in some respect: calm opening, strange dissonant riffs played by the guitar during the 'angel part', an atmospheric melody during the second devil and it also closes with such. Even though the song contains different facets and motives, Ulver still kept some amount of catchiness and is able to fascinate the listener over the whole course it.
The Devil answered: this was later further elaborated in The Everlasting Gospel (1818).
Bibles of Hell: might refer to Blake's later works.
'Law' phrase: on the plate this is depicted by Nebuchadnezzar (Keynes:[...] debased and brutalized until he tries to live by eating grass, that is, the mental food provided by the world of materialism. He is crawling on his hands and knees with an expression of terror on his face.)
Part III (18-19):
It could be discussed whether the last part of this release begins with the eighteenth or the nineteenth track, but judging from the sound and atmosphere, those two could been seen as a unity.
A song of Liberty (19) (25-27)
As expected … the last three plates eat the cake for this piece by William Blake. Not only does he offer something new in the style of his writing, the sheer complexity of his universe is again stunning and not easy to grasp without some further analysis by those who have spend some time on analysing it.
The last track is introduced by an ambient interlude which is able to build up the tension and atmosphere. A song of Liberty is not only the last track on this album, it is also one that differs in style and in content from the other ones. Here, twenty numbered sentences form an apocalyptic final to the central theme of the book and these find their justification in the American and French revolution; (see Keynes). A sample opens this release and a minimalist drum beat joins in, a samples noise effect appears in the back, then the first vocals appear, additional elements are added the more the song progresses … the complexity increases over time. It should not surprise to find also here the often used shift in the vocals; here from distorted to clean ones. Ulver build up the tension over the whole length of the compositions up to the climactic eruption (Keynes) in the phrase: Empire is no more! and now the lion & wolf shall cease.
Then there are twenty minutes of silence which form a gap between the last important sentence of this work and the final Chorus. To be precise: the length is a bit longer... some seconds. Anyway, the listener would expect the band to proceed with the text if not immediately then at least after a 'reasonable' amount of time. Yet, how it was done stretches the patience of the listener over excess and leaves this person baffled and bewildered about what is going on here. Blake's writing gives no indication towards this number (20) and neither do the drawings on the plate. There are twenty arguments on the last plate and also the checksum of Blake's year of birth (1757) would lead to this number. Yet, the strange aspects do not stop there. The 'Chorus' is performed in such a way as to make it hardly possible to really understand anything of the vocals. Maybe Ulver saw in this last part of the writing something that is yet to come to come and might be expected in the future. The solution to this mystery it not easy and needs some explanation. In contrast to the majority of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell the Song of Liberty deals with something that takes place around when it was written: the French Revolution. So, how is the connection of this event relate to Blake? Well, he was quite a radical person and had extreme views in respect to society and church. Being aware how the Industrialization exploited the workers (see: The Chimney Sweeper, Holy Thursday, London), how the rules and laws imposed by the religions and the government respectively prevented man to become a Poetic Genius (see this novel for instance also later ones like the books of Ahania, Urizen and Los), he saw in the revolutionary spirit a way to get rid of these aspects of daily life and to free every person of these (strangling) chains. The story continues this way: as a result of the French Revolution, England declared war on this country, which would last twenty years and be settled by the Treaty of Paris in 1814; see also (1*), page 479. So, there we have it. This is the reference Ulver wanted to express here but there still remains the question about the strange way of uttering the phrases in the Chorus part. History can also help in this respect: the French and American Revolution changed the climate towards extreme and revolutionary spirits and made it more difficult not to speak dangerous for people to express or publish such views. Organizations who promoted radical views were forbidden, in 1794/5 radical circles dispersed and Blake himself faced persecution over agitation in 1803/4; luckily his radical writings were quite unknown amongst the public, so his lack of success actually saved from him jail time. So, it should be obvious by now what Ulver wanted to express: the backlash from authorities on radical elements of society led to their destruction and only fragments were able to survive in the underground and/or small circles. The Chorus part reflects this with the hardly recognizable way in which the text was sung. It is some sort of a vague memory that has persisted until now and gives a vague recollection about what was going on all those years ago.
Three of these can be found on this release and their purpose might be to give the listener some room to breathe, to reflect what has happened before or to prepare for the things to come respectively. Except for the first one maybe, none of the others have aggressive facets. A mixture of ambient, electronics and (post-)rock elements would sum up what elements were used for them; though, not all would contain all of these. Due to the minimalism and generally calmness of the music offered in these, they can further be seen as a counter-point to the interpretation of Blake's writings.
There is one aspect on this release which was not executed in a neat and proper way: the booklet. In this the whole text was printed so the listener would be able to follow the lines. Yet, there is no structure in it, no picture and also no explanation on the background of this writing. Accordingly, there are problems in fulling grasping the content and meaning of Blake's ideas. For me it was an incentive to by the two books which were used for this review. It sparked some interest, which came out of the confusion about what was actually going on here. Ulver went the easy way and did not bother with getting the message across. Even though this is no graven 'flaw', it is still something that bothers in some respect. So, despite a fascinating musical concept, the visual one is not entirely convincing.
Final bits and bytes
First of all: you cannot understand this release without a proper book and those mentioned above respectively explained below will help anyone who wants to dig deep into the world of William Blake. It is recommended to get some additional literature to understand this album by the Norwegian band, because how the arrangements and motives were placed here, might be hidden from those who have nothing but the pure text at hand. Especially due to the conceptual background of Blake's narrative a good deal of facets might get lost without some 'help' from the experts on his writings.
Ulver stuck quite close to what the British poet had to offer in the eighteenth century and avoided a too avant-garde approach or too overloaded songs respectively. Sometimes the listener would want the band to get a bit more extreme and to push the limits a bit further, but the idea had rather been to offer the listener (and also the metal fans) something which would be inspired rather than reflect Blake's writing in the total. Often the music is minimalist and does not exceed the level of being a texture in the background, while at other times it is a partner in crime. The main focus are the vocals and their different styles and approaches. They are the main focus and create the atmosphere due to the various kinds of style in which they appear on this release.
Why a male and a female vocals? Well, Blake married Catherine Boucher in 1782 and their relationship exceeded the 'normal' husband/wife one. She had an impact on his painting as well as his writings and some sources point to her as the more extreme character of the couple. Even though it is not possible to point to specific facets of Blake's art which might shed some light on her influence over him, some paintings give hints towards her as a participant in the creation of them. So, for Ulver it was only natural to rely on a second element in the vocals in order to reflect the oeuvre of William Blake properly. Nevertheless, it is still surprising to hear vocals not in a duet but rather as solo voices. Maybe this seemed as a too daring approach.
Overall, this release is surprisingly calm and controlled; compared to the texts provided by William Blake. Generally, the music attempts to support the vocals, add atmospheric elements and textures in the background. Further are certain passages emphasized through the instruments. It is hard to nail Ulver down to a particular style on this album. Beyond the aforementioned aspect they have not much in common and vary in their concept. There are acoustic, ambient, trip-hop, industrial and metal facets which appear either combined and in some respect also separated from each other in some respect. A bit surprising is the lack of extreme sound or atmospheres on this album. No harsh samples or noisy distortions had been used by the Norwegians; also no aggressive switches in the tempo can be found. So, when looking at this release, then it is more like a lecture with some instrumentation then a real adaptation of what Blake might have had in the back of his mind when writing this poem.
As already written in the first paragraphs of this review, this album marked a turning point for the Norwegian band and with it they progressed out of the metal scene towards more electronic/progressive/avant-garde shores. To pick William Blake's book for the purpose of doing this transition was a wise one indeed. Blake was a radical person, had radical views and wrote radical poems and literature. Yet, he was not prone to racial and other extreme views. From his point of view the burdens brought upon man by the church and the state should be broken and the man allowed to reach the state of a Poetic Genius. Ulver mimiced this with this album and left all the old path behind and progressed into a new era, a new state and a new set of facets.
As only the two books mentioned below were used to describe the art of Ulver and interpret their approach of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, not every facet might have been dealt with and some aspect might have been overlooked. Moreover, a review is always from one perspective and emphasizes certain aspects over others. Yet, hopefully this quite long review will motivate one or another to dig a little deeper into the writings of this Englishman or has helped to understand a bit the purpose of Ulver behind certain concepts and stylistic variations they used for this album.
(*1)This book is really recommended to all German speakers, as it comes bi-lingual (left page English, right page German) and has a lot of William Blake's writings in it. Of around 500 pages, fifty are a discussion of his works. Further, the texts are well structured and the design of the pages is excellent. Really value for money here.
(*2)From Oxford University Press comes this neat little book. It can be separated into three segments; first the text itself, then the plates and finally a discussion of both of them by Sir Geoffrey Keynes. It gives a good overview over how the prints and the texts work together and what the intentions behind them were. It is rather short in length though and also the descriptions and explanations are not exceedingly long, but this book is good for starters.
For further reading on Blake:
The Illuminated Blake: William Blake's Complete Illuminated Works with a Plate-By-Plate Commentary (0-486-27234-6) (*3)
The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (0-520-25637-9) (*4)
(*3)Compared to (*1), here a more in-depth look on the art and writing by William Blake is provided.