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An otherworldly black metal masterpiece - 93%

Woolie_Wool, July 26th, 2008

I will start off by saying that I am not really much of a black metal fan, nor have I been for at least a year, ever since I started gravitating towards more complex, riff-oriented forms of metal, and extremity for extremity's sake lost its appeal to me. Once you join the Church of Riffs and appreciate thrash, USPM, and other more traditional forms of metal, black metal appears formulaic, unimaginative, and above all, boring, at least in its unadulterated state, and especially minimalist abominations like Transilvanian Hunger, an album so dreary it could be a Satanic lullaby, and the related genres of norsecore blasturbation (see Marduk and 1349) and "bedroom" black metal bands whose guitars sound like synths and whose synths should be banned by international law as forms of torture. Sure, you have the thrashy riffcraft of Mayhem, the layered "maximalism" of Emperor, and bands that depart the black metal genre altogether and become things completely new and strange (see Arcturus), the genre as a whole is fairly creatively barren, and the farther one strays from the original early '90s Norwegian scene, the lower the quality gets.

If Marduk and Blut Aus Nord are the unfortunate reality of what black metal has become, Ulver's debut album Bergtatt is definitely what it should have become. Grafting on elements of traditional heavy metal and folk music, it has the lonely, dreamy atmosphere that made black metal special to begin with, but strips away the "minimalist" incompetence, bad production (be it the "necro" fuzz of a myspace band or the lifeless, sterile overproduction of a 1349 or Dimmu Borgir album), and the so-called "evil" that is actually nowhere near as scary as, say, "Darkness Descends". There is no pretension in this, no corpse-painted teenager twisting knobs to see how "necro" he can make the mix sound, but a sense of honesty and inspiration that makes this album truly a work of art.

The clumsily titled Bergtatt - Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler (Taken into the Mountain - A Fairy Tale in Five Chapters) is certainly not the heaviest thing ever recorded. The guitar tone is pretty much all midrange with little bass, the bass guitar is warm and bright, and the drums are relatively laid-back even during blastbeats. This works to Bergtatt's advantage, as it perfectly captures the lonely, desolate "wilderness" atmosphere that so many black metal albums strive for but few attain. It's not a headbanging record nor is it "evil" at all (it is, as the title suggests, a black metal fairy tale), but rather it is simultaneously relaxing and engrossing to listen to, sucking the listener into its own world, where the myths and fears of ancient man come alive.

The production is just about perfect, clear but very atmospheric, and resembling more than anything a well-worn vinyl record from the 1970s. All of the instruments, even the bass, come through clearly but retain very natural, organic tones. The soundstage is distant and slightly muffled, and with enough reverb to get a worn, old-fashioned sound without being muddy. It's not overly aggressive, nor is it intended to be. The overall mood is of pensive contemplation, not fury, and the album is best enjoyed alone.

The structure, too, is pretty much unique. While the opener ("I Troldskog Faren Vild") and closer ("Ind I Fjeldkamrene") make great songs in their own right, as a whole Bergtatt is the ideal concept album, a continuous musical narrative with the natural flow and suspenseful pacing of a good novel. "Progressive" is a label that could certainly be applied to it, as it has the sort of linear, advancing structure of 1970s prog rock epics, but it maintains its cohesion despite the endless procession of different riffs and sections, gradually ratcheting up the intensity as it goes along.

Of course, for an album like this, you need musicians who know what they're doing, and the members of Ulver are definitely up to the challenge. Guitarists Haavard and Aismal display serious talent with their precisely played riffs, occasional leads, and surprisingly intricate acoustic playing in the more folk-oriented parts. Skoll is quite active on the bass, often playing counterpoint melodies against the guitar riffs or injecting harmonies wherever needed, and he is easily discernible in the mix. Aiwarkiar is a truly excellent drummer with a lot more tricks up his sleeve than just blastbeats. His fills and grooves are very technical at times, and he seamlessly swaps between a vast array of ordinary beats, double bass, blastbeats, and cascading snare and tom rolls. However, Ulver mastermind Garm himself is the most immediately impressive talent, with a very emotive clean vocal style reminiscent of Gregorian chants, and a vicious, gritty black metal shriek that never wears out or loses control. His range isn't that great and the shy chant-like clean vocals would sound weak and misplaced on say, an Iron Maiden clone, but here they fit seamlessly into the Ulver sound.

Ulver puts its best foot forward with opener "I Troldskog Faren Vild", and to this day I haven't heard anything else quite like it. It has plenty of that misty atmosphere but the techniques and stylings are pretty much straight heavy metal, with clean vocals and riff-based guitar work from start to finish. The riffs are numerous, and all of them are quite melodic and very good. Perhaps the guitar solos are perhaps too restrained, being pretty much elaborations on the underlying riffs instead of displays of virtuosity, but they do the job well enough and the song never gets boring even after almost eight minutes. This is a fairly gentle, melodic exposition to ease the listener into the story, with a sort of "wandering" feel evoking the little girl lost in the woods referenced by the lyrics. There is no rigid structure here at all, but a natural development and progression from the opening drum roll to the ending fadeout.

Black metal is introduced with "Soelen Gaaer Bag Aase Need", with a tremolo riff shattering a calm acoustic pattern to represent the danger the girl is suddenly in as night falls and the trolls come out for the hunt. This track and the following "Graablick Blev Hun Vaer" sort of meld into one long musical unit, with the tension steadily increasing and the blastbeats-and-tremolo sections becoming more and more dominant as the trolls begin to close in on their prey. There's a sense of urgency, a continuous escalation of danger as the night becomes ever darker and hope of escaping the forests becomes ever more remote. The second half of "Graablick Blev Hun Vaer" features the sound of running footsteps after the music fades away, as if the trolls have finally discovered the young protagonist and she must flee for her life. A crazed, swirling piano rides above the soundscape before the black metal returns at an even faster and more frantic pace. Serpentine, harmonic bass lines undulate beneath the mournful guitars and bloodcurdling screams of Garm, with no folk or traditional-metal segments forthcoming to relax the tension, indicating that the adventure has now taken a turn for the worse.

The eerie "Een Stemme Locker" is entirely acoustic, soft but sinister, as the trolls trap the young girl under their spell and take her to their mountain home. The acoustic folk is far more ominous now, as hope fades away and the evil magic of ancient myth seems to become more and more overwhelming.

An incredibly mournful tremolo riff and a wordless scream open the final chapter, "Ind I Fjeldkamrene". No hope of rescue or survival is left, and even the occasional acoustic moments are loaded with grief and sorrow. The trolls have the girl now, and begin to turn her to stone. The heavy metal segments of "I Troldskog Faren Vild" return, only far more chilling, as we learn that there will be no happy ending in this fairy tale. The guitars on this song are truly amazing, the riffs dripping with emotion, the terror and misery of hell on earth coming through with every note and chord. Iron Maiden-like harmonies appear, but instead of being uplifting and anthemic, they play heart-crushing minor chords that are reminiscent of wailing mourners at a funeral. The opening riff returns to the accompaniment of acoustic guitar and slowly fades away as the acoustic guitars come to the forefront. All is lost, the young girl is gone, and the story is ending. A bittersweet, delicate acoustic melody plays to the sound of rain, as the magic and myth fade away, and the listener is once again in the real world, enchanted, shaken, and maybe even enlightened by his glimpse of the harsh yet fantastic things that still lie outside of human civilization and in the subconscious depths of even modern man's mind, and the thought that there still may yet be slivers of that primordial danger and wonder in this mundane 21st-century world. But should we seek it out, or remember the fate of that young girl and remain secure in our comfortable, everyday existence? Bergtatt leaves that decision to the listener.

At about 35 minutes, Bergtatt feels just the right length, telling all that it set out to tell but not wasting a moment in doing so. Some people wish it were longer, but that would probably ruin the pacing of the whole thing, for to see Bergtatt as a set of five songs is to do it a great disservice--the album is a single work of art that transcends mere entertainment to lay bare the ancient shadows of the human psyche. And in this sort of evocative, intimate fantasy, it finds black metal's proper place in the metal world. If epic power metal fantasy is the equivalent of a heroic ancient saga recited in a royal court, Bergtatt calls to mind the grizzled elder of the medieval village, sitting with his grandchildren besides a fire and telling them the folklore and stories of his own childhood. It's like no other metal recording before it and probably no metal recording since, a slice of the dark reality that lay under the gleaming veneer of medieval "high fantasy", where people died young and children who wandered too far from home were claimed not by the trolls, but by the freezing cold and the prowling wolves and bears.

In short, this is a musical monument, a one-of-a-kind treasure that should be sought out by metalheads of all stripes. Listen to it on a lonely afternoon or evening, and let its magic sink in and take hold, and it will be a truly amazing experience. It's too bad that Ulver never made anything of this quality since, transitioning to dull folk/classical, then stereotypical "necro" black metal, and then awful electronic music. What could have been if this had become the black metal template rather than A Blaze in the Northern Sky? One can only imagine, but it wouldn't have been the black metal that became the genre of choice for people who lack the talent or skill to play anything else.