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A difficult but rewarding musical journey - 90%

lukretion, September 15th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, House of Mythology

A new Ulver album is always cause of great excitement for me. I got hooked on the Norwegians’ shapeshifting music relatively late, in 2000 when they released their electronic masterpiece Perdition City. I have loved almost all of their albums since then, with very few exceptions (the angular Blood, the drone experiments of ATGCLVLSSCAP). But even those albums that I could not fully get into, I nevertheless listened to with interest and respect, because I consider Ulver to be true artists, who always try to say something new and genuine with their unpredictable musical style. Indeed, if there is one thing I learned from my twenty-year relation with the music of Ulver is to expect the unexpected from their releases, each new album an abrupt stylistic left-turn relative to the previous one. This of course contributes to the excitement of a new Ulver’s record, as I never quite know what musical direction they will take next. So what is the surprise this time, you ask?

Well, as band leader Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm) put it himself in an interview, this time the surprise is that there is no surprise! Flower of Evil follows closely in the footsteps of 2017’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar, continuing Ulver’s exploration with the worlds of synthpop and dark wave, in the vein of Depeche Mode or Clan of Xymox. The two albums also explore similar narratives, with song lyrics that are imbued with historical and artistic references (“Apocalypse 1993” is inspired by the law enforcement siege against the religious sect Branch Davidians, and “Lost Boy” by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; “Hour of the Wolf” references an Ingmar Bergman’s movie and “A Thousand Cuts” a Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movie).

However, there are also clear differences between the two albums. Julius Caesar was playful and self-indulgent, bursting with instrumental acrobatics that stretched the songs in unexpected directions. Flowers of Evil is much more restrained and focussed. Musical exploration and harmonic complexity are kept to a minimum this time. The arrangements are sparse and minimal, with each instrument only adding essential touches to contribute to the low-key atmosphere of the album. The song structure is kept simple and short, cutting down exploration and jams (the instrumental mini-coda of “Lost Boy” being a rare exception). There are also subtle differences in sound between the two albums. Julius Caesar had a very warm and vibrant sound, with swathes of lush synths placed at the forefront in the mix. Flowers of Evil is colder, darker and eerier – obsessive beats and bass lines and Rygg ’s morose vocals dominating the scene. A user on an online forum described Flowers of Evil as the “introverted young brother” of Julius Caesar, and I cannot think of a better way to express the comparison between the two albums.

These characteristics – minimalism, coldness, lifelessness – make Flowers of Evil an album that is not as instantly loveable as Julius Caesar was. It took me a while to fully get into the moody atmosphere of the album. However, once I did, I found that there is plenty to appreciate and cherish on this album. The sparse arrangements push Rygg’s vocals center stage, and he has never sounded better. His voice and tone are very special and he has a unique ability to craft vocal lines that are catchy, but at the same time sophisticated and dramatic. His croon gives the songs a sombre and melancholic mood that keeps drawing me back for more. Another major attraction of the album is the incredible level of detail and sophistication of the arrangements. Flowers of Evil is one of those albums that are best appreciated with headphones so that one can spot all its hidden contours and colors. Stian Westerhus’ guitar lines, for instance, are really minimalist, yet incredibly creative and effective (listen for example to the howls that Westerhus manages to pull from his guitar on “Lost Boy”, or the super-tasty leads on “A Thousand Cuts”). Eerie sound effects underscore the most dramatic vocal passages on “Russian Doll”, while subtle string arrangements add an end-of-the-world feel to the apocalyptic love story told on “A Thousand Cuts”. The album is literally a treasure-trove of hidden sounds and effects, and keeps revealing new layers with each listen.

Great merits for this go to the production by Martin “Youth” Glover (Killing Joke) and Michael Rendall (The Orb), which is superb: polished but organic and well-balanced, it gives the album a truly smooth and cohesive feel. Indeed, Flowers of Evil has a flow and consistency across its 8 tracks that make it feel much more like an album than Julius Caesar, whose musical palette was instead more heterogeneous and incorporated a broader variety of styles (psychedelia, gothic, industrial, trance). These influences surface also on Flowers of Evil (both “Lost Boy” and “Nostalgia” have a faint 60s/70s feel; subtle industrial touches appear on the gorgeous “Hour of the Wolf”), but in a much more understated way, without veering too far from the synthpop roots of the album.

The end result is an album that sound more assured and accomplished than The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Fans of the Wolves may be disappointed that the band this time did not take another left-turn to a new unexplored musical direction. I was taken aback too, initially. However, I am now glad that Ulver decided to hover just a little bit longer in the musical space that they first stumbled upon with their previous album. The special blend of gloomy synthpop that they offered on that album had time to mature in the 3 years between Julius Caesar and Flowers of Evil, and this clearly shows on the new album. However, Flowers of Evil is also less immediate and inviting than its predecessor, making it an album that is somewhat difficult to get into. Give it time, though, and it will reveal itself as an extremely deep and rewarding musical journey.

(Originally written for The Metal Observer)