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Ulver - Messe I.X - VI.X - 98%

Avestriel, September 2nd, 2013

As time goes by one loses the ability to be surprised. This has often more to do with the fact that things in general tend to be less surprising as time goes by, technology evolves and ideas become immediately stale as soon as they come out of the oven and less to do with the oft forgotten fact that, as brains decay, functions such as the release of hormones and neuron syntax take toll. Not only that, but the more information and experience you gather from a particular field, in this case music, the less likely you are to be surprised by a musical work. Again, often a lack of response is well earned, but it's not rare to succumb to the automatic deconstruction, dissection and classification of all new experiences based on older ones.

What a lousy introduction to a musical review.

Moving on, I'd like to tell you a short story about musical vanguards of the first half of the XXth century. Namely I'd like to mention, if only just for the record, the Futurist adventures into the realm of mechanic noise by the likes of Luigi Russolo, the electric adventures of Pierre Schaeffer and his Musique Concrète, where electrically produced sounds and textures mingle with more Academia-approved instrumentation, not unlike the acosumatic orchestras for amplifiers and microphones, and the emergent world of electronic music, by the hand of Stockhausen and Varèse alike. I'm chiefly talking about their common explorations of both the borders of the role electricity plays in music and how to go beyond them, and the borders between music, non-music and noise, and how to blur them. What are you going on about, you verbose lunatic?

Enter Ulver.

These might not be the most complex, most daring and challenging compositions; neither the "classical" bits nor the electronic bits are especially of note, from a technical point of view. A few violins play mournful and elongated melodies while cellos and contra-bass serve as both a guide and a support, and you've got yourself a dandy, accessible yet refined piece of contemporary classical (or academical) music. It's a formula that's been with us since, at the very least, the advent of Godspeed You Black Emperors. The electrical components of the music are perhaps of more interest, if a bit unsurprising if you're familiar with either Ulver's electronic forays since 1999 or that of some of the bigger names in Krautrock-derived electronic music (such as Manuel Göttsching) and the more successful (artistically speaking) Industrial acts such as Coil and Throbbing Gristle. These two sides of this coin result in a contemporary response (or reflex, even) to the base ideas those musical movements I mentioned earlier were trying to put to trial and did with historic success. Their influence, or rather, the influence of their ideas, made ripples that are still being felt today. This is called a segue.

So, you might be a bit confused now, and I understand your confusion. On the one hand I'm ranking this album rather high, but on the other I'm implying this album amounts to little more than a response to old vanguards. Well, you see, many people have, since the late 60's and especially in the 90's and 00's, either tried to recreate or simply continue the great ideas those men of vanguard had, to varied degrees of success. I would usually accuse them of being lazy revivalists or even worse, pretending to be pioneering something that had a name and a theory before they were even born. That is not the case in this particular department. Academic music does not evolve at the same rate than popular music, and the reason, more often than not, is technology, and the limitations of those who use it.

I cannot imagine what works like Mixtur (Stockhausen), Suite Pour 14 Instruments (Schaeffer) or even Risveglio Di Una Città (Russolo) would sound like, had they been composed today, with today's mindblowingly advanced recording, sound-producing and sound-managing technology and techniques.

Ulver can.

If you've humoured me enough to read this far, feeling a distinct feeling of lack inside the little space in your head you were going to use to store the gist of a proper musical review, here's my best attempt at narrowing it down: The Tromsø guys do their very best to give Ulver's eerie and everchanging Elektronische/Concrète landscapes both a foundation upon which unfold and a structure through which raise and play, from which suckle and on which play and dance. And they managed like champs. Imagine Shadows Of The Sun processed through a polarised filter made of equal parts Svidd Neger and Perdition City and you might get a glimpse at this work. But there are surprises in the way. Things I don't think I can describe in simple words. Experiments that perhaps force me to give the band credit where credit is not actually due. I've no idea whether Mr. Rygg even knows about Pierre Henry or Bernard Parmegiani, but it sure feels like an attempted hello and a very subtle one-up from him. Either way, the music, as usual, speaks for itself. And even though I understand its language, for I have heard it before, I've never heard it expressed in such a refreshed, resourceful and more importantly personal fashion.

This album is a great example (even for today's cynical and overexperienced standards) of contemporary academic music mixed with the very edges of Ulver Brand post-industrial ambient. While not nearly as ambitious, complex nor encompassing as the attempts of their predecessors (all the weird german, french and italian dudes I named throughout the review as if I was trying to impress someone), and definitely not as influential (this is not a "time shall tell" situation, sadly), this work gets a shining golden star from me because it is the image that the mirror of Today offers to those often frustrating albeit always awe-inspiring first steps towards contemporary experimental music, and Ulver are, in my mind, the only ones who were able to take such challenge. They took the challenge of being Today's representation of explorations more than seventy years old, and they managed. Not only that, but they managed to also remain Ulver in the process. Tracks like Son Of Man and Noche Oscura Del Alma retain all the tense emotion and almost cleric impetus of vintage Ulver, while, as a whole, the compositions are a strong response, a loud and clear answer to the call of yesteryear's vanguards: We Are Still Able.