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The Assassination of Julius Caesar - 85%

Twin_guitar_attack, June 20th, 2017

Ulver may translate to Wolves, but when it comes to this Norwegian group perhaps a better name would be Kameloner, meaning chameleons. Since their black metal beginnings on their first album Bergtatt in 1995 they’ve embraced a wide variety of genres including folk, ambient, trip-hop, chamber music, industrial, electronica, drone with their collaboration Terrestrials with Sunn O))), and one could go on. But they’re not a band that’s gone with whatever the flavour of the month is or jumping onto bandwagons, they’ve been the ones pushing the boundaries and with every style they metamorphose into they don’t put a foot wrong – whatever sort of music they make a foray into the results are practically perfect. The only thing that’s a given with a new Ulver release is that they always remain experimental, and (usually but not always) centered around Garm’s warm and enigmatic vocal style. After two releases last year with the electronica of ATGCLVLSSCAP and celtic tinged soundtrack Riverside, they’re back with their fifteenth album The Assassination of Julius Caesar and even with the history of these ever changing wolves they’ve still managed to surprise in a big way once again.

When Nemoralia opens with it’s dub-electronica it’s not too big of a surprise considering electronic is a genre they’ve embraced on a few albums in the past. But when the modulated synths come in with the unusually melodic but always gorgeous (there is just no other way to describe them) vocals from Garm, it’s clear that this is the most accessible Ulver have ever gone – they’ve released what can be best defined as a synthpop album, which is something you wouldn’t even have expected from a band like Ulver. The chorus with the soft “oohs”, and overlapping vocals along with the electronic drumbeat and moody synths is completely brilliant though, with one of the best productions I’ve ever heard, and each instrument and vocal line sounding gorgeous. That chorus has you grinning with both disbelief that Ulver have gone from being usually experimental and out there to music that’s this accessible, and because it’s just so goddamn fantastic. The moody relaxed atmosphere of Nemoralia is a great opener setting the tone of the album before it moves into the nine and half minute Rolling Stone where funky electronic music combines with jazzy saxophone before going full on EDM in the verse, with Garm’s vocals higher pitched and clean, with soulful female backing vocals in a brilliant chorus. There’s so much to listen to hear and all so well produced it’s a treat for the ears, from the ambient synths, jazzy saxophone, electronic beats, percussion and vocals that all gel together brilliantly that shows Ulver sounding both accessible and madly eclectic all at once. Because while it has a lot of more popular music elements to the sound, there’s so much going on musically, not to mention the vague lyrics and the last few minutes of psychedelic electronic experimentation at the end of it’s length that it’s one of the most genius pieces of music of the year.

So Falls the World is slightly more familiar territory for Ulver, Garm singing with his signature warm vocals against piano and much more understated electronics and bright synths, and just when you think you’re back with normal Ulver it suddenly breaks down into another over-the-top EDM section. 1969, is one of the most straight-forward tracks Ulver have ever written with it’s synth and percussion laden backing track is perfectly laid back synth-pop and a platform for more gorgeous vocals from Garm with lots of overdubs and some occasional sugary sweet female backing vocals that even conjure up a few Cocteau Twins-esque moments. The closer Coming Home is maybe a bit overlong in that its moody opening is at odds with the sound on the rest of the album, and it’s only towards the end that the psychedelic instrumental jam of electronics and saxophone come in that it really reaches its stride, but it’s the only real complaint to make across the album.

Overall The Assassination of Julius Caesar is probably the most unusual album Ulver have ever done, if only in that it’s the most normal and accessible release they’ve ever done – a sentence which could only make sense to those who are already familiar with the band’s continual shape-shifting and evolving through the years. Its synthpop based sound is really accessible and easy to listen to, and its one of the best production jobs I’ve ever heard – but it’s still got lots of experimental sections with long songs, esoteric lyrics, lots of layers of electronics and synths and unexpected shifts in tone – they’re not close to the level of churning out simple three minute pop songs. It’s one of the biggest surprises of the year at both how much they’ve changed their sound this time around, and how brilliant it is once again considering this massive departure. One can only wonder what on earth they’re going to do next, but if anything is for sure it’s to expect the unexpected.

originally written for

The Assassination of Julius Caesar - 90%

spadns, May 29th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, House of Mythology

If Ulver were one of the X Men characters, they'd easily be Mystique. Ever changing, always in a state of flux, and able to morph their identity with incredible ease. When we last left off, Ulver dropped that "Zodiac Album" with the unpronounceable title. Highly psychedelic, jammy, and meditative, if you know the band and what they're all about by now, you know there's only one thing you can ever expect next out of them: the unexpected.

And indeed, considering their previous effort, for Ulver The Assassination Of Julius Caesar is a pretty big curveball. Musically this album is about as far removed from the Zodiac Album as could possibly be. Instead of that sound, here listeners are treated to a bright, synth-driven pop type landscape, held up, unquestionably, by the absolutely amazing vocals of Kristoffer Rygg. Here you get what is no doubt one of Ulver's best Rygg-centric albums to date, and I don't mean "Rygg centric" like Shadows Of The Sun or Wars Of The Roses, albums where his vocal presence was there, but in a very hushed, whisper-like delivery. Here he is the commander of this ship, offering up a soaring delivery and epic lyrics that do indeed revolve around themes of Rome, the Caesars, and relating subjects. My, oh my, just give "Nemoralia" or "Southern Gothic" a listen and let it melt your heart. This is one of the very few guys out there I'd legitimately go gay for because of his voice.

An increased presence for Rygg's vocals inevitably means a lower presence for instrumentation, or, to put it better, that the instrumentation here isn't really as crazy and all over the place as it was on their previous effort. This may come as a downer for some who really enjoyed that Zodiac Album, but it's testament to the fact that Ulver have a seemingly infinite number of ways of changing their style and still making it work. The music here is often pretty simplistic and reminiscent of basic pop song structures, but somehow it still carries a distinct "Ulver flair" in the fact that it's still very hypnotizing, relaxing, and spiritually uplifting. This is the real joy of The Assassination, this feeling that Ulver did go for a more conventionalized musical style here, but that they still totally owned it and made it their own. And goddamn, does it work oh so deliciously. Just give "So Falls The World" a listen if you want to see what I mean.

On The Assassination Of Julius Caesar, it's really Rygg who carries the weight of the music with his vocals and drives everything to its destination with his forward momentum. But that's OK, it's perfectly fine, because with this approach, one really can't complain and say that it means Ulver are a band that can't make good music without Rygg's powerful vocals at the helm, as this simply isn't the case. All this album is is an alteration for Ulver, what the band are all about really, one that goes from the extended, jammy instrumentation they've recently been playing with into a more restrained, poppy instrumentation dominated by the beautiful pipes of Kristoffer Rygg. Is it better? Is it worse? You decide. All I know is that as a total effin' sucker for both synthwave and Rygg's vocals, this is hands down my favorite Ulver release in years, and one that could easily become my favorite period with a few more listens. Yes, it's seriously that good.

The terrified cry of "Et tu, Brute?" has never sounded this beautiful.


Brief History Vignettes feat. Garm - 80%

caspian, May 25th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, House of Mythology

This has no business being so catchy. Hearing about Ulver going all Tears For Fears-ish was a fairly terrifying idea to me in theory- I wasn't entirely sure if these guys can write a straight forward song all that well. Was having horrible visions of "80s pop, but really bad, with a whole lot of pretention added". Luckily Ulver have managed to check most (most) of their bigger flaws at the door and have came up with a pretty solid, if not life changing album.

Syrupy sweet production, simple and tightly written tunes, that's what makes things work here. EIther these guys spent a lot of time in the studio, or they spent their time extremely well. Layers upon layers of vocal overdubs- not subtle, but not too over the top. Synth tones for days, stellar drum tones... It's been a long time since I've heard such a well produced album.

The songs perhaps aren't quite to the mark of the luscious production but they're pretty good. I'm not a huge synthpop (?) expert, but it comes across as something like a less sardonic depeche mode, a gloomy but still super earnest Tears for Fears. Throughout, the songs tend to take a while to get going- drums and synths waking up, stretching, having a morning coffee before establishing the main theme of the song. Key changes in sometimes rather unexpected spots- yeah it's pretty poppy but most of the songs aren't straight 3:30 minute long tunes.

Any Ulver album requires a bit of rambling about what the vocals are doing. Like most Garm vocal performances, it can best be described as "really great BUT..". Really great- big vocal hooks in most of the tunes, and some occasional beguiling and interesting lyricism. Transverberation has a few divine moments where the lush, floating music fits the soaring vocals (and the spiritual ecstasy they describe) perfectly, while Rolling Stone (featuring some mean female guest vocals) and So Falls the World are appropriately grim and doomy- plenty of good moments. But, but but but there's some other moments where you just gotta wonder what he was thinking; the clunky lyrics about Princess Diana (ancient goddess of the moooon! oh piss off), or the "gem" of the chorus from 1969:

We all must carry
Rosemary's baby
Helter skelter

I mean dudes, we give Hetfield crap over the chorus in Hardwired, but at least it rhymes nicely.

But yeah look overall it's still a nice album. Minor quibbles about certain vocals aside, it's hard to find problems without being nitpicky. Just well done pop tunes with mostly great vocals and a delightful, synth heavy, well thought out sonic palette. You get the feeling that things could've been slightly better if Ulver had ditched any of their remaining experimental tendencies and went straight pop, as there's a few moments where another chorus, a more satisfying ending.. that sorta thing would've been nice. Anyway, worth buying. Here's hoping that they do a straight Bergtatt rip off next album just to really surprise everyone. Fingers crossed!