(Andy Synn prepared this review of the new album by Ulver, which is released today.)
Have you ever wondered if Ulver’s career thus far might in fact be some elaborate joke that none of the rest of us understands? That the band have been engaged in one grand, meta-musical experiment for the last 15-20 years, seeing just how far they can take things, and how far they can push their audience outside of their usual comfort zone?
After all, frontman Kristoffer Rygg has been known to go by the pseudonym “Trickster G”, and the band even had their own label called “Jester Records” at one point, so it’s not like they haven’t given us more than a few hints along the way.
So what if it really is all just a game, a long-con, and we’re just not able to see it?
Would it really matter?
Of course I’m not suggesting that this is actually the case. It’s merely a hypothetical thought-experiment on my part, and I don’t doubt for a second that the Ulver collective – Rygg, Ylwizaker, Sværen, O’Sullivan… and the rest – truly mean everything they say and do.
There’s simply too much thought, too much care and contemplation, put into every aspect of their sound for things to be otherwise.
But the question of intent and interpretation – what an artist means versus what the audience perceives – remains an interesting, and pertinent, one. Particularly when you consider that the band’s latest album is, by some margin, their most shamelessly poppy and instantly infectious effort yet.
Whether it’s the sublime Depeche Mode-isms of “Nemoralia” or the dreamlike shimmer of “So Falls The World”, The Assassination of Julius Caesar wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, all earnest, retro-futurist electro-pop pomp and nonchalant New Wave insouciance combined with the traditionally unique and unorthodox Ulver aesthetic.
And whereas both the band’s previous efforts (Messe I.X-VI.X and ATGCLVLSSCAP) featured very little in the way of vocals, here they’re front and centre throughout, driving (yet not dominating) tracks like the meditative “Angelus Novus” and the Duran Duran-esque “Southern Gothic” in suitably scintillating style.
This is no mere throwaway collection of insipid, interchangeable, pop jingles however (nor is it, truth be told, the band’s first flirtation with mainstream-friendly melody), as the album’s gleaming, glossy exterior conceals a deep well of intricate, insidious weirdness all the same.
“Rolling Stone”, for example, is built around a sexy, silky-smooth, R & B style groove that could potentially make it a major radio hit… if not for the fact that it’s over nine minutes long, and its main vocal hook revolves around the idea of abandoned children being “taken by wolves”… while the pulsing beats and kaleidoscopic synths of “Transverberation” could just as easily make an appearance on the next Kanye West or Daft Punk records if you stripped away Kristoffer Rygg’s strangely seductive croon.
Speaking of… Rygg’s always evocative, occasionally unsettling, lyrics help to ensure that …Assassination… never strays all the way into vacuous chart-chaser territory, referencing everything from ancient Roman torch festivals (“Nemoralia”) to the Black House of Anton LaVey (“1969”), and by the time the doomy trip-hop vibes of “Coming Home” start to worm their way under your skin – with Rygg’s artful use of abstract imagery and purposefully staccato delivery implying an almost stream-of-consciousness approach – you’ll probably find yourself itching for another go-around on the band’s latest musical joyride.
Regardless of its radio-friendly appeal, and despite its flagrant (yet subtly subversive) accessibility, The Assassination of Julius Caesar finds Ulver making music just as eclectic, and as immersive, as ever, pursuing their new direction – pop-stars for the avant-garde – with the same passion and conviction they displayed back in their Black Metal days.
But please, if this is all one big joke… don’t ever tell me the punchline.