(Here’s Andy Synn‘s review of the new album by Ulver, which they released two days ago)
A long time ago, in the distant land of Norway, a band was born.
Their name was Ulver, and though they made their start (and their mark) in the Black Metal scene it was clear very early on that they were a little different from their brothers.
No one at the time, of course, could have predicted the weird and wonderful places that their career would take them, but one thing has always been certain about the band’s music… no matter what they turn their minds towards it always results in something fascinating taking shape.
And it’s this endless fascination with their work – always compelling, sometimes frustrating, yet never quite what it seems to be – which keeps us here at NCS listening to and writing about Ulver regardless of how far their sound has strayed from our usual remit.
As long as they keep making music which inspires us to write about it, we’re going to keep doing so.
In case people have forgotten, prior to the release of their provocatively poppy (and highly acclaimed) 2017 album, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Ulver had spent several years exploring and expanding upon the possibilities inherent in live/improvisational recording, with both their 2013 and 2016 albums (Messe I.X-VI.X and ATGCLVLSSCAP), and their 2014 collaboration with Sunn O))) (Terrestrials), being built around a series of live recordings of several semi-improvisational pieces, which were then taken back to the studio to be reworked, remixed, and reborn as something new.
As a result, while it may be technically and tonally very different from its immediate predecessor, the fact that the four tracks which make up Drone Activity signal a return to this unorthodox style of composition and creation shouldn’t necessarily come as a huge shock, even if the band have arguably embraced the “live” aspect of this process even more this time around.
Just to be clear though, the term “live” in this context doesn’t mean what you might think it means.
There’s no chattering crowd noise or between-song banter for example – there’s no vocals at all, in fact –and no real sense that the music, as presented here, was written or performed for an audience as much as it was written and performed purely for its own sake.
But that “live” sensibility, that live-wire spontaneity, still comes through in the way in which each track is allowed to move and develop at its own pace, sometimes following a clear path, sometimes forsaking it altogether, as the band dive down into the depths of their own shared headspace.
There’s also a sense, true or not, that the sounds which make up Drone Activity have undergone far less post-production processing than the band’s previous live/studio hybrids, which adds an intriguing (and paradoxical) organic rawness to what is, ultimately, an album made up entirely of artificial, electronic sounds.
But, enough of the preamble, what about the specific songs themselves, I hear you ask?
Well, for one thing, calling them “songs” doesn’t seem quite right, as each piece is more of a free-form moodscape that rarely, if ever, adheres to the traits and tropes of traditional song structure, nor do they invite easy analysis as such.
But there are certain things that can be said – such as how opener “True North” is characterised by a sensation of slow, descending movement and steadily increasing density and pressure – which might help illuminate the overall purpose and personality of the album as a whole.
There’s a sense of fragile equilibrium, that of an object temporarily at rest, to the pulsing tones and flickering, phosphorescent sounds of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, which perhaps aims to capture the simultaneous sensory deprivation and overload of hanging, motionless and weightless, in a vast and seemingly infinite void, where there is no direction, no up or down, and no time but the endless now.
And yet this sense of stasis, this sense of being suspended between the moments, is itself a subtle lie, and it’s only late in the track’s extensive run-time that you start to realise you’ve been moving all along, drifting on currents you can neither see nor feel but whose effects you cannot resist.
The opening of bars of “Blood, Fire, Wood, Diamonds”, by comparison, are perhaps the darkest and bleakest on the entire record, and signify the band reaching the deepest part of their journey, a place where no life lives and no light penetrates.
But, as the track develops, as your eyes (and your ears) begin to adjust, you start to perceive the shapes of things around you, until what you first thought was an empty nothingness reveals itself to be overflowing with a spectrum of synesthetic sights and sounds.
And while this may all come across as artfully abstract (and probably extremely pretentious) to some of you, it’s perhaps a perfect description for the album as a whole, in that the longer you look at (and listen to) it, the more you start to see and hear.
Closing with the hypnotic strains of “Exodus”, a track which, depending on your perspective, is either about rising from the depths OR delving deeper into them… either way it’s an escape… Drone Activity leaves behind the impression that the listener has just witnessed a singular snapshot of something special, captured like a camera flash, and forever frozen in time.
It’s an album that blurs the line between what is and isn’t “live” even further, providing a permanent record of something uniquely impermanent, that nonetheless makes you feel like you were “there”… even as it refuses to tell you exactly where “there” is.