[Reviewed by stark]
Once upon a time, there was a revolution in Norway. A bunch of young men had turned the music world upside down with their black metal uprising. After a while some of them came to realize that it is quite a flexible genre, so they started merging it with different kinds of sounds. The symphonic faction is now dead and buried, a benefit to us all. Every once in a while someone tries to excavate these remains, but let’s be honest, the stench then becomes unbearable. Same thing goes for the so-called “avant-garde”, which compiled with the term “black metal” today seems like a bad joke. There are folk, industrial and drone influenced subgenres, the so-called DSBM and so on. All of these are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but almost always I have the feeling that the vast majority of these bands will not stand the test of time and in 20-30 years will be heard by but a few fans of old school, while the rest will treat them as a curiosity, or forget about them completely. Then there are these few bands which began with electronic experiments and eventually decided to abandon the genre frameworks and limitations. Bands like Manes or Dodheimsgard. And Ulver.
You know, I guess these first two collectives (don’t get me wrong, I like them very much) are now at the point where Ulver was almost 20 years ago with their William Blake double CD. It is not the matter of talent or vision, as these guys obviously are very good at what they do and have a huge music imagination and openmindness. I think it is because with all Manes and Dodheimsgard and a few others’ will to experiment, they’re still anchored to the black metal scene one way or another. I don’t know whether it’s subconscious attitude or not, but it’s as if they want to enter open waters, but not beyond the point where the safe black metal haven would vanish beyond the horizon as there’s always a home they can go back to.
Ulver has chosen the other way, to break the chains, move forward, not to look back. This line of horizon, it’s so tempting to see what is actually there. And it never vanishes, so the process is continuous. Where haven’t they been already, I wonder? Flirting with trip-hop, Coil-esque electronica, art rock, psychedelic or ambient, sometimes even jazz, neofolk or krautrock. The movie soundtracks, the collaborations with Sunn O))), on one hand, and the Norwegian orchestra on the other. No boundaries. “The Assassination Of Julius Caesar” again is a new approach, but paradoxically something that could be expected. Because generally speaking, it’s a pop album. The musicians themselves call it “pop” and there’s no coquetry from their side at all. Strongly rooted in the 80s, when this kind of music was a bit more ambitious, at least from our XXI century point of view, because as we all know everything is relative. The first song they shared with the world is “Nemoralia”, this is also the opening piece of the album and in my opinion the least interesting of the whole thing. Amusingly, it was out at more or less the same time as the latest Depeche Mode offering, and as I’ve already noticed around the web, the comparisions are inevitable. If you ask me though, “Nemoralia” – where this Depeche Mode spirit is possibly the strongest – is far more interesting than the last farts of these old… farts (pun intended). The Ulver sound is less cold and mechanical, the melody catches you immediately and it’s just the very beginning, later it’s simply hit after hit. Whether it’s “Rolling Stone”, an almost 10-minute long opus with cool melodies, mellow vocals and an insane finale, incredibly catchy “Transverberation” and “Southern Gothic” (might I hear some distant echoes of Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” here?). Or maybe “1969”, again with some David Bowie influences, this time manifesting in Garm’s singing manner, not to mention “Coming Home” with the crazy sax part sounding like the murmurs of an old alcoholic (kudos to Nik Turner of Hawkwind) – no it’s not a caustic remark.
So yeah, Depeche Mode is one of the points of reference, but also some Bowie, as I wrote in the previous paragraph. One may notice something similar to Talk Talk (they mention this name in the press release), while another would think of Duran Duran, Erasure or even some names I’m slightly ashamed to write. 80s are back and it makes me happy. To be honest if you’d ask me about that era 10 or 15 years ago, I’d answer that it’s a synonym of bad taste and cheesiness. But time did its job and even though in many aspects my opinion didn’t change, it also goes through the prism of nostalgia and it becomes easier for me to notice the valuable stuff created back in those days. Like some of the best new wave and synthpop songs and albums. There’s a lot of similar thinking fellows around, growing in the 80s, just think of this still quite groovy retrowave trend, with the projects like Perturbator or Carpenter Brut. And it seems also Garm and his collegaues think alike – for example if you’d take the vocals off “Transverberation”, they could use this song in the crowning of the “Hotline Miami” videogame trilogy. Seriously let someone contact them with Nicolas Winding Refn, because these songs would perfectly fit to some flashing and neonic scenes of his movies (under the condition that he’ll abandon his artsy-fartsy inclinations). Or Michael Mann if he’d have the will to refresh “Thief” or “Miami Vice” (the TV series, not the movie with Colin Farrell).
Remember one crucial thing though, it’s not a simple 80s tribute. It is all filtered through the imagination and technical possibilities of the second half of the second decade of XXI century. The sound is clear, strong and modern, thanks to Youth (Killing Joke), the electronic sequences are intricate and finessed and the whole album is saying loud and clear: “yeah, we like that era, but we’re here, we’re now, deal with it”. I do, I have no other option, guys. Not all of your albums from the last decade were to my liking, but this one really is a blast. Do what you want in the future, you have my total confidence. Nothing will surprise me, really, even if they’d record a pure black metal album. Like taking a full circle and coming back home. These are the useless divagations though, so screw them and let’s dance. And enjoy “The Assassination of Julius Caesar”.