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Album Review: Ulver - 'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar'

26 April 2017 | 7:09 pm | Alex Sievers
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Some bands are complacent to write, record and release music that simply sounds like themselves. We’ve seen glaring examples of this with the most recent albums from All That Remains and New Found Glory, to name but two. This repetition of sound and songwriting ideas isn't a cardinal sin, but it can breed over reliance and safe expectations from listeners, and the intention behind the most egregious cases can be best described with the age-old axiom: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix”. But in some instances, I think this should instead read, “If it’s selling well and we don’t give much of a fuck anymore, don’t change and don't do anything differently”.

Okay, so my version of that phrase isn’t as elegant as the original, but you get my point.

However, some very successful bands aim for a more dramatic style and aesthetic shift with each new record, more or less keeping fans and critics on their toes. Linkin Park is a great example of this. The nu-metal world beater of ‘Hybrid Theory’ is a far cry from the less heavy, almost-experimental sound of 2010’s ‘A Thousand Suns’, which was different to the alternative rock approach of 2014’s ‘The Hunting Party’, which is further stylistically removed from the upcoming pop offering, ‘One More Light’. Another fitting this description - to a somewhat less extreme - is Coldplay. The bright, cheery and overtly poppy records such as 2011's career highlight ‘Mylo Xyloto’ and 2016’s middle of the road ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ are not in the softer, moodier, atmospheric vein that the touching and beautiful ‘Ghost Stories’ existed within. Also, neither of those three albums are in the same ballpark as the art-rock piece that was 2008’s chart-cracking, ‘Viva La Vida or Death And All Of His Friends’. (Also, shut up, Coldplay are sick). And for a much lesser known example, Irish musician Miracle Of Sound, AKA Gavin Dunne, has made a pretty solid career of tackling a wide array of genres and sounds for his video-game themed music.

Light years away from video game inspirations, Linkin Park's discography, that equally loved and loathed English group, and the arena of mainstream airwaves is experimental collective, Ulver. Since 1993, Norway’s Ulver has made it their mission to work within a different musical framework for each new record; an inescapable facet of their career that every article, interview, review (yes, this one too) about them mentions at some point or another.

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Over their eclectic 24 year career, Ulver have navigated the waters of folk-inspired black metal with their first three albums, to creating minimal, mournful avant-garde with 2007’s unsettling ‘Shadows Of The Sun’; instrumental drone with 2014's 'Terrestrials'; and even ambient/post-rock soundscapes on last year's ‘ATGCLVLSSCAP’. In keeping with this career running trend of sonic reinvention and of releasing new material that’sunlike their previous work(s), this April saw the release of their newest album, ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar’.

[caption id="attachment_1091717" align="aligncenter" width="760"]OSLO 20170217 : ULVER promotion pictures. For upcoming album The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Ulver, 2017. A Norweigan band taking a black and white promo photo in the woods? No, never![/caption]

Much like The Black Queen's brilliant 'Fever Daydream' (2016), this new eight-track epic is a dynamic, dark yet engrossing 80's-sounding new wave synth-pop journey; a perhaps inevitable sonic eventuality considering the sound of prior records 'Perdition City', 'Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Helland' and 'Messe I . X - VI . X'. Taking into consideration their long and varied release history, this switch up in genre and sound is not surprising. What is surprising is just how fucking good Ulver are at this "musical chairs" approach to genres and how potently and effortlessly they pull each style off. For while their output shows great musical shifts, the actual quality of their records doesn't lessen, ensuring Ulver's discography is as diverse as it is solid. And goddamn, Ulver's 13th record is just brilliant!

'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar' evokes a darker, more captivating take on artists like Tears For Fears, New Order, or Depeche Mode in terms of timbre, instrumentation, atmosphere, and execution. The simplistic yet suitably rigid drum machine beats coupled with surging, wobbly bass lines anchor the dark, soothing vocals of band leader/producer Kristoffer Rygg. They also hold down the group's vast instrumental array of experimental sounds, the widely panned electronics, the well-timed effects, and the heavy washes of ambient, 80's synth pads. Basically, this record sounds like the stunning soundtrack to a slick art-house film that sadly doesn't exist; not unlike the "interior film" referenced on the front cover of 'Perdition City'.

Musically, this release is immersive and surreal, something that's helped greatly by the tight production and clean mix. Yet what's also amazing is that many of these songs could be huge radio hits. I mean, they won't be, but Ulver constructs melodic hooks so well within a potent yet nostalgic new-wave sound that some tracks here could easily climb the international charts. Moving past my own wishful thinking to the deeper themes on offer, this record's eight compositions eerily yet effectively fold modern religion and concepts of faith over ancient Roman/pagan mythos.

After all, the record is titled 'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar'.

[caption id="attachment_1091874" align="aligncenter" width="760"]Ulver 'Ulver' means 'wolves' in English. The more you know.[/caption]

Album opener 'Nemoralia', is named after a Roman festival that in part honoured the goddess of the moon, Diana, whom the song also lyrically references at one point. Distinctive lyrics like: "As good Christians illuminate the garden/Human candles Burning under Roman skies", "Nero lights up the night/18th to 19th of July, AD 64", and "When Colossus falls/Rome shall fall" from the album's third song 'So Falls The World' only drive these thematic point home even further.

Very occasionally do the lyrics take on At The Drive-In levels of cryptic (closer 'Coming Home' exemplifies this best) but if they're not ambiguous or "heady", then they're just simply bleak. A fine example of this gripping bleakness is the chorus of the nine-minute album highlight, 'Rolling Stone'. Lines like the refrain of "Poor little sister, I hope you understand/the babe in the woods will be taken by wolves" are macabre lyrics that I just cannot tear from my head!

This particular track is one of the potential "radio hits" mentioned earlier. Many reading may also think it's an overblown slog at nine minutes long, right? No! Rather, it's a catchy, superbly flowing tune that leaves you yearning for more of its infectious chorus and sweetly dark undertones. Yet that hooky, pop-nature is just the middle meat of this delicious pie; the song's two-minute intro is a snowballing build-up of the various instrumental elements found later on the track, whereas the two-minute outro is a cacophonous hurricane of glitchy electronics and chip-tune-like sounds crashing into and around another.

Penultimate cut, '1969' tackles the darker events and art of the 1960's. Ulver do this by lyrically referencing Roman Polanski's occultist-themed film, Rosemary's Baby; Charles Manson and that nutjob's "family"/cult with a mid-song vocal harmony of "Helter Skelter"; and the song's final lyric of "There used to be a house/At 6114 California St" alludes to the location of the Church Of Satan, overseen by The Satanic Bible author and occultist, Anton LaVey. (Fun fact: that address isn't recognised by the city of San Francisco anymore, with a beige condo now sitting over the once charcoal house). This song's reverberating 80's pop atmosphere and warm, sparkling synth lines subvert the song's actual meaning, and the darker allusions to what was without a doubt, a nerve-wracking yet culturally significant era of modern human history.

Sonically, 'Angelus Novus' is an emotionally powerful offering that could be the score to your own heavenly ascension - a strong standout for this grand record. The lyrical inspiration of Paul Klee's The Angel Of History and the band's paraphrasing of that work's following interpretation from German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin morphs this piece into a gloomy take on the ever-depressing cyclical nature of history. (Those paying attention will notice how this sounds awfully familiar to something I just discussed).

My personal favourite song here is the sixth track, 'Transverberation' - another potential "radio hit". It echoes the expertly crafted pulsating, electro-atmospherics that a younger yet nonetheless talented act like Health would do so goddamn well. Yet considering the clueful lyrics of "I have been staggering/Ever since the shots in Rome/On Wednesday, May 13th, 1981", the song really discusses a crisis of faith and one's search for divine love, as it lyrically mentions the 'religious ecstasy' of both Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. All the while literally talking about the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II that occurred on - yep, that's right - May 13th, 1981.

The list of human errors, historical tragedies, Roman mythos, and a melancholic world outlook just goes on and on. Yet it is these added emotions, historical layers and religious/mythological allegories that draw one even further into Ulver's latest and greatest work. The beauty here is that if you take it all at face value, you still have a well-produced, danceable, hook-laden darkwave synth record that's great by both 2017 and 1987 standards. Digging deeper below the surface, however, you'll find an immersive record of literary and cultural references that bolsters this near 40-minute listen to becoming all the better.

Wrapping up, labelling 'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar' as Ulver's best work is like comparing say, Lodz's 'Time Doesn't Heal Anything' to that of Lorde's 'Melodrama', which is downright idiotic; like comparing apples and oranges. For this particular record separates itself from a large chunk of Ulver's discography, so much so that it's incomparable to the rest, as each LP fits different criteria for their respective genre. As will most likely to be the case with the band's next record.

Although, if I personally had to pick a standout, then yes - 'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar' is Ulver's finest work to date; an essential record for 2017.

Whether you or not you come to love or hate it or merely feel indifference towards it, please, please listen to 'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar'. As I only want for as many ears to hear this record as possible! For some, 'pop' - in any sense - can be a downright dirty word and a thoughtcrime to elitists within many heavy music circles, but Ulver's latest record is the very soap that will wash clean that distaste from your mouth and prove what heights such music can achieve when it's done right.

1. Nemoralia

2. Rolling Stone

3. So Falls The World

4. Southern Gothic

5. Angelus Novus

6. Transverberation

7. 1969

8. Coming Home

'The Assassination Of Julius Caesar' is out now via House Of Mythology. And it's fucking fantastic! I now look forward to Ulver's next country, grime, grindcore, or pop-punk record come 2018 or 2019.