Here’s the basic paint-by-numbers approach to too many Ulver reviews, in case you’d like to play along at home:
Step 1: Open with something along the lines of, “If you can say one thing about Ulver, it’s that you have to always expect the unexpected! Wowie!”
Step 2: Follow that up with something like, “So, it’s not really metal, but it’s still good, honest!”
Step 3: Flail around for appropriate adjectives and qualifiers and generally make a lot of noise, like a giraffe trying to eat an ear of corn.
Step 4: Kick back, relax, and wait for the accolades to come a-pouring in.
So yes, obviously Ulver’s music has been through a fair few stylistic changes. Yes, it makes sense that, following the first two records on Head Not Found, and then the impossibly raw and beautifully ferocious Nattens Madrigal on major metal label Century Media, Ulver would have realized the artistic appeal and business necessity of forming its own label – Jester Records – to release its increasingly difficult-to-categorize albums. All of this is true, but it’s also all a bit of a cop-out, the reason being that there remains a quality in Ulver’s music that has basically nothing to do with what the music sounds like, but a hell of a lot more to do with how the music sounds like itself. After years of – so the story goes – relentless experimentation and musical mutation, the only really important thing about Ulver, the true Ulver-ness of Ulver, is the band’s self-assurance. More than anything else, this is music that seems to know what it’s doing every step of the way. Confronted with such matter-of-fact self-knowledge, the listener can only stand back and marvel at the band’s meticulously crafted edifice. Still, I’m not quite ready to say it’s okay for a review of a new Ulver album to consist solely of “This is music by Ulver” (the true deus ex machina of a singular band), so let’s have a closer look.
As should be painfully clear, Ulver hasn’t made any out-and-out metal records since 1997. Ever since Themes from William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, everything seems to have been parallel attempts to chart the fallout from an exploded dark metal. The only comparisons that make sense are so loose as to be almost meaningless, but you might think about the last few Anathema records, the chamber drone of Sunn O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions, or perhaps Manes’s How The World Came To An End. Wars Of The Roses doesn’t sound anything like those albums, but you might say there’s a similar relationship at play between the early orthodoxy and late experimentalism of all the aforementioned bands. Wars Of The Roses is not quite as immediate as the gloriously rich melancholy of Shadows Of The Sun or the mesmerizing programming-overload of Blood Inside (the latter of which can make a serious claim to being the band’s best post-1997 album). Still, it doesn’t take long for these deceptive hooks to announce themselves, and the band’s sharp attention to detail means that return listens reveal layer upon beautiful layer of sonic nuance.
The only way to characterize the album, really, is as a mélange of experimental dark rock tunes. Songs are crammed full with all sorts of elaborate instrumentation and programming – violin, clarinets, bowed guitar, etc. – but never end up feeling overloaded. I’m kind of a cheesy asshole, and am therefore always a sucker for a good key change like the one we get in “February MMX,” following one of these beautiful ascending synth whirs. I don’t know where these sounds come from, but I want to go to that place. Meanwhile, the lyrics are simple and perfectly evocative, as on “Island,” where Kristoffer Rygg sings, “We came here to be washed away.” The song’s lengthy coda is in some ways better than the meat of the song itself, all spooky ambient drones and nautical creaking, and would be a perfect soundtrack to Umberto Eco’s “The Island of the Day Before,” wherein the narrator is shipwrecked but stranded alone on a seafaring ship and begins to suspect the hidden presence of another person. Close your eyes, there, and feel the distance, both a salve and a curse.
“September IV” begins all soft rock, with church organ-esque keys and smooth, almost sitar-like tones. It isn’t until about halfway through that the tune gets the Blood Inside treatment: increasingly jittery programming, melodic deconstruction, and a spooky organ-and-tambourine breakdown. “Providence” is flat-out gorgeous throughout its eight minutes, featuring the almost gospel delivery of guest vocalist Siri Stranger’s deep, honeyed tone. The song features some muted yet screaming electric guitar in the background over flailing clarinet licks, while Attila Csihar provides his most understated didgeridoo impression toward the end of the piece as violin and piano weave a haunting melodic landscape. Rygg’s wonderfully smooth baritone provides a constant thread throughout an album chock-full of diverse sounds and songs. His straightforward delivery helps the lyrical imagery of “England,” which calls to mind the similarly aloof view of patriotism so evocatively explored on PJ Harvey’s magnificent Let England Shake.
Despite the rich and ethereal landscapes sketched by these songs, the heart of Wars Of The Roses is clearly the fifteen-minute closer “Stone Angels,” which circles around the recitation of a 1997 poem by American poet Keith Waldrop. Thankfully, the musical backdrop is so artfully composed that, even if one is disinclined to follow along with the words being spoken, the affecting sounds provide just as much narrative movement and poetic depth. The piece touches on a number of styles, from ambient to minimalism to drone to avant-garde chamber music. These particular ears pick up frequencies sympathetic to Rachel’s, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Stars Of The Lid, Max Richter, Tim Hecker, and even, at times, the quietest, sparsest moments of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
Nevertheless, to ignore the spoken poetry would be to rob this song of most of its depth. The poem’s title gives notice that the poem is a meditation on the angelic grave markers at Swan Point Cemetery in Rhode Island, angels as “[s]tatements, yes – but what they stand for is long fallen.” The narrator wanders the cemetery, comparing our earthly forms with those stone figures: “Our time is a river, theirs the glassy sea.” Following these words, a clattering drum kit steps in from across a fog-shrouded field to lead a celestial choir on a heavenward march. The words move perfectly: “The worst death, worse than death, would be to die, leaving nothing unfinished.” “Stone Angels” is a stunningly lovely tapestry of warm sounds and haunting phrases which build a dwelling but eventually dissipate, leaving only the stark nakedness of the human voice as the album closes.
Ulver is a special entity, and its music has driven writers far saner and more temperate than I into such flights of wild rhetorical fancy. While gathering my thoughts for this review, I kept debating the best metaphor to describe these Norwegians, and I think I’m finally down to two equally apt labels. So, the open question: are the men of Ulver architects, drawing the blueprints for impossible buildings, all shimmering windows and triumphal columns, and then patiently breathing life into the geometry? Or, are they mapmakers, feeling the pulse of the warm earth, plotting the distance and shape of strange lands, speaking with pictures the language of the eyes? Whether shapers of substance from drafts of pure thought, or bringers of order to a shapeless world that must remain so disordered no matter how slightly more understood, I just don’t know, and maybe it’s not mine to know. The worst death, worse than death, would be to die, leaving nothi