[Photo copyright Ingrid Aas 2018]
Last week Ulver played their first ever shows in the U.S. at New York’s Irving Plaza. The set on night one was entirely comprised of songs from the band’s wonderful last two releases, the electro-synth-poppy The Assassination of Julius Caesar full length and accompanying Sic Transit Gloria Mundi EP. The concert featured every track from those two releases, in fact, straight down to the cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love.” The extra danceable “Rolling Stone” and super harrowing “So Falls the World” were particularly great highlights. The band sounded amazing, the light show was perfect, and all in all it was a pretty great night.
But this isn’t a live review. I didn’t snap any (good) pictures. I didn’t talk to the band before or take notes.
Ulver, as you may have heard, began their career as part of Norway’s infamous second wave of black metal alongside the likes of Darkthrone, Emperor, and Mayhem. Ulver, as you also may have heard, has not played a single lick of metal since their avant-garde double album Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell way back in 1998. It’s been a while. Ulver is not a Heavy Metal Band. The only person in the current lineup that played on Bergtatt is frontman Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg, he of the golden voice.
All of this is public knowledge. No one goes to see Ulver in 2019 expecting to hear a song from Nattens Madrigal. Or do they?
A pretty big slice of the crowd was metalheads adorned in all their metal threads. No one was dancing with glow sticks, and very few people seemed to be dancing whatsoever. As a gangly 6-foot-6-inch giraffe, I have a pretty good view of the crowd, and this crowd, which was pretty loud and appreciative between songs, was largely stationary during them. Stationary for just about the most danceable music any of them will ever hear live (to be fair, one person was… headbanging). This is an impeccable band with an impeccable sound. These are irresistible melodies sang over thick, thick beats, but most of the people in attendance were just standing and staring as if they were watching an opening band, not seeing a legendary act finally making a stateside appearance after 25 years. And before you say something like “don’t tell people how to have fun,” know that this isn’t meant to judge or shame, but merely point out the apparent puzzle of it all. It just didn’t feel like the party it should have been, at least not in terms of crowd movement, or rather, the lack thereof.
Were these metal fans really holding out hope that they’d hear something from The Trilogie? Are most of them not really into later Ulver, and merely showed up to pay tribute to a band that helped usher in one of the most creative scenes in metal history? Do they actually love The Assassination of Julius Caesar but are too ashamed of their awful dance moves to shake things a little? Are their minds not freed enough to allow their asses to follow?
These are all perfectly valid questions, and frankly I don’t have many concrete answers. One possible explanation is the difference between how music is consumed and spread in America relative to Europe. Compared to their stature on this side of the pond, Ulver is fairly famous in Europe. They have won or been nominated for various awards and their last four albums have charted in at least one European country each, sure signs that folks overseas are getting into the band through their later material and show up to Ulver concerts to hear those songs.
In the U.S., however, Ulver still seems relegated to “that band that used to play black metal” status. And sure, I likely only know their music because they used to be a metal band, but their evolution and continued brilliance is what keeps them from being just a band from the Norwegian black metal scene; Blood Inside is just as important to me as Bergtatt, for example.
Have the machinations of the American music industry, along with Ulver’s “heavy metal ghettoization,” kept them from attaining a wider audience here? Are there even that many American Ulver fans that got into the band through the majority of their music, as opposed to the stuff they made when Rygg was a kid? More questions without clear answers, but scanning the crowd led me to think “yes” and “some, but not many.” Perhaps songs from Perdition City aren’t showing up in folks’ Massive Attack stations on Pandora; perhaps the same is true of the newest material and Depeche Mode stations. This would be a damn shame, because it’s robbing people of a lot of great music. Someone, somewhere, ought to get fired over this.
There’s also a good chance that Ulver, critical darlings that they are, attracted a large number of “industry” people to the show; industry people that are far more familiar with the name than the music, there merely to live tweet it or prepare words on the event (he says, while typing words on the event). But industry people can’t fill out a whole venue, and I can’t imagine that every “career writer” type has gotten so far up their own self-promoting asses that they forgot how to enjoy great music when it’s right in front of them.
Lastly, I can’t help thinking of what the band thought of all this. Finally playing the U.S. after all these years should have been treated as a bit of a victory lap for them, no matter the current state of this nation. Long starving Ulver fans deserved the chance to finally see the band. But when they did, the atmosphere wasn’t exactly celebratory. It was just… a little odd.
Still, from a purely musical standpoint this was a pretty special night. I hope that the slightly weird crowd dynamic (a sellout crowd, by the way) doesn’t stop Ulver from making more trips to the states. I can’t imagine missing a single chance to catch the wolves again.