Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ulver's MESSE I.X-VI.X

For two decades, the music of Ulver has both challenged and transfixed. The Norwegian group delves into thick layers of avant-garde that most casual listeners would not so easily commit to, but for those that do, the experience is rewarding. Their eclectic catalogue is not bound to genre – from folk and uncompromising raw black metal in their early days, to trip-hop, glitch, film score, and psychedelic rock in their more recent offerings. In my view, Ulver are not recording artists in the traditional sense, but artists who use sound as their medium, as a sculptor would use clay. Their latest album, MESSE I.X–VI.X, is an intimate and compelling recording that is indicative of the group’s continual maturity in its quality and scope of work. The record is haunting, contemplative, empathetic and consistent with Ulver’s previous albums in that solemnity is its constant. The Tromsø Chamber Orchestra commissioned the music on the album, and Ulver’s ability to seamlessly weave together orchestrational score with electronic soundscapes is what defines this record. 

The opening track, “As Syrians pour in, Lebanon grapples with ghosts of a bloody past,” is Ulver’s response to the war that has shaken the Levant region for some time now. When vocalist Kristoffer Rygg was asked about the significance of the song title in an interview, he conceded that “We live in troubled times,” and that Ulver has “no [political] ideology for sale. Only our sadness.” Sounds of vultures and gunfire echo under the droning low-end reverberations throughout the track while somber melodies build, giving rise to choiring hymns. The first movements of orchestration around the four-minute mark strike the listener with a haunting sharpness that is as evocative as it is beautiful. The music’s atmosphere conjured in my mind’s eye images of suffering suggested by the title – the shattered lives, the innocents, the lines of bodies in white shrouds, al-Houla – and yet the movements and elegant passages also bring compassion and resolve. 

The record flows impeccably into rhythmic electronic textures that bare some resemblance to Coil’s later work, albeit Ulver places greater emphasis on melody, and the marriage of organic and synthetic sound. The warm electronic passages, often accompanied by orchestra, dancing feedback and digital textures, soothe and rivet the ears. The use of percussion is sparse, but it boldly accentuates the ambiance when it is present. Vocals are heard for the first time halfway through the album on “Son of man” and they come in the form of a plea, seeking deliverance and solace. Ulver’s lyrical themes are almost always philosophical in nature, and in reflection of the sins of mankind, the destruction and sacrifice, Rygg wailingly delivers the line “What kind of choir of angels will receive us?” I wonder that question a lot to myself too. The crescendo of percussion, electronics and orchestra that follows is perhaps the most determined and hopeful moment throughout. The climax of the track is one of the highpoints of Ulver’s entire catalogue.

The subtlety of the quiet moments and their withdrawn undertones bridge together more complex arrangements, where noise and samples are sculpted in to a new tangible form, as masterfully heard in “Noche oscura del alma”. The album’s conclusion, “Mother of Mercy,” opens with a ballad, a similar plea, offering words that evoke images of old Jerusalem and the plight of Christ, giving way to a gradual finale, both melancholic and anxious over sounds of prayer and worship. Alas, we live in troubled times. Ulver has overcome and has ascended to a higher stage with MESSE I.X–VI.X. Masterful is the only word for it. The sounds are as elegant as they are morose, while the compositional soundscapes are erudite and innovative. The group has defied industry norms by cutting themselves free of intermediaries while producing and manufacturing the album themselves, and the sacrifices they’ve made for their art are highly appreciated by Ulver’s small but dedicated fan base. Ulver are both pioneers and wanderers of their genre, and one would hope that their catalogue would expand for a long time to come.

Click here to purchase a digital copy of MESSE I.X–VI.X from Ulver's webshop.

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.