Using the word “incomparable” to describe a band is something that has become all too commonplace. Such are the multi-layered inferences behind the attribution of such a term to an artist that it is one of the few adjectives of its type that really does have to be used sparingly to have any true meaning.
Norwegian collective Ulver are one of the few bands out there deserving of this hyperbolic term. Formed in 1993, their early material blended the first wave black metal of their homeland with folk influences, something which has been copied by legions of bands ever since. By the latter years of the decade, however, the group had already moved far away from their metal origins. From 1998’s Themes from William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ onward Ulver’s music became a nigh-on indescribable melting pot of ideas. From ambient to classical to krautrock to trip hop, Ulver have incorporated elements of everything that has influenced them over recent years. In the process they have not only become incomparable, but also a leading light of the modern avant-garde.
Thus we come to their latest effort, recorded by commission from and in collaboration the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, Messe I.X - VI.X. Unsurprisingly, given the orchestral involvement, this is the closest Ulver have come to creating proper classical music, and it sounds like they were born for it. The electronics of recent albums are still present, humming and buzzing gently beneath the surface, and there are sections when frontman Kristoffer ‘Garm’ Rygg adds vocals to proceedings, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this is as far from metal as even Ulver have ever been before.
Opener ‘As Syrians Pour in, Lebanon Grapples with Ghosts of a Bloody Past’ makes this clear from the outset. A hugely atmospheric piece that conjures up something of the darker excursions of Iceland’s Johann Johannsson, this is one track that would be completely unrecognisable to even the staunchest Ulver fan were they unaware of its origins. That is not, however, to say that this is a record rejecting Ulver’s compositional approach entirely. The subtleties in their music have always been marvels to behold and, throughout the duration of Messe, it is these subtleties that further emphasise the genius of its creators. Take the saxophone that appears late in ‘As Syrians Pour in...’ as a perfect example.
What becomes increasingly apparent as Messe goes on is that Ulver are not just unafraid of leaping into the unknown, they thrive and indeed rely on it. What has allowed this band to last twenty years is their unfailing determination not to rest on their laurels. Even at their most recognisable here (‘Son of Man’, in which Garm provides some typically philosophical vocals), Ulver are utterly unconcerned with pandering to either fans or critics, or indeed their own most natural musical instincts.
As ‘Mother of Mercy’ sees the album fade out in a haze of impenetrable dust one is left none the wiser as to Ulver’s next roll of the dice. This is a band that, in Messe, have not only created a stirringly brilliant example of the continuing power of imaginatively deployed classical instrumentation in the twenty-first century, but also a handbook to all the artists out there finding themselves devoid of inspiration. For it is by exploring every avenue open to and of interest to them that Ulver have survived twenty years, and one can only hope that there are many more paths down which these wolves may travel far into the future...