A largely boring, redundant and flat-footed approximation of a largely dead art.
Ulver started out as one of the most striking black metal bands of the mid-‘90s but have since been driven by a searching and experimental approach that firmly distances them from their initial brethren. Their first three albums, Bergtatt, Kveldssanger, and the classic Nattens Madrigal weren’t strictly black metal. They had a wider breadth to them and a sonic beauty that previously had only been touched upon in small doses by bands like Emperor on In the Nightside Eclipse. After those first three records, Ulver expanded their instrumentation, becoming more spacious and experimental in their succeeding albums, which include an adaptation of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a one-off (but stellar) collaboration with drone titans Sunn O))). Early last year, Ulver released ATGCLVLSSCAP, a curious and intermittently impactful synth-driven record that incorporated ambient passages, krautrock textures, and anthemic vocals. The album was culled from multi-tracked live recordings that were edited later in the studio. Even in some of the more tedious stretches (the album is over 80 minutes in length), it was still a dynamic and explorative released. You had the sense that Ulver was actively discovering the music in the process of making it.
Ulver’s new album The Assassination of Julius Caesar takes a lot of the same texture of ATGCLVLSSCAP, but puts it in service of moody (read: gothy) synth-pop that calls back to the Human League and Depeche Mode. The overwhelming mood of the album is apocalyptic, with lyrics regularly depicting tragedy either in the past, present, or fictive–reference points include the death of Princess Diana, the tumultuous year of 1969 and Oedipus. It’s certainly Ulver’s most dance-oriented album and overtly crowd-pleasing album, with each song making an attempt at four-on-the-floor stomp and each vocal (whether in the verses or the choruses) goes for a simple, anthemic delivery that’s made to have the audience sing along at shows. While the changes here are intriguing – and one cannot really fault Ulver for actively trying to explore new edges of their sound – The Assassination of Julius Caesar reveals that the band’s ambition outstrips their expression. What results is not a creative breath of fresh air, but rather a largely boring, redundant and flat-footed approximation of a largely dead art.
In the past, Ulver has proven to be a richly innovative band, able to juxtapose multiple genres at once to create a richer, singular whole. But here, they merely remind you of music that was done before and better. The singing is largely anonymous, warm in its multi-tracking and lacking any kind of dimension or distinctive quality. The same goes for the melodies, which grow to be repetitive, using similar phrasing far too often song to song. The tempos too are largely leaden. While the band works up to a moving climax on a few songs, like the standout “Rolling Stone,” the grooves here are reminiscent of the maligned dalliances that other bands have made in similar territory. (Compared to this, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor feels like the real deal.) By the end of The Assassination of Julius Caesar, you’ll probably find one song to really enjoy (probably “Angelus Novus”) and then seven others you’d like to forget. You might have to dust off Nattens Madrigal to remember that this band is capable of great work.