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Ulver: Flowers of Evil

When Ulver’s music video for “Russian Doll,” the lead single for their new record Flowers of Evil, showed a young woman dancing to the rhythmic, poppy music while sporting a Bergtatt album cover shirt, it felt like a gag on the truism that fans should never wear the merch of the band they happen to be seeing. For the group that recorded that burst of ferocious black metal can scarcely be called the same band that has arrived at their 12th record after traversing wildly divergent sonic pathways of electronica and drone. Certainly not the only (or even the first) black-metal group to find inspiration in the possibilities of electronics and dark ambient, Ulver nonetheless may be the only one to land an album like Flowers of Evil, their second in a row to pivot fully into the realm of late-‘80s synth-pop, although even this is a testament to the surprising fact of just how many pioneering Norwegian extreme metal acts have a soft spot for Depeche Mode.

Compared to its more thematically unified predecessor, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Flowers of Evil is a looser affair, albeit similarly founded in a generally bleak outlook as it considers contemporary life. The first line of opener “One Last Dance” ominously intones “We have seen the burden God has laid upon the human race/ All the oppression that has taken place under the sun.” Over gently percolating and building synths, frontman Kristoffer Rygg calmly sings in his best New Romantic croon, emotionally frigid even as the lyrics grow ever more paranoid as references are made to burning churches and “eternal war.” When the full beat kicks in, a staccato drum pattern underneath the kind of propulsive synth wave one naturally associates with neon-streaked ‘80s chase movies, the bouncy rhythm forms a contrast with the grim lyrics in a manner common to much of the best classic synth pop.

Rygg’s lyrical inspirations draw from a rich source of highbrow art inspirations. “Hour of the Wolf” takes its name from the Ingmar Bergman film and casts a goth-industrial field of crunchy guitar noise and clanging percussion that Bergman himself might have used for his brand of cinema had he come up in the British post-punk scene rather than postwar Sweden. “Apocalypse 1993” plunders Biblical references for an abstract account of the notorious ATF raid on the Branch-Davidian compound in Waco, namechecking Ezekiel 9, which concerns the prophet’s visions of idolaters being marked and slain by true believers on direct orders from God. Against an eerily upbeat, earworm pattern, Rygg asks “Who is this man they follow/ Into the eternal?” before playing archival audio of David Koresh himself as the rhythm turns into a stop-start lurch.

Elsewhere, Rygg explores unexpected emotional layers that detour from the pessimism that rules the record. “Nostalgia” gazes back on his youth in Norway, though where one might expect memories of a young metalhead sinking into the country’s nihilistic new generation of extremists, instead he cheerfully sings lines like “It was beautiful when we left/ The autumn leaves/ Brothers lying hung/ Forever young” as a rubbery bassline and sharp hi-hat send the track perilously close to mid-tempo disco. “Russian Doll,” inspired by Lukas Moodysson’s coming-of-age drama Lilja 4 Ever, is a synth pop song steeped in the Cold War anxiety of the genre that addresses growing up in the wake of said conflict. Though there is still danger to be had in adolescence (one refrain employs such unsettling imagery as “A dead man’s hand/ A smoking gun”), the track brims with hope.

If Flowers of Evil suffers in any respect, it’s less for any defects in the album itself than in the sense that have, for one of the few times in their career, stayed still. This is a group, after all, that could record a collaborative album of avant-garde drone with Sunn O))) only a few years before unleashing Julius Caesar. And with ‘80s retromania arguably at its peak, Ulver for once sound behind the times instead of completely outside them. Still, to hear Rygg and his collaborators so comfortable in this groove is often delightful, and it’s impossible to dismiss any album as staid that contains a song like “Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers,” which soars on brittle synths as Rygg sees a Blakean vision of ecstatic ruin containing “Swords, machine guns, flowers and peacock feathers.” That this phase of Ulver’s career feels like such a logical continuation is a testament to just how much Rygg has gathered under one band’s identity.

Stuck in a rare resting pattern, Norwegian shapeshifters Ulver offer up another slice of throwback synth pop as danceable as it is sinister.
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