For Fans Of
Some bands are complacent to write, record and release music that simply sounds like themselves. We’ve seen glaring examples of this with the most recent albums from All That Remains and New Found Glory, to name but two. This repetition of sound and songwriting ideas isn’t a cardinal sin, but it can breed over reliance and safe expectations from listeners, and the intention behind the most egregious cases can be best described with the age-old axiom: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix”. But in some instances, I think this should instead read, “If it’s selling well and we don’t give much of a fuck anymore, don’t change and don’t do anything differently”.
Okay, so my version of that phrase isn’t as elegant as the original, but you get my point.
However, some very successful bands aim for a more dramatic style and aesthetic shift with each new record, more or less keeping fans and critics on their toes.
Linkin Park is a great example of this. The nu-metal world beater of ‘Hybrid Theory’ is a far cry from the less heavy, almost-experimental sound of 2010’s ‘A Thousand Suns’, which was different to the alternative rock approach of 2014’s ‘The Hunting Party’, which is further stylistically removed from the upcoming pop offering, ‘One More Light’. Another fitting this description – to a somewhat less extreme – is Coldplay. The bright, cheery and overtly poppy records such as 2011’s career highlight ‘Mylo Xyloto’ and 2016’s middle of the road ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ are not in the softer, moodier, atmospheric vein that the touching and beautiful ‘Ghost Stories’ existed within. Also, neither of those three albums are in the same ballpark as the art-rock piece that was 2008’s chart-cracking, ‘Viva La Vida or Death And All Of His Friends’. (Also, shut up, Coldplay are sick). And for a much lesser known example, Irish musician Miracle Of Sound, AKA Gavin Dunne, has made a pretty solid career of tackling a wide array of genres and sounds for his video-game themed music.
But light years away from video game inspirations, Linkin Park‘s discography, that equally loved and loathed English group, and the arena of mainstream airwaves is the experimental collective, Ulver. Since 1993, Norway’s Ulver has made it their mission to work within a different musical framework for each new record; an inescapable facet of their career that every article, interview, review (yes, this one too) about the group will mention at some point or another.
Over their eclectic 24 year career, Ulver have navigated the waters of folk-inspired black metal with their first three albums, to creating minimal, mournful avant-garde with 2007’s unsettling ‘Shadows Of The Sun’, to instrumental drone with 2014’s ‘Terrestrials‘, and even ambient/post-rock soundscapes on last year’s ‘ATGCLVLSSCAP’. In keeping with this career running trend of sonic reinvention and of releasing new material that’s more or less unlike their previous work(s), April saw the release of their new album, ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar’.
Much like The Black Queen’s brilliant ‘Fever Daydream‘, this new eight-track epic is a dynamic, dark yet engrossing 80’s-sounding new wave synth-pop journey; a sound that was perhaps an inevitable eventuality considering the sound of prior records ‘Perdition City‘, ‘Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Helland‘ and ‘Messe I . X – VI . X‘. Taking into consideration their long and varied release history, this switch up in genre and sound is not at all that surprising. Yet what is surprising is just how fucking good Ulver are at this musical chairs approach to genres and how potently and effortlessly they pull each style off.
For while their output shows great musical shifts, the actual quality of their records doesn’t lessen, ensuring that Ulver’s discography is as diverse as it is solid. And goddamn, is Ulver’s 13th record just a brilliant album!
‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar‘ evokes a darker, more captivating take on artists like Tears For Fears, New Order, or Depeche Mode in terms of genre, timbre, instrumentation, atmosphere, and execution. The simplistic yet suitably rigid drum machine beats coupled with surging, wobbly bass lines anchor the dark, soothing vocals of band leader/producer Kristoffer Rygg, the group’s vast instrumental array of experimental sounds, the widely panned electronic noises and well-timed effects, and the heavy washes of ambient, 80’s-like synth pads.
Basically, this record sounds and acts like the stunning soundtrack to a slick art-house film that sadly doesn’t exist; perhaps not unlike the “interior film” referenced on the front cover of their fifth album, ‘Perdition City‘.
Musically, this release is immersive and surreal – helped greatly by the tight production and mix – but what’s also amazing here is that many of these songs could be huge radio hits. I mean, they won’t, but Ulver constructs melodic hooks so well within a potent yet nostalgic new-wave sound that some songs here could easily climb international charts. But moving past my own wishful thinking and the actual music to the deeper themes on offer, this record’s eight compositions eerily yet effectively fold modern religion and faith over ancient Roman/pagan mythos.
After all, the record is titled ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar‘.
Opener ‘Nemoralia‘, is named after a Roman festival that in part honoured the goddess of the moon, Diana, whom the song also references at one point. Distinctive lyrics like “As good Christians illuminate the garden/Human candles Burning under roman skies“, “Nero lights up the night/18th to 19th of July, AD 64” or “When Colossus falls/Rome shall fall” from the album’s third song ‘So Falls The World‘ only drives this thematic point home even further.
Very occasionally do the lyrics take on Cedric Bixler-Zavala levels of cryptic (album closer ‘Coming Home‘ exemplifies this best, I feel) but if they’re not ambiguous or overly “heady”, then they’re just simply bleak. A fine example of this bleakness is the chorus of the nine-minute album highlight ‘Rolling Stone‘ with, “Poor little sister, I hope you understand/the babe in the woods will be taken by wolves” – a line that I just cannot tear from my head! This track is one of the potential “radio hits” I mentioned earlier, and many reading may think it’d be an overblown slog at nine minutes long, right? No! Rather, it’s a catchy, superbly flowing tune that leaves you yearning for more of its infectious chorus and sweetly, dark undertones. Yet that catchy, pop-nature is just the middle meat of this delicious pie; the two-minute intro is a snowballing build-up of the various instrumental elements found later on the track, whereas the two-minute outro is a cacophonous hurricane of glitchy electronics and chip-tune-like sounds crashing into and around another.
Penultimate cut, ‘1969‘ tackles the darker events and art of the 1960’s. Ulver do this by lyrically referencing Roman Polanski’s occultist-themed film, Rosemary’s Baby; Charles Manson and that nutjob’s “family”/cult with a mid-song vocal harmony of “Helter Skelter“; and the song’s final lyric – “There used to be a house/At 6114 California St” – alluding to the Church Of Satan, which was overseen by The Satanic Bible author and all-around occultist, Anton LaVey. (Fun fact: that address isn’t recognised by the city of San Francisco anymore and a beige condo now sits over that once dark, charcoal house’s sitting). This song’s reverberating 80’s pop atmosphere and warm, sparkling synth lines subvert the song’s actual meaning, and the darker allusions to what was without a doubt, a dark yet culturally significant era of modern human history.
Sonically, ‘Angelus Novus‘ is an emotionally powerful offering that could be the score to one’s own heavenly ascension and a strong standout for this grand record. The lyrical inspiration of Paul Klee’s The Angel Of History and the band’s paraphrasing of that work’s following interpretation from German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin morphs this song into a gloomy take on the depressing, cyclical nature of human history. (Those of you paying attention at home might notice how this sounds awfully familiar to a song that we just discussed).
Now, my personal favourite here is the sixth track, ‘Transverberation‘ – another potential “radio hit” – which echoes the expertly crafted pulsating, electro-atmospherics that a younger yet nonetheless talented act like Health do so goddamn well. Yet considering the clueful lyrics – “I have been staggering/Ever since the shot in Rome/On Wednesday, May 13th, 1981” – the song discusses a crisis of faith and search for divine love, as it lyrically alludes to the ‘religious ecstasy’ of both Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and literally mentions the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II that occurred on – yep, that’s right – May 13th, 1981.
The list of human errors, historical tragedies, allusions to Roman mythos, and a melancholic world outlook just goes on and on. Yet it is these added emotions, historical layers and religious/mythological allegories that draw one further into Ulver’s latest and greatest work. And the beauty is that if you take it at face value, you have a well-produced, danceable, hook-laden darkwave synth record that’s great by both 2017 and 1987 standards. Digging deeper below the surface, however, you’ll find an immersive record of literary and cultural references that bolsters this near 40-minute listen to being all the better.
Wrapping up here, labelling ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar‘ as Ulver’s best work yet is like comparing say, Lodz’s ‘Time Doesn’t Heal Anything‘ to that of Lorde’s ‘Melodrama‘, which would be downright idiotic; it’s comparing apples and oranges. For this particular record separates itself from a large chunk of Ulver’s discography, so much so that it’s incomparable to the rest, as each record fits different criteria for their respective genres. As is most likely to be the case with the band’s next record.
Although, if I personally had to pick a standout, then yes – ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar‘ is Ulver’s finest work to date, one I find very hard to fault, and one that is an essential record for 2017.
Whether you or not you come to love or hate it or merely feel indifference towards it, please, please listen to ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar’. As I only want for as many ears to hear this record as possible!
For some, ‘pop’ – in any sense – can be a downright dirty word and a thoughtcrime to elitists within many heavy music circles, but Ulver’s latest record is the very soap that will wash clean that distaste from your mouth and prove what heights such music can achieve when it’s done right.
2. Rolling Stone
3. So Falls The World
4. Southern Gothic
5. Angelus Novus
8. Coming Home
‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar’ is out now via House Of Mythology. And it’s fucking fantastic! I now look forward to Ulver’s next country, grime, grindcore, or pop-punk record come 2018 or 2019.