Ulver are not your grandfather’s lycanthropic rock band. They are something much more complex and . . . well, let them explain it, as they do so eloquently in the notes to their Metamorphosis EP from 1999: “Ulver is obviously not a black metal band and does not wish to be stigmatized as such. We acknowledge the relation of part I & III of the Trilogie (Bergtatt & Nattens Madrigal) to this culture, but stress that these endeavours were written as stepping stones rather than conclusions. We are proud of our former instincts, but wish to liken our association with said genre to that of the snake with Eve. An incentive to further frolic only. If this discourages you in any way, please have the courtesy to refrain from voicing superficial remarks regarding our music and/or personae. We are as unknown to you as we always were.”
1997’s Nattens Madrigal (or The Madrigal of the Night: Eight Hymnes to the Wolf in Man) was a savage lo-fi/bedroom/demo-quality slab of Norwegian hell-metal so intense that even Anthony Jr. of the Sopranos had a poster of its cover on his wall. (In their notes, Ulver don’t mention part two of their hallowed trilogy, Kveldsfanger, because it was obviously an all-acoustic set devoted to haunting choral-like vocal works and classical-style guitar and strings. Kind of like a Nonesuch ancient music sampler, but with Norwegian substituted for Latin and werewolves for Jesus.) So what was the devotee of the blasphemous blast-beat and worshiper in the house of the unholy that is black metal to think when he or she picked up Metamorphosis and played it in his or her tomb? The titles look promising. Even if the cover art is suspiciously futuristic. “Of Wolves and Vibrancy” and “Of Wolves and Withdrawal” sound about right. (Did I mention yet that “ulver” means “wolves”?) Until you put it on and find out it’s a techno album. And not just techno, but arty techno that could come from, ick, Belgium or something. Maybe those shitty-sounding, demo-craving, by-the-time-you’ve-put-an-album-out-on-an-actual-label-you’re-already-dead metal purists had been scared off by Ulver’s previous release Themes From William Blake’s the Marriage of Heaven and Hell and never even got as far as Metamorphosis. It’s been a while, and I’m still trying to figure out what Themes is. You could file it under spoken word, electronica, metal, pop, or art songs, and be right every time. It’s Ulverific!
A sporadic frozen stream of releases put out by head Wolfman Garm (a/k/a Kristoffer Garm Rygg, a/k/a Trickster G. Rex) on his Jester label has seen Ulver grow ever more minimal in their electro chill-out pursuits. Little and/or no vocals, repeating pulses, whispers, and washes of warm drone-tones reveal that at heart the wild canine is a shy and lonely beast. (Garm still gets his rock on from time to time, though. Check out his work with Norse prog-metal supergroup Arcturus on last year’s The Sham Mirrors. Boy, do those guys have fun! Are ya ready Steinar? Uh-huh. Hellhammer? Yeah. Knut? OK. All right fellas, let’s gooooo!!! On second thought, if you do check them out, don’t sue me. They are insanity par excellence. Out-there art-metal riffs played alongside what sounds like Ramsey Lewis banging away on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Futurama touches and power-metal flourishes just can’t hide the circus-carousel keyboards doing an imitation of Rick Wakeman doing an imitation of the intro to Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” Nor can they hide Garm, credited with “voices of ghosts and monkeys,” and his best capital-M-metal falsetto that may elicit an initial response of “Owww! Hey Lady!! Make the nice man stop with the singing and the screeching and the hurting . . . ” And that’s all before Ihsahn from Emperor adds his stately growl, and before the 10-minute closer that will have you tearing your hair out, clearing the room, and making your cat puke. It’s not even heavy. Just relentless and madcap. You feel as if you are being chased by ghosts, monkeys, and wolves. The lyrics say it all: “Police, police, police/please stop the euro/from binar bin Laden/IO paramount pan/IO paradox pan.” (God, I love that album.)
Ulver’s latest, Lyckantropen Themes, a soundtrack for a short film about, well, I’ll let you use your imagination, is truly a culmination and perfection of the techniques used on their previous album, Perdition City, and its companion EPs. (Be on the lookout for two new releases this year as well—including a remix album where Merzbow, Kid 606, and Third Eye Foundation make weird music even weirder.) An almost imperceptible forward motion and layering of sound reaches, if not heights, then a wholeness of intent where every element fits seamlessly into the next for the entire length of the disc. Instead of the white noise of their inception, Ulver now cover you with a white blanket of no-two-are-alike snowflakes and microchips. That is, if microchips were white. Some may cry “Wyndham Hill!” or “colonic irrigation waiting-room music!” upon hearing Lyckantropen Themes. And I say: whatever. Maybe my isoflavones need realigning. Plus, I know how long this wolf has run, and how much farther he has to go.