Retro Synthpop with an Avant Twist
At this point, few attempt to categorize the chameleonic Norwegian musical collective known as Ulver; such an endeavor would inevitably be rendered futile. The outfit have steadily evolved since their formative black metal years. With the release of Perdition City at the turn of the millennium, they seemed to have traded in heavy distortion for clean, delicate jazz tones. Of course, their music was no less eclectic than before, but this dramatic stylistic shift no less marked a rare and daring crossover for a band that had seemed to have found their niche. Throughout the following decades Ulver’s sound continued to haphazardly leap from one genre to another, refusing to ever settle on a single aesthetic. The only element that loosely joined the group’s extensive output was its experimental leanings, as even the more radio-friendly numbers were often atmospheric tracks with wayward harmonic progressions. The band’s latest release, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, puts even this connection to the test, as Ulver embrace a surprisingly accessible ’80s pop sound.
Of course, frontman Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg — the one constant in the band’s lineup — ensures that the new album is sprinkled with the same avant-garde flavors that have always typified Ulver’s music. In true experimental fashion,“Nemoralia”’s dark droning undertones prevent the listener from ever truly settling in and becoming comfortable, despite the song’s infectious beat. “Rolling Stone” culminates in a whirring noise crescendo, colored with dizzying arpeggiated synth figures and a cacophonous saxophone solo (performed by Hawkwind’s Nik Turner). Similarly, album closer, “Coming Home” offers another epic, discordant finale, featuring a smattering of ear-piercing synth tones.
Despite these subtle avant leanings, The Assassination is still a pop album — albeit one heavily shaped by retro sensibilities. Throughout all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, the emphasis remains on the beat and the vocals. The album pulses in common (i.e. 4/4) time exclusively, rarely straying off-beat. The vocals are equally accessible. Before it descends into dissonance, “Rolling Stone” is a highly groove-oriented track that also boasts pleasant male-female vocal harmonies during its chorus. “Angelus Novus” offers an even more compelling vocal line, as Garm exhibits his impressive ability to sustain a pitch during the refrain. The song’s highly melodic and relatively simple makeup is almost enough to even appease mainstream pop listeners. “1969” also sees Garm’s vocals elevated to the front of the mix, as listeners can distinctly make out his poetic, imagery-laced lyrics: “On the surface of the moon, let it bleed.” And, in the ultimate homage to the pop genre, “Southern Gothic” even boasts a vocal motif that repeats ad nauseam.
Yet The Assassination‘s sound is hardly an imitation of contemporary pop and its highly sterilized production aesthetic. Instead, Ulver pull more from the gritty, dark tones of ’80s gothic rock. “Nemoralia” boasts warbling vocals that sound eerily familiar to those of Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode). “So Falls the World”‘s deliberate pacing and emotionally rousing chorus are heightened by its ’80s-inspired instrumental backdrop of muted piano arpeggios and periodic synth stabs, all culminating in a slightly cheesy, unabashedly techno breakdown. “Transverberation” sees a funky drumbeat complemented by Garm’s new wave croon. Lastly, “Coming Home” throbs with the same industrial vigor as an early NIN track, its pounding bass drums adding a sense of rhythmic intensity. Simply put, this is synthpop through and through. Fortunately, Garm’s unwavering penchant for dense, raw sonic landscapes prevents the album from ever feeling overly sanitized — this is still an Ulver production after all.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar marks yet another genre-bending addition to the band’s catalog. While it is still somewhat experimental at times, offering delicious bits of sonic intrigue for noise aficionados, the album’s general aesthetic is firmly steeped in ’80s pop. Furthermore, Ulver ensure that their re-imagination of the genre is reflective yet original. Of course, this may disappoint casual listeners merely looking for a derivative, highly accessible take on ’80s music. But slightly more adventurous listeners — as well as longtime Ulver fans — will undoubtedly relish in the album’s unique yet familiar sound.