An ever-changing monolith
Sometimes you are called upon to destroy your past. Many an artist has found this to be a necessary exercise as they move forward through their long careers. Something has to be done to keep things fresh, even if that means killing everything that made you famous.Some artists are better at this than others. Some actually reinvent themselves so often that it’s shocking when they continue working in the same genre for more than the span of a single album. Lately, that group has come to include Ulver.
Once a staple in the Scandinavian metal scene, Ulver has taken it upon themselves to constantly assemble and disassemble sounds that no one would ever have thought they’d be playing with. In 2017, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi saw them experimenting with electronic, and the follow-up album Assassination of Julius Caesar extended that into lovingly crafted, ‘80s goth electronic in the vein of bands like New Order and The Cure.
Their latest record Drone Activity yet again sees a massive shift in genre and sound, this time trading moody crooning for noisy drones befitting someone like Prurient. In some regards, this is actually a much more understandable move than ‘80s goth or electronic. Drone, at least recent drone, has its roots close to metal, and a number of drone and doom metal bands have cropped up over the past 30 or so years, including titans like Sleep, Boris, Monolord and Sunn O))).
But of course, it would be foolish to expect Ulver to take Drone Activity in the direction one thought they might. Instead of crippling guitars and anvil heavy amps, they tend more toward the ominous side, calling to mind groups like Haxan Cloak and Prurient instead of the aforementioned metal groups. The opening track “True North” is a monstrous construction that clocks in at just over sixteen minutes. Low, humming tones and a driving cinematic direction force a creeping sense of dread into the listener, as though they’re waiting to be caught doing something wrong, or being hunted by something inhuman.
Luckily for those who aren’t fans of pure drone, this album contains far more driving force than your standard experimental record. “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” is as colossal as its title suggests, but there is enough going on in the 21-minute run time that it remains easy to get lost. This holds especially true for “Blood, Fire, Woods, Diamonds,” which is the most intense track on the record. Its driving drums often push it to the edges of what could reasonably be called drone. Only the final track, “Exodus,” flits near the ambient spectrum and serves as a fitting comedown from the howling darkness of its predecessors.
It’s not easy to change yourself on a whim. There are patterns and shapes built into every fiber of your being. The members of Ulver must be the same, but if they are, they never show it. Each record they release is carefully calculated to shatter expectations and push their ambitions further. In all cases, they overcome any obstacles that may be in front of them and come through with solid gold. Drone Activity is no different.