By Craig Haze
It all begins at the end of one man’s life. He hangs on the noose, lit by a single spotlight as a viscous clot of blood gradually oozes from his mouth. Misshapen, deformed and attired in archaic garments he dangles, suspended in death, as dark ambient shamans Ulver are hidden below him on a blacked-out stage.
A piano plays a fragile lament while rumbling effects and growling samples ebb and flow. And a song that is one man’s coda becomes redefined as a sunrise is projected upon the screen behind the band, and Kristoffer Rygg steps up to the microphone to begin “EOS”. Thus begins Ulver: The Norwegian National Opera, the mesmerizing and stunning beautiful live DVD release from Norway’s masters of avant-garde and enigmatic electronica.
Ulver of course know a few things about redefining expectations. At one stage they were a celebrated black metal band, but in the late ’90s they dispensed with the traditional accoutrements of black metal and morphed into an entirely different beast. Traces of their metal past remain fixed in their DNA, especially in their desolate iciness and forever-questioning aesthetic, but for many years now the band has been releasing acclaimed works that blend progressive electronica and glacial neo-classical treatments with shimmering, hypnotic rock.
Aside from one show in 1993, Ulver had always been a studio-based outfit. But in 2009 the band was lured onto the stage for Norway’s Festival of Literature, which in turn led to them play a series of sold-out shows in some of Europe’s most renowned venues throughout 2010. Ulver: The Norwegian National Opera was recorded in Oslo at the end of that touring cycle, not long before the band went into the studio to record 2011’s highly rated Wars of the Roses album. Captured by 6 HD cameras, the show features guest appearances by electronics guru Christian Fennesz and performance artist Ian Johnstone (who plays the aforementioned role of the late Mr. Ark Todd, and look out for his inscrutable resurrection to end the show on an enigmatic note).
The DVD features material from throughout Ulver’s electronic and experimental years, with tracks from the Perdition City, Svidd Neger, Blood Inside and Shadows of the Sun albums, and the Silence Teaches You How to Sing and A Quick Fix of Melancholy EPs. It’s best to think of the DVD in terms of an all-encompassing experience. Breaking the show down into constituent parts defeats its purpose entirely. I could obviously explain to you how the band’s performances of “For the Love of God”, “Funebre” or “Let the Children Go” play out in regard to the overall set, but there’s a clue on the DVD menu to remind you that plucking fragments from the show is inadvisable—there’s no ‘play all’ choice here, just one word: witness. That, more than any of the words I’m about to type, sums the DVD up perfectly.
Spectacular visual accompaniments are projected on a mammoth screen behind the band. Ulver’s set is built atop waves of oscillating and juxtaposing currents, and as the rhythmic pulse shifts the imagery evolves. Varying images of mankind’s atrocities, nature’s majesty and preternatural mystery mimic the cadence of the show perfectly. The vast array of metaphoric, allegorical or representative imagery bolsters or offers a stark counterpoint to the tracks, and as the show progresses it becomes impossible to separate the visual from the musical.
That’s not to suggest that taken in isolation the music is somehow lacking, it’s not, and a CD release of the soundtrack alone would be incredible. The vintage synths, creeping effects, droning guitar, dulcet vocals, piano and percussion that Ulver wield all fuse into a singularly mesmeric force. The set-list has obviously been assembled with a cinematic vision (perhaps operatic is more apt), and the music alone sets you on a path where the idea of stepping off is unfeasible. For 90-plus minutes the band unhurriedly manipulates and tweaks their sound. With many songs bleeding into one another, Ulver constructs a show that takes you on a skillfully paced, sweeping and euphonious voyage—where the pitch and sway, the crescendos and hypnotic undercurrents, guide you through a raft of emotive states.
I had high expectations for Ulver: The Norwegian National Opera and I was not, for one second, anything less than enthralled. Expertly edited by Erlend Gjertsen, and mixed by the band at their own Crystal Canyon Studios in Oslo, the entire package is pristinely rendered, and is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the ears. Ulver have always been a prime example of the transformative beauty of artists dedicated to producing work that is innovative and imaginative. And galvanized and inspired by celestial, terrestrial and otherworldly endeavors, Ulver: The Norwegian National Opera is a firm reminder of the transfixing (and yes, even transcendental) power of authentically progressive music. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.