The Lead Review: Tristan Bath On Ulver’s ATGCLVLSSCAP

Tristan Bath explores the life lessons to be learned from Ulver's sprawling new album: the never-ending fruitfulness of group improvisation, and the art of metamorphosis

With the exception of the late David Bowie, Ulver have to be the furthest wandering of music’s shapeshifters. The fallout of think pieces, playlists, and personal recollections in the wake of Bowie’s death brought into sharp focus, just how potent the man’s deftness for metamorphosis was. It’s revealed the depth how liberating these evolving personas were for Bowie’s music, unlocking a well documented pathway from hippie flower child to post punk in a matter of a few years. Ulver’s own two decade journey feels equally if not more stylistically varied and far-reaching than Bowie’s, even without the glittery articulation of makeup, haircuts, and a busy costume department. From the loose knit Norwegian collective’s beginnings in black metal, they’ve gone on to touch upon choral and chamber music, Nuggets-era West Coast psychedelia, cosmic drone, industrial music, glitchy soundscapes, woodland folk, even trip-hop (plus plenty more in between I’m sure), and the lingering spirits of them all seem somehow buried in the depths of ATGCLVLSSCAP‘s immense 80 minutes. The Ulver on display here have fully assimilated their vast array of former selves, and the result is twelve tracks of multifaceted jams packed with the kind of intensity and drama only an entity as thoroughly experienced and self-explored as Ulver could summon.

Originally made under the working title of 12, the twelve letters of ATGCLVLSSCAP purportedly represent the astrological star signs, and presumably the twelve gigs Ulver recorded in February 2014 for the album’s twelve tracks. The process by which the album was made collides the potentially jarring diametric opposites of spontaneous on-stage improvisation and lengthy meticulous amendment after the fact including some overdubbing and general ‘studio enhancement’. According to Kristoffer Rygg (Ulver’s de facto head honcho, and aka Garm) recording the live shows most definitely came from a dislike of the studio process. "At the end of any album process, I can’t wait to do something else," he explained. And the elimination of those invisible barriers in the performers minds seem to have yielded bountiful waves of energy and life, ready for injection directly into the music. It was already somewhat audible in the spontaneous encore of their Live at Roadburn release from 2013 (which was incidentally dedicated to the one and only Can). Resultantly, the band sound once again resolutely besotted with that spontaneous tug the hairs on the back of your neck get when things music spontaneously clicks into place. Only two things really unite ATGCLVLSSCAP‘s mix of influences: Ulver’s on-going partnership with nocturnal aesthetics, and the band’s audibly boosted levels of passion. Hell, Garm’s two vocal performances towards the tail end of the album easily rank as some of the most ardent, memorable, and downright heartbreaking in the group’s entire history.

That’s the thing about group improvisation; it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Musical co-conspirators push and pull each other in new territory directions, and the sparring teases extra energy from thin air. The ten minute ‘Cromagnosis’ sees the band head out over a marching beat anchored on a chest-banging bass line while echoing guitar lines and bongos spiral outwards like loosely nailed down fibreglass horses quivering on a malfunctioning merry-go-round. The groove is downright hypnotic and bloody repetitive – definitely deserving of the pre-requisite acknowledgements given to the krautrock bands, in particular Amon Düül II – but it shifts gear around two thirds of the way through. The guitars turn from flailing limbs into thrashing metallic jackhammers, and Ulver erupt their way through a godlike closing crescendo. It’s by no means an intensely original or revelatory bit of ensemble jamming, but ‘Cromagnosis’ works so damn well feeding on the verve of a group doing precisely what feels right. It’s always been Ulver’s speciality, but the hit of energy present on ATGCLVLSSCAP renders it their most consistently rewarding listen since as far back as 1997’s Nattens Madrigal.

The size and shape of these songs owe plenty to many. Opener ‘England’s Hidden’ amasses bowed guitars and crystalline keyboards, growing with contemplative patience learned from countless modern droners from Stars Of The Lid to Jesu. It melts seamlessly into the propulsive joy of ‘Glammer Hammers’ – a truly wonderful rework of ‘Glamour Box (Ostinati)’ from Messe I.X-VI.X – which manages to wind a path from an almost Cure-style guitar instrumental to post-metal histrionics. The way ‘Om Hanumate Namah drifts and drives ahead through a mix of Hindustani modes (it’s based around a chant for the monkey god Hanuman), and the wall of sound conjured by Ulver sounds clearly descended from Spacemen 3’s acid sprawl, or even The Heads’ more cosmic jams. The overall aesthetic however, ends up remaining somehow distinctly Ulverian. Imagery of dense Nordic snow and icy fjords manifest, rather than tie dye patterns, long hairs, and space rockets. Conversely, ‘Desert Dawn’ sounds like a meditation on a John Carpenter overture (namely The Fog), although stretched to over encumbered and more sluggish extremes. The synth arpeggiation nearly disintegrates under the weight of growing organ drones, and constellations of busy synthetic notes dance around the space above during the piece’s final moments. Though the general feel and rules of this song’s aesthetic – deathly serious organs and arpeggiated synths – have been written in stone by the likes of Tangerine Dream and Carpenter, Ulver handle the same elements with a more organic approach. Far from scoring an imaginary film, it’s an articulation of some deeper truer emotions rather than anything as contrived or theatrical as an action movie score.

While sculpting and editing the many hours of recordings for the release, Daniel O’Sullivan (who is a full member of Ulver in addition to his many other projects) spoke of how his North London flat, formerly owned by Coil affiliate Ian Johnstone, was seemingly influencing the process. "The hungry ghosts of the now empty house seem to be burrowing into this record." However this music came out how it did, there’s always a question to be asked of where improvised music truly comes from. And the harrowing drama and shimmering sonic beds of ‘Desert Dawn’ and ‘D-Day Drone’ are indeed Ulver at their most deeply haunting (and haunt-ed). It harkens back to the most closely related other project to this album, the international improvising quintet of Æthenor. That project also featured Rygg and O’Sullivan, alongside Swiss keyboardist Vincent de Roguin, extraordinary English free-jazz drummer Steve Noble, and Stephen O’Malley of SunnO))), together sculpting unhinged and far-out free improvisations. While Æthenor certainly sounded vastly different – by the release of their last effort, En Form For Blå in 2011, they had jettisoned almost all discernible semblances of rock music – the grab bag of sounds, anything goes spirit, and sense of comfortable space is most certainly carried over on to ATGCLVLSSCAP. In its second half particularly, as the record steps away from foot stomping wig outs in favour of gentle glacial atmospherics including a pair of ballad-like vocal tunes, Ulver employ a widening array of timbres. ‘D-Day Drone’ and the shorter ‘Gold Beach’ notably blend distant guitar and spoken word samples with a beguiling lattice of synth pads and controlled hiss.

The pair of vocal tunes on the record are widescreen ballads of the very highest order, and in less able hands could easily yank off the veil of instrumental magick built up over the preceding hour to reveal a core of incongruously populist cheese. Firstly there’s ‘Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)’ (a revision of ‘Nowhere/Catastrophe’ from Perdition City, released 16 years ago now), which centres around a vocal performance from Garm simply aching with macabre yearning. The tune ebbs and flows from verse to chorus with a cosily swaying, anthemic romance, ultimately soaring upward in the closing moments to noisier climactic heights. They go on with a drifting slow piece of spoken word, chiming digital piano keys, and distant wordless singing on ‘Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)’ delivering another heartbreaking and frail vocal performance, but it’s the lyrics of ‘Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)’  that hold the key to ATGCLVLSSCAP‘s meaning:

”You’re everywhere but in the present

Hey you disappear further and further

Into these incalculable rooms

And your personality fades away”

Strangely appropriate for something they wrote one and half decades ago, the song echoes the album’s underlying themes of self-examination, and the constant metamorphosis of one’s personality.

ATGCLVLSSCAP is the most successful in a long line of personality experiments Ulver have donned since their black metal days. Similarly, it wouldn’t work without the countless lessons learned along the way. The wispy woodland majesty of Kveldssanger and the futuristic goth pop of Perdition City somehow coexist here. The dark chaos of those early black metal releases is similarly balanced with the contrasting soft and precise chamber music of their last full length, Messe I.X-VI.X. Ulver have clearly perfected the art of musical metamorphosis, yet they opt to balance all of their previous learnings on ATGCLVLSSCAP. Traces of so much lie therein, and each of the twelve tracks gives more with every listen, revealing new depths and fresh signposts to previous musics. If Ulver have been working to assemble all the world’s darker musics in to one discography, then ATGCLVLSSCAP is surely the most fully realised album they’ll ever release.

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