The Assassination Of Julius Caesar

From Burzum to Borknagar, a disproportionately high number of ex-black metal bands have proved adept at absorbing and perfecting musical styles that are well removed from their brutal, noise-based roots. But while most of these acts’ metamorphoses largely follow a linear progression from point A to point B via a transitory point C, Ulver have distinguished themselves by moving from point A to point Z via, not only the Latin alphabet, but the entire Greek, Cyrillic and Aramaic ones too.

With Kristoffer Rygg (or Garm, as he is more often known) as their sole constant member, Ulver have, in turn, spent time as an orchestral folk group, a jazz-techno act, a minimalistic film scoring project, a freeform prog-rock collective, a sixties garage rock cover band and an ambient drone ensemble. Yet, nearly a quarter of a century after their inception, these predictably unpredictable chaps are quite capable of shocking everyone with an album like The Assassination of Julius Caesar.

The Depeche Mode bounce of lead single ‘Nemoralia’ was no one-off: Garm and the gang have cast off the perceived mantle of pretentiousness to produce a lush, uncynical pop record. There’s no subversive angle here, no sardonic undercurrent, just 43 minutes’ worth of instantly familiar, emphatically accessible electronic tracks. The usual Coil and Throbbing Gristle influences have taken a backseat to allow them to tick off every item on the Jacksons/Bee Gees/Neptunes checklist: there are stacked choruses of female-backed falsetto harmonies, warm pools of artificial strings, the Beatles and Stones-referencing ‘1969’ even has a couple of unabashed key changes thrown in for good measure. There is still the odd occasion where the group can’t resist kicking up an atonal cacophony, but for the most part they remain committed to the experiment at hand.

That’s not to say that Ulver have become the new Wham! overnight, although some of the results are oddly hilarious (‘So Falls The World’ sounds like Ulver’s take on Adele’s ‘Skyfall’). There’s no dumbing down of the music here, just a rechannelling of the collective’s most overtly intellectual tendencies back into Garm’s lyrics. These have been sorely missed; the last time Ulver created an album of ‘real’ songs complete with sung verses and choruses was back in 2011 with War Of The Roses, an avant-garde epic heavily shaped by the presence of Sunn O)))’s Daniel O’Sullivan (who appears to have ended his tenure as a fully-fledged band member, contributing only a few additional guitars this time round).

A lifetime of setting words by the likes of Fernando Pessoa, Christian Bök and William Blake to music has given Garm a real understanding of poetic structure, and much of the material he’s stored away through their latest instrumental phase is as much a pleasure to read as it is to listen to. “I want to tell you something about the grace of faded things,” he begins on ‘Southern Gothic’, a promise which he largely sticks to over the course of the album. His lyrics are preoccupied with the bonds that link together legend, history and modernity, and the manner in which once-current events gain mythological prestige the further they parade into the past. In the record’s lyric booklet there is a picture that perfectly encapsulates this process: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, an iconic image of a soon-to-be legend dwelling on those other legends that preceded him.

Garm repeatedly rewrites historically recent events as Homeric fables. Princess Diana, “the most hunted body of the modern age”, is pursued to her death by a pack of paparazzi. Soldiers landing at Dunkirk are recast as a lost legion, their fates buffeted by winds from Elysium. A mysterious house at 6114 California Street, the old headquarters of the Church of Satan, gains prestige after its destruction, rather than remaining as a rather hilarious tourist destination for Satanists with a passion for interiors (who apparently now run the Church’s website). Garm’s repeated inclusion of historical dates in his lyrics creates the impression of being trapped in a musical TARDIS, leaping backwards and forwards in time in order to view the entirety of human history through a single lens.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar works thanks to this dichotomy of direct and to the point music and cryptic, beguiling lyrics. The group have never produced anything as melodic and simple as this before and it’s unlikely that they ever will again (I can almost guarantee that their next album will be the most difficult, unlistenable project they have ever undertaken in order to bring balance back to the universe). The most remarkable thing about it is how unforced and natural sounding the whole affair is, almost like Ulver have been perfecting smooth electronic pop for decades rather than a few years. The challenge of making something so immediate and inviting is obviously one everyone involved has taken to with gusto, and as both a musical work and their most daring experiment to date, the record is a resounding success.

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