I’ve been a huge fan of Ulver since hearing their 2002 glitch ambient compilation, “Teachings in Silence“, as they have gone through several different stages in their music career. From folk-influenced black metal to progressive rock, glitch electronica to classical, and with this new album, “Wars of the Roses”, which I had been anticipating ever since I heard it would be coming out, they make yet another new turn into a new musical stage, as well as for the first time in the past few years, they are releasing the album on a different label rather than their own. They effortlessly incorporate both the experimental ambient electronica and classical elements of their past few albums and the progressive rock and heavy metal of their earlier releases into a collection of 7 outstanding compositions. Each piece stands out on its own, with its own unique instrumentation and lyrical subject matter, making for perhaps one of the best albums of the year, and possibly of this decade.
“February MMX”, the official single of the album, starts off with a fast rock groove, piano melodies, and muted guitar rhythms. Garm’s vocals and lyrics sound philosophical, comparing the violence and terror of war to a play or musical, and having a sort of Shakespearean element to the song. Electronics can also be found throughout the song, with fast-moving, synthpop-like arpeggios, organ-like melodies and epic atmospherics. The song builds to a huge climax, with Garm shouting the chorus and very dense textures occuring throughout, before the song ends out with arpeggiated synths. Overall, a great start to the album.
“Norwegian Gothic” contains more of Garm’s philosophical vocals concerning war, classical string orchestration, and some subtle creepy atmospherics, which lead to a soft climax of drums, strange sound effects, and squealing free-jazz saxophone arpeggios. It’s quite an interesting experimental track, but it is surprisingly accessible and easy to listen to. “Providence” starts with a Medieval-sounding piano line and the occasional strums of guitar, and further on, flute and violin melodies. Also, for a change, at one point, a female voice enters the track, and the harmonies between her and Garm’s vocals are lovely. The track further progresses to an ambient interlude, and finally, a hard-hitting progressive rock section containing drums, either saxophone or guitar (perhaps both), and more of the cinematic violin melodies, slowly building to a huge climax, and then breaking down to piano, glockenspiel or vibes, violin, and more female vocals. The rest of the track contains creepy atmospheres from strings and some strange sound effects, which altogether has a Lustmord-esque quality to the whole thing. Overall, it is an epic composition that is beautifully melancholic, and combines the best of dark ambient, classical, and progressive rock.
“September IV” starts with some very beautiful, ’80s sounding pad work, before leading into a rock rhythm, bass, and piano. Garm’s vocals also have a bit of reverb added, which adds to how epic the track sounds. Guitar licks intertwine into the mix, and in the break, both church organ and distorted guitar weave in and out of each other, along with the sounds of church bells, before a fast drum rhythm and electronic bass line enters and pretty soon, the sounds turn extremely loud and dense, turning the beautiful track into pure war-like chaos. The track then ends out on guitar feedback and strange electronic sounds. “England” begins with piano and Gregorian chant-like vocals, before turning into a huge industrial rock sound filled with distorted bass and heavy drumming, similar to some of Nine Inch Nails tracks. The second half of the song contains minor-sounding melodies and shouted vocals, along with a strange electronic sound effect and white noise, and ends out on electronic sounds and field recordings. “Island” starts with a slow ambient rhythm and all sorts of strange noises occuring in the background. Guitars can be heard as well, along with Garm’s soft vocals. The song builds to a soft climax full of warm synths and guitars, and cools down with all sorts of strange electronic glitch sounds, including what sounds to be like the ping of a sonar radar in a submarine. A lot of white noise, violins, and accordion can be heard in the end, and ends suddenly with a strange electronic sound.
“Stone Angels”, the longest track on the album at almost 15 minutes long, and also the last track of the album, starts with warm fuzzy synths, watery sounds, and the subtle metallic squeals of instruments. Violins soon enter the mix, and clarinets and/or oboes can also be heard. Daniel O’Sullivan narrates a text written by the American poet Keith Waldrop, alongside a whole bunch of strange and dreamy ambient sounds ranging from beautiful to surreal. A drum can be heard in the distance at some point, and the sounds slowly build up to a distorted violin drone, which is joined by water-like soundscapes, electric guitar, and a lot of other sounds that are hard for me to initially detect. The sounds slowly morph into something more surreal, as drums sometimes sound like the engines of trains, and squealing saxophones are manipulated into even stranger sounding instruments. The sounds continue like this for a few minutes, while Daniel continues to read the text, in which each sound matches up with what Daniel is narrating, and thus, both voice and sound combine as one to create a stunning beautiful ambient soundscape. In the last 3 minutes, war drums can be heard among the ambient sounds, and in the end, electronic ambient sounds, water recordings, and processed acoustic instruments diminish into strange soft noises as Daniel finishes the text. Overall, a very beautiful ambient soundscape, and quite different from what I’ve heard Ulver put out in the past.
In conclusion, Ulver’s “Wars of the Roses” is one of the greatest avant-garde/experimental rock albums I’ve heard so far this year. Not only do I believe that it will probably be in my top 10 at the end of the year, but by the end of this decade, it could still sustain a place in the top 10. I didn’t know what to expect from this record, but nevertheless, any expectations I had were exceeded far beyond my imagination. Though Ulver is known for being daring and fearless in trying new sounds and genres, here, even after their resurgence in performing as a live band after 15 years, and taking a more accessible rock sound overall on this record, their combination of sounds and textures on this record has taken music in general to a new level that has never been attempted before. Whereas many major record labels would be afraid in trying something new, and stick to the same mainstream music that the public has loved for the past several decades, Ulver dares everyone to try to create and listen to something more progressive and experimental. Major labels, be prepared to make a run for your money, because this album has set yet another high bar in music. Highly recommended listening.
Album: Wars of the Roses
Genre: Avant-garde/experimental rock
Released in 2011 by Kscope
Available now at all major retailers!