Ulver may translate to Wolves, but when it comes to this Norwegian group perhaps a better name would be Kameloner, meaning chameleons. Since their black metal beginnings on their first album Bergtatt in 1995 they’ve embraced a wide variety of genres including folk, ambient, trip-hop, chamber music, industrial, electronica, drone with their collaboration Terrestrials with Sunn O))), and one could go on. But they’re not a band that’s gone with whatever the flavour of the month is or jumping onto bandwagons, they’ve been the ones pushing the boundaries and with every style they metamorphose into they don’t put a foot wrong – whatever sort of music they make a foray into the results are practically perfect. The only thing that’s a given with a new Ulver release is that they always remain experimental, and (usually but not always) centered around Garm’s warm and enigmatic vocal style. After two releases last year with the electronica of ATGCLVLSSCAP and celtic tinged soundtrack Riverside, they’re back with their fifteenth album The Assassination of Julius Caesar and even with the history of these ever changing wolves they’ve still managed to surprise in a big way once again.
When Nemoralia opens with it’s dub-electronica it’s not too big of a surprise considering electronic is a genre they’ve embraced on a few albums in the past. But when the modulated synths come in with the unusually melodic but always gorgeous (there is just no other way to describe them) vocals from Garm, it’s clear that this is the most accessible Ulver have ever gone – they’ve released what can be best defined as a synthpop album, which is something you wouldn’t even have expected from a band like Ulver. The chorus with the soft “oohs”, and overlapping vocals along with the electronic drumbeat and moody synths is completely brilliant though, with one of the best productions I’ve ever heard, and each instrument and vocal line sounding gorgeous. That chorus has you grinning with both disbelief that Ulver have gone from being usually experimental and out there to music that’s this accessible, and because it’s just so goddamn fantastic. The moody relaxed atmosphere of Nemoralia is a great opener setting the tone of the album before it moves into the nine and half minute Rolling Stone where funky electronic music combines with jazzy saxaphone before going full on EDM in the verse, with Garm’s vocals higher pitched and clean, with soulful female backing vocals in a brilliant chorus. There’s so much to listen to hear and all so well produced it’s a treat for the ears, from the ambient synths, jazzy saxaphone, electronic beats, percussion and vocals that all gel together brilliantly that shows Ulver sounding both accessible and madly eclectic all at once. Because while it has a lot of more popular music elements to the sound, there’s so much going on musically, not to mention the vague lyrics and the last few minutes of psychedelic electronic experimentation at the end of it’s length that it’s one of the most genius pieces of music of the year.
So Falls the World is slightly more familiar territory for Ulver, Garm singing with his signature warm vocals against piano and much more understated electronics and bright synths, and just when you think you’re back with normal Ulver it suddenly breaks down into another over-the-top EDM section. 1969, is one of the most straight-forward tracks Ulver have ever written with it’s synth and percussion laden backing track is perfectly laid back synth-pop and a platform for more gorgeous vocals from Garm with lots of overdubs and some occasional sugary sweet female backing vocals that even conjure up a few Cocteau Twins-esque moments. The closer Coming Home is maybe a bit overlong in that its moody opening is at odds with the sound on the rest of the album, and it’s only towards the end that the psychedelic instrumental jam of electronics and saxophone come in that it really reaches its stride, but it’s the only real complaint to make across the album.
Overall The Assassination of Julius Caesar is probably the most unusual album Ulver have ever done, if only in that it’s the most normal and accessible release they’ve ever done – a sentence which could only make sense to those who are already familiar with the band’s continual shape-shifting and evolving through the years. Its synthpop based sound is really accessible and easy to listen to, and its one of the best production jobs I’ve ever heard – but it’s still got lots of experimental sections with long songs, esoteric lyrics, lots of layers of electronics and synths and unexpected shifts in tone – they’re not close to the level of churning out simple three minute pop songs. It’s one of the biggest surprises of the year at both how much they’ve changed their sound this time around, and how brilliant it is once again considering this massive departure. One can only wonder what on earth they’re going to do next, but if anything is for sure it’s to expect the unexpected.