Plenty of bands change their style over the course of their career, but few have done so to the degree of Norway’s Ulver. Gaining their early recognition within the second wave of black metal from their home-country, Kristoffer Rygg and friends bade their contemporaries farewell as they explored everything from trip-hop to film score music. Listening to various albums in Ulver’s discography is like listening to completely different bands, which would be fairly accurate considering Rygg is the only original member of the band’s lineup. The current incarnation of Ulver continued their collective musical explorations in 2014 by playing 11 shows comprised of new material in addition to improvised pieces centered around some of their previous songs and themes. 2 years after this small tour, the band revisited the multi-track recordings of the music they made with the help of Daniel O’Sullivan in the studio to edit and polish hours of material into an 80 minute long opus. ATGCLVLSSCAP is often as challenging to listen to as its name is to say, and it I’ve heard from Ulver.
As listeners must have come to expect by now, Ulver did a great job of producing and mixing ATGCLVLSSCAP. No matter how dense or frantic the music gets, everything can be heard and appreciated to its fullest potential. This not only adds to the dynamic range of the album, but prevents songs from becoming tired. Each minute detail of the song can be easily heard, giving listeners maximum gratification. The inclusion of Daniel O’Sullivan in the production process essentially gives the raw creativity of the live sessions Ulver played a more structured and directional quality than might be expected from pure improvisation.
Those who are familiar with the music Ulver has made in more recent years will indeed hear familiar motifs, themes, and stylistic choices on ATGCLVLSSCAP. A more obvious example of playing around with a theme can be heard in “Glammer Hammer,” which is a reimagining of the orchestral “Glamour Box (Ostinati)” off of Messe I.X-VI.X in an improv rock style. Dubbed “free rock” by the band, this musical approach gives each song a distinctly spontaneous feeling, in that it puts just as much emphasis on freedom as rocking out. “England’s Hidden” and the aptly named “D-Day Drone” embrace the ambient leanings of Ulver, whereas the aforementioned “Glammer Hammer” and the following “Moody Sticks” have a hard-hitting percussiveness to them that I don’t recall hearing in any of Ulver’s back catalogue. These styles are complemented by the electronic explorations of “Desert / Dawn.” Many songs on ATGCLVLSSCAP are decidedly heavy, something I didn’t expect to hear from a band that has so adamantly distanced themselves from metal. I never thought I’d be able to say that there are some distorted riffs on a newUlver album, but I couldn’t be happier about it. One could also draw a lot of connections to the highly improvisational music of Swans. “Cromagnosis” and “Om Hanumate Namah” are great examples of Ulver elaborating on a repetitive but entrancing rock groove with subtle layerings and meticulously executed crescendos. As has been the case with Ulver’s recent output, ATGCLVLSSCAP has few vocal performances. Although the first and concluding tracks feature processed and sample heavy voices, only the 10th and 11th tracks feature defined lyrics and vocal lines. Kristoffer Rygg’s voice is as rapturous as ever. His melodic choices are as astounding as his technically and emotionally nuanced style of singing. Ulver’s volumes of material in this record are executed to the utmost. I wish I could say the same about how they were compiled.
Although O’Sullivan did a great job of polishing individual tracks on ATGCLVLSSCAP, I can’t say that he did a particularly impressive job of arranging them into a cohesive unit. The first half of the album flows well, with an ambient intro giving way to more band oriented songs, but things start to feel odd at the end of “Om Hanumate Namah.” This isn’t a conclusion that leads the listener out of the song. It feels nonchalant and jarring. The next three tracks re-embrace ambience and electronica, leading into the two showcases of Rygg’s voice. Just like the first section, These tracks flow from somber drone music to passionate art-rock with ease. However, the choppy editing comes back with a vengeance when what feels like the natural ending of the album is complemented by “Solaris,” an admittedly compelling electronica song that propels and builds up to… another awkward ending… and then the albums over… Why couldn’t it have ended with the delicate pads at the end of “Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)?” That’s my main gripe with this record. The transitions between the two halfs of the album take from the overall continuity of ATGCLVLSSCAP, making it more of a collection of songs than a conceptual experience.
Ulver continue to earn their prestige in the experimental music community with ATGCLVLSSCAP. Fans of the band will certainly be pleased by many tracks on this album, and I would certainly recommend it as a wonderful celebration of Ulver’s musical skill. Although its overall structure has its flaws, the songs on ATGCLVLSSCAP are too good for me to hold that against them.
Stream/Buy the Album here
Review by Maxwell Heilman