There’s only so much you can write about fusion genres, especially if you want what you’re writing to be in any way engaging. Like this is now. It’s especially tricky when the styles of music you decide to write about happen to preclude themselves from your tastes for a while. There’s nothing like writing an article on one style of music whilst completely engrossed in another. What’s more, I’ve realised that a significant chunk of my previous two entries to this column has consisted of my decrying the merits of symphonic rock and IDM respectively. So, this week I’ll be a little less pessimistic and talk about something which I’ve been listening to one hell of a lot recently and which I could scarcely imagine myself ever complaining about. This week’s entry is a look into one of the finest vessels of musical fusion and variety ever to grace the field of music: the Norwegian experimental collective, Ulver.
Ulver are pretty difficult to nail down. Having started off their career as a black metal band, they soon traversed a myriad of stylistic terrain, including folk, ambient music, experimental rock and modern classical, to name a few. I can’t help but find the maxim of quality, not quantity coming to mind, but I would make the case that Ulver’s music is generally a prime example of both. Still, lots of stylistic growth doesn’t equate to musical fusion – that’s marked mostly by a select few records of theirs.
Ulver’s first album, Bergtatt, which enjoyed reissue this year, was a darkly beautiful musical landmark, remaining steadfast and immovable amidst the burgeoning whirlwind of black metal purism which was arising in the group’s native Norway at the time. Never to be one to jump on the bandwagon, the band’s 17 year-old frontman Kristoffer Rygg repudiated the straightforward approaches of his soon-to-be peers, instead choosing to imbue the music with a complex, melodic approach afforded by his generous application of folk tenets. The result is a staggering musical achievement – one which simultaneously evokes magical realism and gothic terror whilst perfectly balancing beauty and barbarity. Almost makes you want to learn Norwegian.
I’d say that truly great musical reinventions are fairly hard to come by. It’s such a rare thing for a band to abandon much of what they know and totally revamp themselves, especially in the space of one album. It’s even rarer for such a transition to be successful. Radiohead pulled it off with Kid A, Led Zeppelin did it with Led Zeppelin III, and Ulver made the switch with Perdition City. The group disregarded their previous excursions into black metal and folk in favour of an album of moody, industrial-leaning electronica, which brought together aspects of trip-hop, ambient and jazz, and allowed them to extend their roots into otherworldly landscapes of a highly surreal nature.
Ulver’s most recent endeavour of amalgamation is their 2013 album Messe I.X-VI.X. A collaboration involving the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, it’s hardly surprising that Messe is a collection of haunting modern classical pieces, warped by the presence of experimental electronics. From the sequestered grandeur of As Syrians Pour In to the haunting interpolations of Noche Oscura Del Alma and the sweeping sublimity of Mother Of Mercy, Messe utilises its delicate balance of organic and synthetic elements to create a modern masterpiece.
Even upon taking a step back and distancing myself from examining any one record under the microscope, I remain convinced that Ulver are masters of musical amalgam. The coming together of so many different genres under one band is one of the finest examples of musical fusion there is. Now excuse me while I find another style to criticise for next time.
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