In the vast spectrum of all musical endeavours, Ulver are probably the most musically diverse group I have ever come across. The group released their critically lauded black metal debut, Bergtatt, when their members were little over 18 years old, and despite frontman Kristoffer Rygg’s insistence that they were “not super mature or sophisticated”, the band have developed inexorably since then. They’ve since followed up their black metal origins with albums of folk, electronic, rock, experimental and classical music. In light of the extremely vivid tapestry that is Ulver’ musical history, I think the main question on every fan’s mind after the announcement of their new album was how they could reinvent themselves further. Avant-garde jazz? Harsh noise? Dream pop? As it turns out, the next brainchild of the Norwegian collective was ATGCLVLSSCAP.
Named after the first letters of each star sign of the zodiac, the album is best described as an ambient exploration of Ulver’s musical aesthetic. Pieced together from a series of “free-rock” shows the band played around Europe, this LP is the Frankenstein’s monster of Ulver’s back catalogue, and like many of the band’s prior releases, the album has already polarised critical opinion. As unlikely as it may be, Ulver have once again managed to create something unlike anything they’ve previously produced. Although they’ve dabbled in ambient music before on their 2007 album Shadows Of The Sun, this is a completely different kind of art. Shadows Of The Sun was a brilliant example the dark ambient subgenre - sorrowful, restricted and introspective. ATGCLVLSSCAP, on the other hand, has a persistent quality of otherworldliness and openness. Compared to the small-room production and atmosphere of Shadows, ATGCLVLSSCAP is as expansive and sonically wide as the dawn sky.
The album certainly begins as it means to go on. Church bells are the first thing the listener hears on England’s Hidden, before these integrate with a gentle motif and become part of a vast, swirling soundscape. As the album floats along gracefully, it explores many other atmospheres, from the wild, Krautrock inspired jam of Cromagnosis to the subtle, euphonic waves of the aptly-titled Gold Beach. Yet despite its frequent changes in mood and atmosphere, the album is wonderfully cohesive and flows effortlessly – eighty minutes goes by in the blink of an eye. Desert/Dawn and D-Day Drone are album highlights; the shimmering electronic pulses and swirling, vibrant textures of the former construct a sublime atmosphere, whilst the latter establishes the bleak, hopeless feeling which Ulver have always been able to convey, even with the use of few to no lyrics.
Aside from the wealth of original material introduced to the listener here, the band aren’t afraid to disturb the ghosts of some old musical entities. Glammer Hammer (a re-recording of Glamour Box) is reinvigorated by tribal, percussive pummelling and a wall of guitar noise the band may have picked up from their 2014 collaboration with drone-metal pioneers Sunn O))). Moody Stix recapitulates an old track called Doom Sticks, bringing an organic edge to the cold and synthetic original. But the highlight of the reworked tracks on this album has to be Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen). A complete reimagining of the 2001 track Nowhere (Catastrophe), Sweet Sixteen just goes to show that nobody can cover Ulver like Ulver can.
ATGCLVLSSCAP wouldn’t be a truly phenomenal record without including Rygg’s captivating voice at least once, and this track is a true testament to his fragile yet powerful cries of vulnerability. It’s a subtle reminder to fans that for all Rygg’s black metal growling, strange chanting and spoken word stylings, he’s got one hell of a singing voice. This vast and cavernous reworking shines incalculable amounts of light onto the dark, gloomy Catastrophe, before raising it up far above the clouds, turning the track from a murky and hopeless trip-hop lament to an ethereal post-rock epic.
Whilst ATGCLVLSSCAP is not without its faults (the prolonged repetition employed on Ecclesiastes certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste), it has carved out a unique place for itself amongst Ulver’s back catalogue, and is yet another showcase for the band’s perennial journey of musical evolution.