Ulver’s “Black Metal Trilogie”, a testament for greatness

If you get to know me, one of the things you’ll learn about me is that I am a HUGE music nerd (although I consider myself a metalhead for the most part). I do enjoy listening to almost any genre (not that reggaeton or trap are my cup of tea, but due to my daily job as a recording and mixing technician I have to endure them more than I’d like to admit). I am particularly fascinated by extreme music in general, it doesn’t matter if it’s metal or not as long as it is extreme indeed.

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that I am interested in sounds that challenge me, because they scared me in the first place. As Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse brilliantly put, you are interested in the stuff you’re afraid of. Maybe this is why I tend to indulge many of my listening hours into hardcore techno, jazzy progressive rock, death metal, thrash metal and black metal just to name a few, but I’m digressing.

Speaking of challenging music, Ulver is certainly one of those bands who have no fear of challenge. If you’re not familiar with them, I’ll try to describe what they’re about in a couple words: NO BOUNDARIES. To me, it’s like they envision music like a huge canvas you could paint with any color available, with any brush of your choice, and then they said «screw it, let’s go with EVERYTHING we have here, let’s mix it up and then we’ll throw it to the wall and see if it sticks».

This has been a recipe to receive equally love, praise, hate and misunderstanding all across the board since their early years, but to me that’s what makes Ulver unique. And from the perspective of a metalhead like me, their so-called Black Metal Trilogie is a precious gem you need to stop, sit and appreciate carefully. From their fourth album on it’s kind of hit and miss to me, but any record before that it’s just perfect. That’s why I want to talk about them and, maybe, peak your interest to give them a spin.

The wolves are out to hunt

Ulver (which translates to «wolves») released their first album Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr I 5 Capitler («Spellbound – A Folktale In 5 Chapters») in the distant year 1994. Their roots go back to 1992, when Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm around this time) joined forces with a high school mate (Carl-Michael Eide) and a friend of the latter (Havard Jorgensen) put together a black metal project which name you may have probably guessed by this point.

They were ambitious and they wanted to grow big, the faster the better. Really soon since the band’s inception getting a record deal and releasing an album was on the cards. They wanted everything, and they wanted to make a difference. The first thing were the themes. While the majority of the second wave of black metal bands were dangling with Satanism, death, torture and atrocities of the like to put in their lyrics, Garm was a big fan of the National Romantic movement. This also brought the first line-up changes to the fold. In Krystoffer Rygg’s own words:

I wanted to bring in the right people. I had become obsessed with this whole National Romantic aesthetic. Carl-Michael wasn’t too keen on that, so he jumped ship and formed Ved Buens Ende instead. That’s also when the rhythm guitarist left and I let the original lead guitarist go, for banal reasons.

Garm felt that, if Norwegian writer Jorgen Moe and artist Theodor Kittelsen had a Norwegian entity, Ulver as a band had to have it too (that also translates to the album covers, which resemble Romantic Norse paintings, such as the one for Burzum’s Hvys Lyset Tar Oss, by the aforementioned Theodor Kittelsen). That’s why he took to Draumkvedet (an epic medieval Norwegian poem) to inspiration for the band’s themes, which was mixed with the fury of black metal and some of more pensive elements derived from influences of progressive rock acts Ragnarök and Anglagard (I recommend checking them out). Not bad for a bunch of brats (keep in mind Krystoffer Rygg was only 18 years old when Ulver’s first record came out).

When you mix all that up, what you have as a result is Bergtatt. And that is simply brilliant. This album presents itself like a shape shifting melodic black metal effort with lots of hooks and tasty melodies, folk passages which lead to furious blast beats and your more typical black metal riffing in the background, excellent harsh and clean vocals which serve as a perfect companion to the music, evocative instrumental pieces and a dark, melancholic tone and grim atmosphere which are omnipresent in the whole album. I could listen to this thing night and day (in fact it spun several times on my record player as I was writing this… yeah, I know, I’ve reached out for professional help and there’s no cure for Bergtatt). It is eerie, powerful and oddly tranquil at the same time.

Ulver’s debut received rave reviews for the most part, it was a full blown success between journalists and fans alike. One would think it was easy for them to sit on their asses and repeat the formula over again, but Garm and his horde were about to give us a big, big surprise (the first of many).

The wolves howl at the setting sun

In 1996, two years after releasing their promising first effort, pretty much everyone was convinced Ulver would deliver the antique formula of “more of the same, but better” in their sophomore opus. Almost everyone around that time coincided that this bunch of Norwegian youngsters under their twenties would come out with everything they had, and you know something? They were all wrong.

Out comes Kveldsannger (“Twilight Songs”). Now, imagine a stereotypical black metal fan from way back when picking this up at the store, paying his hard earned money to get the latest from the hottest band around, hyped as hell to get home and play it. And when he was expecting furious guitars, what he got was… a freaking Norse folk album. And the cherry on top of the sundae: works like a charm and it’s brilliant. Could you get mad? I can only speak for myself, but being an angry kid looking for extreme music I guess I would have. Why would Ulver do this? This is what Krystoffer Rygg said in the liner notes back in 1996:

Kveldssanger is a musical project primarily founded on the dark side of Norwegian folklore. This is nevertheless no traditional album of folk music, but rather a neo-folk adaptation of the sentiments we hold towards the magical and mytical in older aspects of our culture. We here attempt to paint natural-mystical and trollish atmospheres solely with acustic instruments, and what you hear is the result of late nights where we have found ourselves in creative longing for old Norway’s grand history. Nature and the spellbinding atmospheres of old that she do conveys.

So yeah, the National Romantic thing was still going strong:

The Romantic school of thought which sprang up in the Germanic countries towards the end of the 18th century has exercised a considerable influence on this work, with its intonation of free fantasy and ability to vividly tie connections between the emotional and the medieval age’s view on life and culture.

You can say the guy was a bit pretentious (ah, the youth…). Later on, Garm would say this was an “immature attempt to make a classical album”. But, then again, it was a critical success and received great reviews praising how Ulver had translated the black metal elements to the acoustic instruments.

It is odd in many ways, for Kveldssanger doesn’t seem to be a metal album… but all the elements are in there. Much more quiet, much more folky, but the dark, grim atmosphere is indeed there. There are choral elements and even a freaking cello and subtle orchestral elements, but don’t you dare listening to Klaedt I Nattens Farver and tell me it ain’t as black as night, don’t you dare telling me Utreise sped up won’t make up for a fantastic melodic black metal song, and please, PLEASE, listen to Ulvsblakk and let yourself go.

This record it’s not extreme in the sense that it is a full blown assault on your ears, but more in the way slow paced, dark atmospheres play around with your psyche and provoke a determined state of mind. I find it particularly relaxing, and I find myself taking it from the shelf and playing it more often than not after a hard day of work. It’s simply marvelous, I have no other words for it.

Alright, so now Ulver went for a completely tonal shift from their debut to their sophomore release. We knew already they could surprise us, but what would they do next time? We were about to find out, and the answer was, again, something no one expected.

The wolves are out for blood

If anyone said Ulver had sell out with Kveldssanger, they were about to find out how wrong they were when Nattens Madrigal — Aate Hymne til Ulven i Manden (“The Madrigal of the Night — Eight Hymns to the Wolf in Man”) dropped in 1997. And what is a madrigal, you may ask? A formal definition I found googling a bit is this:

A madrigal is a secular vocal music composition of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Traditionally, polyphonic madrigals are unaccompanied; the number of voices varies from two to eight, and most frequently from three to six.

So, according to this, we should expect something tranquil in the vein of their second album or even more stripped-down, since the madrigal is made with just the vocals in mind and no additional instruments, but then here comes this raw black metal bomb with lo-fi production.

Erik Lancelot, the band’s rhythm guitarist, was the one in charge for the liner notes this time, citing much distinct influences for the album’s themes and music:

[…] We have […] been much absorbed by the old faith in werewolves and our kinship with Brother Wolf had been felt stronger than ever before. […] There exists no expression of sheer, black passion as pure as he who turns towards the Moon, singing his passionate song. We see the werewolf as an image of the beast in man.

I guess that about sums it up for me and explains everything with enough detail.

Once more, Nattens Madrigal serves as a direct contrast to Kveldssanger and also to Bergtatt. It is infinitely fiercer, rawer and colder than any of their previous efforts, the underproduction certainly helps. But, then again, the magic happens. It’s freaking Ulver, I don’t know how they managed to do no wrong during their early stages as a band. And the revolving theme around the beast in man is present in the leaked song titles (the band never intended to publish them in the back cover, something bands like Mgla tend to do nowadays) and the lyrics. Here is the full title list:

  1. Hymn 1 — Of Wolf and Fear
  2. Hymn 2 — Of Wolf and the Devil
  3. Hymn 3 — Of Wolf and Hatred
  4. Hymn 4 — Of Wolf and Man
  5. Hymn 5 — Of Wolf and the Moon
  6. Hymn 6 — Of Wolf and Passion
  7. Hymn 7 — Of Wolf and Destiny
  8. Hymn 8 — Of Wolf and the Night

This album is simply spine chilling. When the first notes of the first track hit, I can’t help but shiver in excitement. It’s raw, but yet majestic and bombastic in a very odd way (taking the deliberately bad production in account, and from a technical standpoint it’s not that bad since you can hear clearly each and every instrument). It seems to me they wanted to recover the fury of their early days and then add some more. It’s magical, enthralling and ear piercing, all in one. It’s black metal at its blackest, no one can ever top it. It’s so unintentionally KVLT, it’s KVLT as heck. It is probably my favorite album of the genre, and I mean it.

Unique snapshots from a time that won’t come back

Ulver’s latest release, The Assasination of Julius Caesar

As the guys in Metal Injection once put it (and to me it’s the best definition I’ve read anywhere), it’s like Ulver decided to split the qualities that made Bergtatt unique in two, with Kveldssanger going with the atmospheres and the melodies and Nattens Madrigal going with the raw power and the ferocity. Ulver’s Black Metal Trilogie is unique in every conceivable way. The flexibility the band had (and still has to this day, check the video above) to go with these complete tonal changes from one album to another it’s simply amazing.

The thing that makes this triplet of records so unique is you don’t have to try and understand each one, but try to imagine them as a part of a tryptich, a picture divided into three sections. I know, it’s hard, but trust me on this one. Each album represents a different concept the band had of their music and themselves, and should be interpreted like that.

Any Ulver album, in fact, can be described as a picture. Each song brings something (an idea, an atmosphere, a melody) trying to represent something, to provoke some kind of response in the listener. This is deep thinking music (especially in their later releases), in spite many won’t believe so. There’s layers upon layers of complexity in every one of them, and I dare anyone with the knowledge to go and not finding them.

Each album of the Trilogie represents a different image of the band, from a time that won’t come back. Ulver aren’t interested in playing metal anymore, which is a shame. The work Garm did with Arcturus and Borknagar was fantastic, and I wish he was still doing it. The mastery put behind this three albums is amazing for people that young, it’s so mindblowing I’m having a hard time expressing it.

Anyway, go and listen to these albums. You will find yourself fascinated, and wanting more. It is a shame they’re not doing this kind of music anymore, but they’re still doing stuff that rattles my brain (even though, as I said in the beginning, it’s hit or miss with me), and I like that. Give these wolves a chance, they deserve it.

You can buy the albums mentioned in this article in the links below:

ULVER — Bergtatt

ULVER — Kveldssanger

ULVER — Nattens Madrigal

I used to write about tech, now I play videogames and run a recording studio for a living. Stay with me and discover the power of the dark side.

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