Ulver – Blood Inside
This review has been in the works for quite some time. During the time it has been silently fermenting, many changes specific to the world of Ulver and it’s members has taken place. When I first began writing this review, it was widely reported that Rygg/Garm had stated in a Head Control System interview back in 2005 that Ulver as a project was “in a state of total dormancy”. Given the fact that Garm was working not only in Head Control System, but also doing guest appearances in several upcoming projects (the most notable being the recent Professor Fate album “The Inferno”), I had despaired of them ever releasing another album. Fast forward many weeks, and I recently discover that Ulver had recently announced (back in June) that they would release a new album, entitled “Shadows Of The Sun”, on October 1st. Thus, it is even more crucial to re-examine what is arguably Ulver’s greatest album to date, to be able to judge how their music has evolved with the coming of their new album. In my opinion, it will be very difficult to top “Blood Inside”.
Reactions towards the album were generally favorable, with the most frequently commented aspect of the album being it’s broad musical scope and expanded instrumentation, as well as their effective use of progressive influences. However, not all were pleased with the new album, viewing the continued distance from their black metal roots as a hopeless plunge into ‘musical hypocrisy’. In particular, the review of “Blood Inside” by a member of Stylus Magazine, was particularly vehement in their criticism, opting to give the album a “D–“. A quick glimpse at the article reveals more than it’s fair share of name juggling and metaphor tossing. But, upon reading the full article, I was disturbed and appalled at the intense level of pretension inherent in the writing, coupled with inane (and often nonsensical) comparisons and assertions. While I am usually able to shrug off bad writing and/or reviews, the degree to which this review is off-kilter in terms of objectivity and/or fairness is so extreme that I took the time to write to the author in question (something I rarely do). As can be expected though, the links provided by the Stylus website were inaccurate, and by the time I received a reply from the editor of Stylus (who was kind enough to respond to my query in an almost semi-prompt manner) providing an alternate e-mail in which I could contact the individual, I had already lost interest (especially since, upon re-thinking my premises, it would be petty to criticize someone who, in all likelihood, would probably not give a shit).
Another individual who was displeased with “Blood Inside” (although for an entirely different reason) was the noted director Kenneth Anger. Best known for his film Lucifer Rising (including a soundtrack originally created by Jimmy Page, but scrapped after a lengthy feud between the two), he was also noted for creating several other experimental films from the 1940’s – 1960’s, and several new films since the new millennium began. Ulver thus probably wanted to reference his experimental film expertise in comparison to their music video for the song “It Is Not Sound”, which features dark visuals and a surreal presentation. Unfortunately, Anger wasted no time in claiming that the group was “libeling” him through their “illegal use” of his name “in the video”. As can be expected by such a frivolous claim, nothing came of the assertion (besides perhaps inadvertent publicity for Ulver), and on the band’s website they humorously summarize the situation by stating: “The IT IS NOT SOUND video is of course not directed by Kenneth Anger. The set design is of course not by Albrecht Dürer. Being who we are, we assume that people read between the lines….Please re-read our press release. And between us: Thank you for your autograph.”
Now, onto the moment you have been waiting for. Does the music truly live up to the high degree of hype and praise given to it? In my opinion, while it is not completely perfect (for a variety of reasons), is a very good explosion of progressive multi-genre artistry that effectively shatters genres, categorization, and expectations.
“Dressed In Black” begins the album with a series of heavy synth stabs, perhaps in reference to their previous album, the moody Perdition City. Soon, the highly distinctive voice of Garm enters the fray, along with complementary synth and drum lines. It serves as a pleasant introduction, but though it has an interesting musical progression, at seven minutes it feels slightly too long, especially given the fact that it serves as the album opener. Also, another problem quickly manifests itself roughly halfway into the song: the drums are, in general, far too close in the mix, making the cymbal hits seem intrusive and annoying rather than bombastic (this song is where this is most prevalent and noticeable, though minor percussive concerns do recur to a lesser degree in some of the other songs throughout the album). Thankfully, the synthetic squeals and beeps make up for these shortcomings (even though the oppressive drum kit nearly buries them in the mix). Towards the end of the song, the layers slowly fade away to descending series of piano notes and choral undulations to arrive at…
“For The Love Of God”. The first thing immediately noticeable is a more balanced mix, especially with regards to the now-subdued drums (provided by Knut Aalefjær, who also played in Moment’s Notice and Peccatum). The song, while slower paced, is packed with bass synths, horn sections, bells, and impressive guitar solos by Bosse. The vocals, while not terribly complex, are abstract enough to be interesting and certainly catchy in the long run.
Next is one of the album’s standout tracks (though it is honestly hard to play favorites), the enigmatic “Christmas”. Beginning with delicate chimes (percussion again provided by Aalefjær) and a melancholic violin, it quickly gains speed and complexity as Garm begins his vocals (which are basically an elaborated version of a poem written by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa):
A god is born and others die. What is
has neither come nor gone, but error moves.
Today we have exchanged eternities
and what is past no novelty improves.
Blind knowledge is working at useless ground
and crazy faith is living the dream of its liturgy
a new god is a word – or the mere sound
don’t seek and don’t trust, for all is mystery.
Although it is rather short in terms of progressive rock’s usual indulgent song lengths, that also reveals another facet of this album which differentiates it from other recordings of a similar nature, that while the songs may be highly progressive in nature, their running times are relatively modest, without ever feeling like the song was cut short in the middle of it’s development. Each track presents it’s own unique vision admirably.
“Blinded By Blood” continues the trend of auditory beauty, with a slowly pensive track, featuring organs, vibraphone, synth strings, and Kristoffer Rygg’s floating vocals. In this song especially, it is especially evident that vocals, far from being utilized to present a specific message to the listener, are instead used as instrumentation (which becomes especially moving around 3:40 and 5:30), as words are stretched out far beyond their normal boundaries, to coincide with the slowly cresting waves of the music. Towards the end of the song, the music at last fades into a short and singularly creepy music box melody.
Serving as the album’s linchpin is the ambiguously-titled “It Is Not Sound”. Opening with a strange distorted tone (which, paradoxically, is not musical in nature), Garm swiftly proclaims: “For the record / No one will understand / What it is all about….”, which, in some regards, be extended to the highly personal, ambiguous, and esoteric nature of the lyrics contained within the album. The lyrical reference to “33 years” is also a possible reference to the age of Jesus Christ at his death (note that this is my own interpretation, and is by no means an ‘official’ interpretation, and it is also implied that it also relates to Ulver’s history as a group). This song is also, arguably, one of most ‘rock-oriented’ songs on the album, featuring a ‘standard’ configuration of vocals, guitar, bass, and drums for most of the song (of course, complete with darkly shimmering clouds of grunge-filled synthetics, strings, and various keyboards). The ‘coda’ of the song is highly influenced by Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This fact has given many detractors more than enough ammunition to advance their theories of Ulver’s ‘pretentiousness’. I must confess that I myself was somewhat put off by the inclusion, at first agreeing that such an inclusion was probably not necessary. However, after setting the record aside and then re listening to it again with a somewhat more charitable stance, it occur ed to me that it is not only appropriate, but also necessary, in a sense, and serves as the song’s ending quite well (this is enhanced by the music video, with it’s juxtaposition of surreal, hellish and religious iconography).
In case you had assumed that the talent for the album had been “phoned in”, the trio easily disprove this notion with the track “The Truth” (coincidentally, one of the few tracks that do not feature additional personnel). The understated guitar lines, while being quite unusual, are also interesting in that regard as well, being different in nature from much of the rest of the album. The programmed drums also seem to fit in quite well, despite the fact that they are quite spastic and up-tempo for most of the song (especially towards the middle of the song, when the rapid-fire snare and bass drum hits coincide with an impressive set of guitar trilling).
“In The Red” begins (and ends) with a distinct jazz-influenced atmosphere (almost as if a recording from Perdition City had it’s synthesizers replaced with real instruments and sped up significantly). Once again featuring vibraphone and string backdrops, the song takes an unusual detour after two minutes: split-second jazz and lounge samples! It might be just be me, but hearing them, somehow managing to be almost comically out of place (while somehow succeeding in justifying their importance) usually brings a smile to my face. After all, given the mostly somber and serious nature of the album, it proves that Ulver does have a sense of humour in their work, even if it only shows up every once in a while.
The other standout track is “Your Call”. It is easily the best track on the album. Easily. There is no way for me to overstate this. Even the opening of the song blows most weaker-willed acts entire discographies out of the water. Featuring an astounding violin performance by Jeff Gauthier accompanied by an enchanting multi-tracked vocal performance by Maja S. K. Ratkje (who also appeared on the most recent Matmos album), “Your Call” also sees Rygg forgoing the previous song’s somewhat willingly obscure and vague lyrics, instead softly crooning a set of highly moving and evocative set of lyrics, further expounding on the blood/hospital theme which had begun to intensify on the “In The Red” track:
Who is here
To hold your hand
In the dark
Where no one
Answers the phone
Speaking of the dead
When the red light rings
Don’t be alarmed
Someone is dying
With no one to talk to
Other than those carried
Down the corridors
Open in the end
End in the open
And the sun is
A persistent cell phone, present through the second half of the song, is at length left to echo by itself. The sound continues for several seconds, proving itself to be highly unsettling, until at last a hospital dispatchers answers the call, providing the introduction for…
“Operator”. Beginning with siren-like horn/synth blaring, and fast-paced drums (provided by Czral, current drummer for Dødheimsgard). It is suitably apocalyptic in nature, with an impassioned set of vocals with suitably desperate lyrics (“Truth is a … HOSPITAL!!!”), as well as a set of distorted hospital dispatcher samples and a frenetic guitar solo from Mike Keneally.
In short, a truly epic album. While it is only 45 minutes, 45 seconds in length, it is an exhausting listen, because of the emotional intensity and thematically-connected diversity inherent in the album. Basically, it is something you have to devote the time and concentration to listening to it in it’s entirety, because the majority of the songs flow into each other, creating a massive forty-five minute musical experience. If you are at all familiar with Ulver, it would be criminal to admit that you did not own this album already. It’s that good. If you are new to Ulver, however, then you will find in this album a perfect entry into their discography (followed by Bergtatt and Perdition City). Go get it or listen to it. Now. You’ll be glad you did.
PS This was an exhausting review to write: a lot of research involved, fact-checking, link indexing, etc. Plus, due to the unique nature of the sound of the album, some of the music/instrument elements were hard to describe accurately (especially since the band credits itself with the frustrating ‘Everything Else’ label when it comes to instruments). Any questions, comments, concerns, or observations are, as usual, greatly appreciated, and I will probably go back over the next few days to make small changes (if necessary). I also incorporated a lot of the relevant links into the actual article, as it always helps to cite your sources (plus it makes the read a bit more interesting).