Heathen Harvest: If a Norwegian band other than Ulver released an album such as Shadows of the Sun, I may have gasped agog at such a sharp turn for one of Norway's black metal originators. Their famous early work, the trilogy Three Journeyes through the Norwegian Netherworlde, remains classic early nineties BM, an excellent example of a musical style in the prime of its originality. But Ulver have constantly written, re-written and savagely burned their own (and everyone else's) rule book over the entirety of their career. Leaked to the internet on the 17th of September, and very well received by both metallers and non-metallers alike, Shadows of the Sun is described on Ulver's website as “Our most personal record to date. Low key, dark, and tragic.”
I get the call from Kristoffer just past midnight, calling from his home in Oslo. Rather than talk about touring and other musical mundanities, I instead quiz him about Shadows of the Sun, and Ulver's steady evolution from metal to genre-busting electronic ambience. I couldn't resist asking about Ulver's BM roots, though. Kristoffer provided some clues to why Ulver is what it is today:
By the time we had brought Three Journeyes to fruition, black metal had turned into something that didn't interest us very much anymore. Back in the early days, Norwegian metal musicians employed powerful mythology and symbolism in their music and their image to emphasize a growing philosophy... and it had a certain shock value I suppose. But as those boys continued to evolve, and were maturing, people all over the world started doing the exact same thing, the perception of black metal had become worship and emulation. A banal kind of romanticism. Our change in direction came from a natural desire to take things to the next level. It was also a way of expressing a more complex reality, encompassing more than just a simple negation of Christianity or what have you.
HH: Well and true, Three Journeyes was followed up with 1998's Themes from William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", and reflected the bands expanding interests and artistic vision. It was here that the departure from a purist BM sound began. It was on Themes that explorations into cosmological and philosophical themes somewhat broader than classic BM began.
(Satanism) is not very relevant to me today. Although I appreciate the regard of the animal in man and all that, we've become increasingly skeptic. We would like to believe in somthing, some kind of truth, but we can't seem to find it, neither above or below.
HH: Don't think for a second that Ulver is now some bastion of positivity or a more constructive view of life, the darkness is still here in Shadows, perhaps more than ever. The band still express the futility of existence, and the inevitable conclusion to all life and human aspiration. I mentioned a recent Metal Edge review, where Phil Freeman wrote “Shadows Of The Sun makes me want to put on white robes and frolic in sun-dappled fields, occasionally stopping to roll in the grass. If medieval Christians had synths, they'd have made music that sounded like this...”, and asked point blank if we are to construe a sense of optimism in this release.
HH: Kristoffer expands on this finalistic statement...
There may be a little faith, but there is no hope... This is about looking at the world and nature, its beauty and cruelty. Nature is pretty fucking depressing, we are all here to die. And I guess we do what we do to forget the countdown, and there's a simple kind of beauty in that. The human resistance.
HH: Shadows is a sombre, melancholic masterpiece that the trio have wanted to do for a long time.
(It has) been important to us to make music that is unheard of... We feel like strangers in the music industry. We don't associate with most of what's going on either in the mainstream or the underground, sad to say. Music has become boring to me, it sucks. Each year there are like 3 or 4 releases that really impress me. The rest is just the same old shit in new wrapping.
HH: The alienation is still here in Ulver's music, a band that have grown beyond any genre, really-that's a rarity in music and art nowadays-a gem in fact. No single person steers Ulver, Kristoffer was keen to make the point that Ulver is ...
...a synthesis of Tore, Jn and myself, although I'm the founding father and spokesman.
HH: Ulver's ritual of writing music is to extrapolate a skeletal structure from 1 or 2 basic ideas, and to...
...stretch it out, play on top of it, and find the end or the beginning, or both ... combine the elements, Ouroboros style. We're not interested in traditional song structures, and are a lot more concerned with the subtle movements of certain sounds or words. We're not relying on rhymes, or linking sentences together to fit the riffs or shit like that... We'd rather repeat mantras.
HH: Interestingly, Tore Ylwizaker took a year off to learn about clasical composition, although Kristoffer claims “I am too whimsical for that... I would use a year off very differently. Gardening or something (laughs)”. I also asked him to pick 2 of what he felt were his favourite tracks on SOTS and tell me about them, and how they wrote this record:
“Those 2 tracks are “Eos” and “Funebre”. These are I feel the most successful tracks. Closest to what we had in mind initially. Our ambition was to make a calm record, a sad, dark and gorgeous record. Neither Eos nor Funebre has any percussion. In fact we wanted to make the whole album without percussion at first, but it was too difficult, as rhythm is such a backbone in most music.
HH: The album is soft, and an orchestral, ambient sensuality weaves in and out of Rygg's vocals, creating dark, smooth atmospheres.
So, just what is the essence of Ulver, the essence of a band that has constantly been an expression of restless experimentation, regardless of the medium, not just the conservative dollars-fueled machinery of genre?
To evolve. Not going under. And that ain’t always easy for us, with our escapist inclinations. Sometimes it feels as though you're just digging your own grave with all this...
HH: I ask, aren't you a little tortured, then?
I certainly am (laughs).
HH: So what's next? Kristoffer gave me some hints, but I think it's more exciting to wait and find out. Where will this journey end, if at all? That's the point, Ulver is a progression of ideas, a search for meaning, and excursions into what can be done with music, not the ongoing reproductions of a “style”. Before he hangs up, Kristoffer dredges up a quote from someone, somewhere, that neither of us could remember, but that says it all: “All work is in progress...never finished - only abandoned.”