Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner
In the previous two rounds of the Only Solitaire Review Game, my luck wasn’t that great. I was assigned Preservation: Act 1 by The Kinks, which I found mediocre, and Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater, which was pretty enjoyable if overblown. Neither one was an album that I truly loved or at the very least was intrigued enough by to want to revisit immediately.
It’s perhaps ironic that this album, which is mostly a canvas of ambience rather than a set of songs a la its predecessors, is the one that grabbed me so strongly, but there you are. Perhaps it helps that, unlike The Kinks and Dream Theater, whose reputations precede them, Ulver is a group I was utterly unfamiliar with going into the listening experience. Regardless of the answer, despite its daunting length (80+ minutes), it’s a record I want to revisit almost immediately.
I never would have known this album was mostly recorded live had I walked into it blind. True, it consists of multiple live shows overdubbed on top of one another, and additional studio trickery has been applied, but the sound is so pristine that even then it’s hard to believe any of it was recorded in front of an audience. It’s comprised of dense sonic layers, sweeping synths and chiming bells and swirling guitars and pounding drums piling on top of each other in a sound that’s misty and enticing rather than an overblown Phil Spector mood. Apart from two penultimate tracks, there are no vocal melodies, merely vague chanting and vocalizing that serve to supplement rather than dominate the music.
Without driving melodies or intricate structures, it would be easy for the songs to turn into so much ethereal self-indulgence, noodling their way into a directionless new-age haze, but this thankfully doesn’t happen. Lack of melody doesn’t mean lack of direction or power, and the record has those to spare. It’s not very helpful to say that it sounds like many great SF/F stories read, but that was the thought that kept recurring to me as I listened; there’s an otherworldly, beautiful aether that runs throughout the music. The only place this falls apart comes with the aforementioned duo of penultimate songs, “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)” and “Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)”. It’s here that vocal melodies become prominent, grounding the music in a way that doesn’t really suit it and injecting a force of individual personality where it isn’t wanted. This is especially damaging on the latter track, whose lyrics consist mostly of a recitation of a passage from the titular book of the Bible. Beautiful poetry, obviously, but it can’t help but feel canned when it’s sung over music; it smacks of empty pretension, as if the artist felt he had something important to communicate but fell back on a Biblical text because he couldn’t be bothered to say it in a new, interesting way. Yuck.
This misstep aside, however, this is an engrossing and frequently gorgeous piece of work. It’s already a part of my iTunes library, and I hope upon further listens to uncover a myriad of new things to appreciate.