Ulver are one of my favourite bands of all time, yet, in the same sentence, I can honestly confess that there are times in which I truly do not understand them or their praise, at all. That’s all baggage that comes with being a fan of a “never do the same thing twice” sort of band, but even the greatest chameleons in music keep some form of songwriting consistency or elements throughout their changes that are distinctly ‘them’. “Distinctly Ulver” really is just synonymous with “unpredictable”.
I was a bit skeptical coming into this, the ridiculously titled ATGCLVLSSCAP (for those who haven’t cracked the code, it’s an acronym of the star signs), not only because of the fact that one should generally always be skeptical of a new Ulver record, but because I was such a big fan of their recent sound, and didn’t really want them to change. The progression of Ulver, though very detailed, has always more or less been a linear one, with elements of the band’s previous record regularly being on their new albums in little shades, such that no transition is an enormous leap, but leaping with each release adds up to something enormous on the whole.
The “classical era” (after the metal era, the avant era, the bleep bloop era and the ambient nonsense era before it) of Ulver, with 2013’s Messe I.X–VI.X and 2014’s Terrestrials, was just astounding. After a while of making gloomy ambience with synths and electronics, they changed up and brought in a full orchestra to make their gloomy ambience, and it worked beautifully. The band themselves barely played a note on Messe, instead sitting back and creating one of the best examples of orchestra drone ambient that I have ever heard. And on Terrestrials, with Sunn O)))’s grim guitars providing extra doom, they created an album that I would put up for debate as their finest yet. Orchestral music had never sounded so haunting, and Ulver had never sounded so well composed. But there was an almost incomplete feeling to that album. Not in a sense that it wasn’t properly put together, but in the sense that it felt like if they did it again, with more knowledge of the style they were making, it could be absolutely phenomenal. Drone ambient with horns and strings playing drones and not symphonies is such an inspired idea, and I long to hear more of it.
In that sense, I could label ATGCLVLSSCAP a massive disappointment, for it is not really what I wanted them to do. But obviously, knowing this band, I didn’t expect them to make a proper sequel to Terrestrials, or even to make an album that even has a single thing in common with it. There is a bit in common here, as usual, but this is, again, an entirely different record from an entirely different band. Their constant inspiration never fails to amaze me, especially considering how little time they spend in each sector. They could take cues from an artist like Steven Wilson, who will make two or three albums in the same vein, each better than the last, and on moving onwards when he feels like he’s nailed that style. But Ulver will be Ulver, and no matter how much you feel they have unfinished business, they will continue to move.
This album, in concept, feels a lot more like 2003’s Svidd Neger or 2012’s Childhood’s End within their catalogue, in which they took a true left field turn in their narrative, by producing an album that isn’t really even an album. The recordings of this album, if I’m to believe the press release, are entirely made up of improvisations done whilst on tour in early 2014, added to and spruced up with production tricks until they basically just sound like real, recorded songs. A fascinating concept, no doubt, as the band did not compose any new music in the time, unless you count adding layers onto a jam as composing. The inclusion of a new version of “Nowhere” from Perdition City (retitled “Sweet Sixteen” as a reference to that album’s upcoming birthday) does remind you that this is in fact a live album in its core, but the rest of the record has been layered and re-glossed so many times that you wouldn’t have a clue that any of this was live, or improvised, if you just listened to it blind. With Ulver already having announced their next record, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, before this album even came out, it could be easy to dismiss this as “just a live album”, and “not canon”, but it is certainly much more than that, and it’s evident the band want you to consider it as a full studio album.
At its core, this is basically an eighty-minute instrumental jam album, with far better recording quality than most instrumental jam albums, and a little bit more cohesiveness due to the added bonus of the band being able to cut out a lot of garbage afterwards. The words “influenced by krautrock” get flung around in press releases by basically anyone who knows enough about music history to get some free hipster street cred, but here it is not only true, it’s almost the centre of the entire record. No doubt music purists will get their panties in a twist saying that an album in 2016 by a Norwegian band can never be part of a German sound from the 70’s, but songs like “Glammer Hammer” and “Cromagnosis”, with the loopy drum patterns, synth ditties, repetitive but catchy bass grooves and miscellaneous guitar wanderings on top are practically the definition of motorik. There’s a link here with the sounds that Steven Wilson experimented with in his early days with Porcupine Tree, as he was also greatly influenced by krautrock, but the sound layering and production here is miles above anything he could achieve at the time. A song like “Cromagnosis” would not sound at all out of place on a record like Signify.
The ambient sounds of records like Shadows of the Sun, and indeed Terrestrials, are still here, whenever the band aren’t in a driving motorik beat, but unlike the cathartic synths on Shadows or the droning orchestra of Terrestrials, the ambient flavour here is a touch more uplifting and smooth. The synths are back in droves here, and are often the source of great ambience, like the fantastic bagpipe-esque sound in opener “England’s Hidden” or the stretched drone of “D-Day Drone”, but there is also a return of the cheese that Ulver temporarily dropped during their orchestral era, with “Desert Dawn” not being too far off being a corny dungeon synth bedroom project track. Touches of the organic orchestral sound of Terrestrials are here in small tastes, with little horn parts fluttering around the place adding wonderfully to the texture of the ambience.
The vast majority of the album is instrumental, to the point in which I was quite shocked the first time when the vocals rocked up in “Nowhere”. An edited live version of the song from Ulver’s most popular record, it provides a much needed break in monotony after the album starts to go off the deep end a bit in the middle. Because as much as many of these ambient and psychedelic pieces are pretty good, they are often quite long, and stacked together they do start to lose the listener a bit. The vocal inclusion comes a touch late, in my opinion, because I had almost dozed off before “Gold Beach” even arrives, but it does pull the album back on track for a strong finish. “Ecclesiastes” continues the vocals, and is my personal favourite song on the record, though it has a lot more common with post-rock groups like Sigur Ros than the psych rock Ulver had been channeling for the majority of the album.
As far-fetched as it may sound, you could pull comparisons from 1998’s avant-metal monolith, Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which had massive problems with concept, length, and cohesiveness, despite having some very impressive moments. ATGCLVLSSCAP is no doubt the better of the two, due to a generally more interesting sonic premise, as well as the redemption of the last few songs, but both die off into monotonous boredom after strong beginnings, partially due to a front-loaded stack of compositions, but also due to the general album style not being one that can hold the listener for very long. Because, well, it just isn’t interesting enough. Especially not for eighty minutes.
ATGCLVLSSCAP is a good album, and another fascinating addition to a fascinating band’s catalogue, but unlike its two predecessors, it is not likely to be named by anyone when addressing the great albums or sonic shifts by Ulver. Psychedelic jams are certainly many people’s cups of tea, so there will be fans, but those wanting the timbrally and texturally fascinating instrumentation of Terrestrials will be left slightly dry with the return of the synth domination. The inclusion of vocals in the latter half of the album is inspired, and helps the album recover from a bit of middle-order boredom, and if it was a touch shorter it would be an enjoyable listen from start to finish. Another intriguing shift in sound from Ulver, and a success for the most part, I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in hearing how instrumental jams would sound with really strong production values.