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By Josť Carlos Santos
Terrorizer #00 2007

The trilogie formed by Ulver's first three albums in the mid '90s indicated an expansive force within black metal. Subsequent releases, however, revealed a restless creative spirit unwilling to be tied to any single genre. Shadows of the Sun is yet another artistic milestone; but is Ulver's album-to-album shapeshifting in danger of seeming little more than just another schtick? Josť Carlos Santos approached arch-trickster KRISTOFFER RYGG in the hope of illumination.


"It is a very curious hobby we have. To put this much meaning into nothing."

By norm, interviews with artists usually take place right after an album is done and ready for release. That's the most common excuse to go and chat with musicians, and then people call it promotion. It's rare that a musician gets a two-page space in a magazine if there isn't a product about to come out. With some musicians, however, sometimes you wish you could also talk to them on other occasions. Take Kristoffer Rygg, for example. The Ulver mainman is surely no less fascinating than if we had caught him six months ago, but the empty, almost bitter feeling that one gets from his discourse would surely be somewhat lifted if the man hadn't just finished the long and arduous process of creating yet another step on the atypical Ulver path. Rygg has reason to feel empty — Shadows of the Sun is Ulver's most naked and stark record so far, an elegant, atmospheric and above all emotional affair that, despite lacking any flamboyant avant garde-isms, isn't really comparable with anything else. It takes a lot out of a man to come up with this.

"I do feel empty right now," Rygg says, in his thoughtful voice. "I don't know if we can take things any further down this existentialist hellhole we've been in. It's kind of self-destructive to focus so much on these kinds of things, I know, but we are lucky we can vent it through music. Lyrically, the album is very simple. It's the basics - life, love, loss. And, of course, death. It's been a humbling record to make, and has kind of beaten us down. People will no doubt say that it's pretentious, but that's not how it felt when we were doing it."


It's interesting that one of the highlights of this deeply personal record should turn out to be a cover, and a Black Sabbath cover at that. More interesting still, it's a perfect fit with the rest of the album, as if Ulver had completely incorporated "Solitude" into their own framework.

"I've wanted to cover 'Solitude' for many years, but couldn't find the right occasion for it," he explains. "One day I was listening to Master of Reality, and I had never paid too much attention to the lyrics before, and that's when it hit me that it totally suited the record we were making. It's more of a soppy ballad, sure, but it also paraphrases our own lyrics somehow: The world is a lonely place/Crying and thinking is all I do. Basic heartbreak stuff... and I love it."

The lyrics on Shadows of the Sun seem more central to the overall feeling this time around. Did Rygg pay particularly close attention to the words for this album?

"Well, the lyrics are always the biggest challenge. We have these writer's nights sometimes, Jørn [Sværen] and I, where we go to my parents' cottage with something to drink, some music and just dedicate ourselves to writing. Naturally, most nights just end in drunken stupor, but we have found this to be a good way to work."

Rygg's willingness to bare his feelings and thoughts seems brave, but is Rygg concerned that such things often go unnoticed by the more oblivious portion of the band's audience?

"I don't have any concerns like that for this album. I know my own taste is very different from most peoples', and I try not to expect anything. The reaction will most likely be different from what I would envision anyway. It seldom is. In fact, it's quite far away most of the time," he laughs, "although it surprises me positively when people pick up on the small things. We throw some bones, some hidden references into the mix; and it's really cool when someone notices that."

Writer's nights, hidden references — is the erstwhile Trickster G. sure he's still a musician?

"I guess we share a thing or two with the writer's guild," he says with a mischievous grin.


Nowadays it's hard to think of Ulver as the black metal entity they once were. With many years of mutation between now and then, it almost seems like we're talking about another band. And we are, in a way, although a curious phenomenon has happened with Ulver, which is the relative lack of sell-out cries and stubborn armies of fans that refuse to let go of a more metal past. Which, considering Ulver are hardly a metal band these days, is quite an achievement.

"I've come to realize that there are a lot of people out there who grew up with us and followed our evolution. If it hadn't been for the first part of our career we definitely wouldn't have this kind of following. I mean, 70 per cent of the press I do is still metal-related, they still have an eye on us. It also helps that metal has such a unique position in terms of dedication of the fans, with the fanzine world and all that. Other kinds of music are much more subject to the market forces, you have to have a lot of money to get somewhere."

Ulver fans, metalheads or not, are surely used to expecting the unexpected by now. Shadows of the Sun is yet another stylistic shift, but will it truly shock anyone?

"I don't think anyone will be surprised," he states. "The shock value is gone, I think it went away with Metamorphosis. Since then, the changes haven't been fundamental at all. Put it this way, I'll be surprised if people are surprised. I think the shapeshifting story is one that has been greatly exaggerated by the media. There have been a couple of twists and turns after the Blake record [1998's Themes From William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell], that's granted, but nothing too significant. I see Ulver as having a part one and a part two. And that's a division that we already had in our minds before those first three albums were even finished. We already knew we were going somewhere else after Nattens Madrigal. Due to logistics, we had to wait almost two years until that one got released, and in the interim we had amassed a huge array of influences. We were out of our teens and our outlook was becoming more complex."

Speaking of influences, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where this album is coming from, apart from the inspired minds of the musicians involved. Shadows of the Sun, despite its stripped-down nature, manages to be quite unique, and desperate attempts at comparison by other similarly stumped hacks are little more than straw-clutching; David Sylvian in particular is frequently cited.

"Well, I can see why Sylvian has been brought up," reasons Rygg. "I guess we have a similar sense of aesthetic, some of that mature moodiness, hehe! But we're still worlds apart. If that's the closest reference they can come up with I'll just take it as a compliment."

"An influence often gets mistaken for wanting to sound like someone else," he ponders. "We're not influenced by anyone in that way. I'm a huge music fan and I have a fairly good scope on music history, but when I create I try to get away from most of the stuff that I like, rather than the opposite. I don't think things get very interesting just by emulating existing forms. It's too easy. All those so-called avant garde bands too, metal meets jazz and folk and what have you... it's not the new shit just because it combines contraries. I think it has to be more mercurial than that. More abstruse. But I'm not really saying that copy cats can't be cool cats. Take Turbonegro — it's awesome rock 'n' roll, but they have a totally different objective."


It's hard to imagine Ulver going that way, though. What goes through Rygg's head before starting to write an album? And what proportion of the musical ideas are already formed?

"One of the original ideas for this album was to have no percussion whatsoever," the frontman reveals. "We ended up having to use it but we limited it as much as we could. We usually have some sort of mental picture of what we're going to do and set out all sorts of guidelines for ourselves, you know, to get there. But as soon as we get working, the process takes precedence. The control room gets out of control, in a manner of speaking. We start with lots of belief in ourselves and our abilities, and end up in nothing but mistrust and dissolusion," he adds with sarcastic glee.

These songs sound like they could provide an evening of insurmountable shoegazing pleasure at a smoky venue near you. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.

"No live shows," he confirms. "Our very own way of doing everything contra the music business. When I'm finished with something like this, the last thing I want to do is go out and rehash it. We don't even know how to play half the instruments that we used to make this record, and it would be such a pain in the ass to reproduce it, I don't even want to think about it. I've never really enjoyed live music much. I just don't seem to get it, the staged musician, the crowd and the worship and all that. I like my music on headphones. I want it to be a personal experience. I suppose it's the music itself that interests me, not the people doing it."

This alienation brings to mind the quote on the Metamorphosis EP booklet: "We are as unknown to you as we always were." "It still applies. I suppose we're a snotty bunch. We have no interest in being part of any social scene. We don't understand our contemporaries. They don't understand us."

Reasons enough to pack it in? Or motivation to charge ahead once more?

"Sometimes I just feel like doing something else. Get a regular job and a steady paycheck. But I'm probably going to be here for a while more."

It's a curious hobby indeed.