SHADOWS OF THE SUN | INTERVIEWS | REVIEWS | PRESS RELEASE|
Written by Rob Hughes
Unrestrained #36 2007
With many rock bands, once a career spans seven albums, there's a tendency to go into auto-pilot mode. It's easy to focus on the tried-and-true, working at keeping the machine going instead of potentially blowing it with needless artistic risks. Ulver, Norway's icons of metal-and-beyond, are not like many other bands. They operate according to their own internal logic, where reinvention is the rule, and notions like "sticking with a formula" or "returning to the roots" become laughable. With 12 musically turbulent years behind them, Ulver's quest to transcend the mundane must be starting to take its toll on their vocalist/mainman Kristoffer Garm Rygg. "Making music is definitely getting harder by the year," he admits. "I think there's a lot of music that's good, but not particularly interesting. It's easy to make music these days, but to make music that stands out isn't easy at all."
Although Rygg has cultivated a career free of touring obligations, he still finds himself flying away on band business, as on this occasion where he's in New York to do press for Ulver's newest work, Shadows of the Sun (The End), an album both chilled-out and intense, a nine-song investigation of unfathomable melancholy. While pining for the fresh air and greenery of home, Rygg wanders the city and attempts to explain the emotional backdrop to the album's recording.
"Personally I had a rough year," he says. "The kind of dubious outlook that I've had lately...it's taken its toll. I'm a diagnosed depressive, and should have been trying to focus on living, but instead I've immersed myself in some isolated, dark and paranoid place. It has no doubt helped make this album what it is, but it's a prison of the mind."
The darkness that saturates the album came purely from within, it seems.
"I'm snapping out of it. Thankfully, I've got forces in life that are more structural and positive," Rygg explains. "I have two wonderful kids and a beautiful wife, so there's love and responsibility as well. But, you know, sometimes all I see is darkness; it's fucking overpowering. So this record is about venting out a lot of that stuff, the gloom, but it also represents some kind of quiet acceptance. Like this is how the situation is, and you're just gonna have to live with it. Use it for what it's worth."
Pessimism and the threat of failure seem to be constants in Rygg's past comments about his work. Most serious artists feel these things while contemplating that miserable, portentous gulf between inspiration and execution. Despite the agony of the creative process, and considering Ulver's substantial discography, Rygg must be satisfied with his work on some level.
"Yeah, of course," he says. "Music is one of the things that puts meaning into my life, so I try to put some meaning back into music as well. There's too much flimsy stuff out there from before.
"I'd rather take a job as a garbage disposal man than play in a regular rock band. We wish to make music that's in a world of its own. I suppose we don't have a very democratical—how do you say?—Weltanschauung. And I suppose there's an alien quality to what we do because we are playing out in the periphery instead of playing it safe."
Shadows of the Sun is a spectral excursion that soothes and disturbs in equal measure. Reining in the bombast of 2005's Blood Inside, Ulver has created a haunting sort of chamber music that sounds like the result of a very isolated, insular collaborative process. But don't go picturing the band hiking aimlessly through forests or working by candlelight in a snowbound cabin. For Ulver, isolation is more of a state of mind than an actual physical dislocation.
"We have a studio in Oslo and it's been like regular work," says Rygg, "but with a pretty strong focus on recording and making music and going home and turning the world off. We've had too much of the scenester shit, and have no wish to see ourselves from the outside at all. In that sense it's been an isolationist process."
The most striking thing about Shadows of the Sun is its sparse approach. Songs like "Eos" and "All the Love" are mostly just piano and voice, with occasional strings and horns to bolster the sound. The restraint and discipline is most apparent, especially considering the layered density that characterized Blood Inside.
"I was pretty set on keeping it more bare this time," confirms Rygg. "When we did Blood Inside we'd been holding back with all that minimal stuff for so long—the soundtracks [Lyckantropen Themes and Svidd Neger], the Silence EPs and all that. So Blood Inside was an outburst of sorts. I guess this record is a withdrawal again, so that's an inherent dynamic...flux and reflux."
It's clear from Ulver's past albums-say, the all-acoustic meditation Kveldssanger, the raw black metal of Nattens Madrigal, or the cool atmosphere of Perdition City-that the band prefer to have a strict set of rules and parameters in place before recording. "Yeah, we usually have a plan of action," says Rygg, "but of course the process has an agenda of its own. So it's a combination of will and void."
Finding continuity between Ulver albums is a frustrating exercise because each one does represent a distinct aesthetic. However, Kveldssanger, their second album, and the new opus share a common element in that most sombre of bowed instruments, the cello.
"I love the sound of wood," explains Rygg. "We worked a lot with simulating stringed instruments, so it's always good for us to get some people in and play the real thing. I suppose strings and piano are our instruments of preference; those are the sounds we like to work with. That timbre, you know? In terms of writing music-not that we really write music per se, but say we did write music, we'd write it for strings and piano."
"A lot of times when we get musicians into the studio we just get them to play along with preliminary ideas or themes. We can record hours of music and end up using one minute of it. But this time we had the body of the songs before the string quartet came, and we wrote down a partitur for them. It was a little more disciplined than before."
We're not used to the idea of studio-bound musicians improvising, especially in the realm of metal and all its varied offshoots. Improvising is the foundation of jazz, or the stuff of 30-minute Allman Brothers jams. It seems unlikely that music as concise and impeccable as Ulver's would spring from a loose process of casting about for ideas, but that is how they make the magic happen. Rygg describes it as "the music finding itself."
"We work a lot with music, and a lot of the stuff we work on doesn't go anywhere, so it's all about experimenting with something that has some potential form. It's about the music taking its own form, its own shape."
For the listener, those shapes are often unpredictable, more linear than cyclic. "Like Music," for example, begins as a very pleasant piano and cello-based number, then veers into a dark and disturbing corridor of random sounds that sap the song of the sweetness threatened by its first half. Repeating verses and choruses are almost nonexistent on Shadows of the Sun. Are Ulver deliberately subverting those hackneyed old conventions of songwriting?
"I wouldn't say that," says Rygg. "A lot of the things we write are very concrete, but we never want to overdo anything. It's better if something is too short than too long, in my opinion…if it leaves you wanting more. The thing is we use a lot of loops as foundation, and it functions for a short while, but then it starts to waver, you know? It's kind of a musical science. The concrete culminating in the abstract."
Amongst the strings, pianos, and all looped variants thereof, the album features the theremin, that sci-fi soundtrack staple and wonder of pre-WW2 electronics. With the instrument being rediscovered by a whole new generation of sonic adventurers, it made sense that Ulver got in touch with famed thereminist Pamelia Kurstin to lend some spectral touches to the album.
"I have a friend in Austria who plays in a prog band called Tuner with the drummer of King Crimson," says Rygg. "I was doing some vocals for their record, and they had used Pamelia. So I went to listen to her stuff and sent her a mail and that was that."
One of the most unnerving tracks on Shadows... is a faithful yet Ulverized cover of Black Sabbath's "Solitude." Ulver's version taps into the forlorn simplicity of the original, using it to bolster the crippling melancholy that pervades the rest of the album. Although it's surprising that Ulver, a band so individual in their own right, would include a cover version on one of their own albums, there has been talk of the band recording an entire disc of covers in the future. However, Rygg denies that "Solitude" has any connection to that upcoming project.
"Since we currently can't see the future, a covers album seems like a proper intermediate. I always loved that song ['Solitude']; it makes me want to cry every time I hear it. So it's just a natural-it felt like it could be on the record, with lyrics and a sound akin to our own. I think it fits. But the covers album, that's something I've been thinking about for a while. That's going to be a little more like a tribute to obscure vintage stuff; Bands like The Left Banke, Electric Prunes and so forth. Ridiculously good music that has been more or less forgotten."
So it's safe to say that the Sabbath covers stop here, and that "Iron Man" or "The Wizard" or any other classic metal song won't be gracing the next Ulver album. In fact, the covers album will be more of a band project, recorded live with guest players including Anders Møller (My Midnight Creeps, Euroboys, and others) as well as '60s garage rock aficionado Lars Pedersen from When, who are released through Rygg's own Jester Records.
"Lars [Pedersen] has really opened up a whole new world showing me this stuff. We're definitely exploiting his record collection," he laughs. "We're going deep into the whole psychedelic '60s baroque pop kind of territory. We're just finding the right songs that we can contextualize from an Ulver kind of angle. I know it probably sounds strange, like there's a missing link, but hopefully we can make people see this music in a different candlelight."
In the meantime, listeners can hunker down for the long, dark night of the soul that is Shadows of the Sun. Having cast Ulver's darkness around the world for well over a decade, Rygg sums up his attitude towards the band's black metal past and the new music he's just released.
"I release a record and it's like shaking off a demon. It's out and I don't want to have anything to do with it anymore."
Ulver will only look ahead to their next challenge, which lurks somewhere beyond the shadows.
HOWLS FROM THE PAST
Unrestrained! lets Kristoffer Garm Rygg loose on Ulver's recorded legacy.
Ulver's debut was a seminal work of folk-inflected black metal that sounds shockingly assured considering Garm was all of 16 when it was recorded.
"We were influenced by a period known as the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway (1536—1814)—the language and literature of that era combined with the superstition and folklore of the Middle Ages. It was the kind of stuff we were learning about in school at the time. When it comes to music, we were already listening to a whole slew of other things, and already had our two next records in mind, so by the time Nattens Madrigal  was released, we had developed a strong urge to explore something else. We had also acquired the knowledge of how to do so in the meantime."
The first of several about-faces, Kveldssanger drew its quiet power from intertwining acoustic guitars, sparse, cleanly sung vocals, and cello.
"I was just the singer, but I partook in the composition as well. I made some of the riffs, but I can't play the guitar very well. A lot of those songs were developed in the studio with basically a riff and a click track and layering the guitars. When a second theme came on top of the first theme we could kind of drop the first theme and develop on the second theme, and that's how we pieced the whole thing together. So it was, in a way, experimental. It was following its own natural logic, so to speak. We really didn't have a lot composed before we went into the studio, so already then we were using the studio as an instrument—as we still do—even though we had a more limited palette. And of course we had a different set of influences, or a narrower set of influences."
Nattens Madrigal (1997)
One of the most fabled and controversial albums in metal, Ulver's one-off for Century Media's Century Black imprint was a grim blast of ultra-raw BM, recorded, so they say, on a four-track in the forest. And did they really blow their advance money from Century Media on new suits and a muscle car?
"Do you really think that Century Media advanced us so much that we could buy a black Corvette? Maybe some suits and drugs; I won't deny that. Or deny that we recorded it cheap. I'll let the myth carry on.
"We didn't have anything to do with those rumours. The moment the big labels picked up black metal, that was the beginning of the end of black metal as far as I see it. They started to exploit the genre by stuff like that-dumb sales pitches-that took the heart out of a lot of it. It became very banal. I'm not blaming Century Media, but I definitely think that that marked the beginning of the end of black metal for me. Putting out Nattens Madrigal via a big label was kind of an antagonistic move. They probably expected a prettied-up Bergtatt, you know? We didn't want to conform to any business model. We still don't. It got into the mainstream and people became very adept at playing and producing professional records, and as a result of that it lost a lot of the magic that it held to me when I was a teenager listening to old Celtic Frost rehearsals, or old Mayhem demos. I'm still very much like that. I'd rather listen to old lo-fi recordings than the perfect retro-band, you know. So I was part of a different scene, a different vibe.
"We composed Nattens Madrigal quite quickly after Bergtatt. And while we were rehearsing the Madrigal we recorded Kveldssanger, the second one. So I think that we spent about a year on that record. It was written in '95, recorded in '96, and was finally released early '97."
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1998)
With their "black metal trilogie" finished, Ulver leapt into the great beyond with this fusion of metal, techno, and ambient. The chopped-up musical approach provided the backdrop to the sung/spoken vocals, which used William Blake's work for lyrics.
"We spent a couple of years designing [this album], so that was by far the most serious and elaborate musical process we undertook at the time. I had started getting into computers and how you could use different softwares to manipulate sounds, and that led to the expansion of the palette, and how we made music. That was an interest which was there from the beginning. I think the whole perception that we just made a 180-degree shift towards something else is not entirely correct. I think we just wanted to leave the black metal thing because we felt it was limiting. Our perspectives on religion and society had started to become more difficult as well. That's why Blake was hugely interesting to us, because it was just so much more of a meticulous vision than the dissentient perspective we were part of at the time. You're always more angry when you're young and you become more moderate as you grow older so that's why Blake was fascinating to us. That was the start of chapter two, if you will, of our history.
"I was hugely into Coil and I found their music to be immensely fascinating. I checked out all their references-Chaos magick, Alfred Jarry, Austin Spare and Blake and so forth. I was in London in '96 on a trip together with Ihsahn of Emperor and we went to this place, Atlantis Bookshop, a quite legendary bookstore for occult literature and stuff like that. I picked up a beautiful copy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and it just blew me away. I totally identified with his [William Blake] way of seeing things, even though it is profoundly personal stuff."
Perdition City (2000) and soundtracks
Another leap forward in sophistication, Perdition City blended chilly electronica with saxophone and piano, removing all traces of metal while retaining a sense of menace.
"It's like I say, we only have three consistent albums. I think Nattens Madrigal is one, I think Perdition City is one, and I think this new one. They all sound pretty dead set. We were heavily into stuff like Amon Tobin, Warp Records, et cetera, and that certainly influenced the sound of that one."
"[Making film soundtracks] was more painstaking work than we thought. It's exciting work, but it's also more commercially orientated. You can apply your own tastes and your own vision, of course, but only to a certain extent. It always comes down to what the director and producers have in mind. And I respect that, as they are the ones with lots of money at stake. As a musician, it's an advantage if you get involved early in the process, before the editing is done because then you can cross edit sounds and images for better momentum or what have you. Whereas if the stuff is already edited, it can be difficult to get it to fit. Also, you have to learn to put your ego aside because the film itself is obviously the priority, so it's not like making an album. It's not music on its own terms. It's an underscore, aimed more at the subconscious experience. In a cinema context, you're not really supposed to listen to the music, but feel it."
Blood Inside (2005)
Blood Inside was a cavalcade of sonic shocks, assaulting the listener with crashing percussion, spasming synths, horn fanfares, and Garm's stunning vocal gymnastics.
"That was a very anarchistic album. We reveled in the freedom of not having to play by anyone's rules, our own included. With the EPs and all the stuff we did before, we had rules. The Silence EPs had rules because they were all based on mishaps. That's the whole concept of glitch music. It has to be based on sounds that aren't intended, in a sense. We also had rules laid out for the soundtracks, naturally, so Blood Inside got a little out of control. We just went all over the whole spectrum. I think it's a solid record but it's very different from what we've done now. I think we made some good music. I think the track 'Christmas,' for instance, and 'Your Call' are good tracks. 'Your Call' was, by the way, a song that influenced this [new] record. It set off the musical tone for this record."
Shadows of the Sun (2007)
As noted previously, the sorrowful sound of Shadows... was the result of much improvisation and editing. In his parting comments, Rygg describes how the band drew from its vast stockpile of music to flesh out the album.
"The first song, 'Eos,' is an embellishment of a piece that we did for a funeral theme in the movie Uno. So you can use the same source material in different contexts. If you're in a different place at a different time and in a different frame of mind you can use stuff that originally didn't go anywhere, and make something of it. So yeah, we keep everything, but, man, it's a lot of music and ideas lying on the backups these days. I'm guessing 10 per cent of what we start ends up as something presentable. We feel like a lot of things are interesting for 30 seconds or so, but then what? We could probably sell riffs to rock bands, sell hundreds of riffs or piano themes or whatever, but our main problem is to tie elements together—to 'bring it home,' as they say. We are quite selective."