ULVER_MESSEThe good people reading this blog will certainly not be offended if I start this review with a personal note. The problem is that, sometimes, I feel that in order to be able to express an individual judgement on an album, you have to try and see things from a different perspective. The world is full of people in bad faith and scribes with no taste in music, but problems arise when the two categories merge and ignorant self-assuredness is given a blank page and a word processor. With this in mind, the point of view on the opposite side of the spectrum is undoubtedly the most interesting and challenging one, so for this reason, and for this reason only, Messe I.X–VI.X is an incredibly arrogant and presumptuously conceited piece of contemporary music.

It is decadent, and decadence is, by definition, unavoidable and imperceptible by those living in it, because the mere realisation of its occurrence would almost immediately determine its fulfilment. Therefore Ulver seem to be completely unaware of the fact that their music is a fiery testimony of a luxuriously self-indulgent artistic attitude. I mean, contemporary classical music? Electronics? And what about this continuous changing and switching genres and styles on each and every album: what’s the purpose? Why? But even a person full of prejudices like my own temporary, idiotic alter ego has to admit that their state of continuous dissatisfaction is not only a tad suspicious but also, well, ‘interesting’. I give you that.

Ulver is haunted by the likes of Górecki, Mahler and Holst, true, but the subtle distinctness between the Norwegians and the contemporary purveyors of meta-music or tunes for commercials  (Yiruma, LudovicoEinaudi, Michael Rosenzweig, to name but a few) lies in the different degrees of adaptability, which one can easily (and, ultimately, subjectively) assign to each and every composer. In other words: if Giovanni Allevi’s Evolution (surely, a title that is a clever act of Italian humour at its best) is destined to remain modern, alas, for the next 20 years, Messe I.X–VI.X is so contemporary and compelling, that its newness is indissolubly connected to the present. Blame the band’s peculiar background, or their being new (although not entirely) to the language spoken on the album, or even the fact that they managed to capture a glimpse of their artistic restlessness – of their electronic soul – with a classical lens. But this album is so present-day that we will forget about it tomorrow. In the same fashion as nobody I know ever mentions the likes of Erik Satie or Camille Saint-Saëns at the cocktail parties my, less fortunate, real self never manages to attend.

The work in question saw the light when Ulver was commissioned new music by Norway’s Tromsø Kulturhus in participation with the Arctic Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra. Composer Martin Romberg assisted the band and, voila, the two musical entities performed the pieces in September 2012, although the final result is the consequence of many a tampering and alteration consequently carried out by Ulver themselves. Therefore not a live album in the literal sense, Messe I.X–VI.X posed a challenge to the band (Kristoffer Rygg, Ole Aleksander Halstensgård, Jørn H. Sværen and Tore Ylwizaker), which had to, once again, challenge its canon and come up with something that was good enough for a 21-piece orchestra. Did it work? I wish I could say ‘no’. Because unfortunately it does.

Ulver 2013

The dialectical interaction between the band and the ensemble is so tight that it becomes almost indiscernible. Take “Glamour Box (Ostinai),” for instance, where the poor old listener finds himself or herself in the middle of a musical kerfuffle without even realising it. The progression is so natural that even I have to concede that, well, it works. Shadows of the Sun — an album I can’t help but secretly like — can be heard here and there, but just assign a spatial coordinate to Pärt, Lasse Thoresen, Pierre Boulez and Ligeti, and Messe I.X–VI.X will be ideally found right in the only location equidistant from them all.

Ulver’s current stance on morality and spirituality is rather ambiguous, almost cerebral, if not subliminal. Thus, the band’s music is, on this album, rather enigmatic and opaque, and the lyrics (which are only present on two tracks) seem to confirm this impression. Gone are the good old days when a Norwegian band was an all too predictable artistic entity. Satanism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, neo-luddism, teenage angst, and plain racism: where have they gone? Who’ll tickle our senses and voice the most unmentionable feelings society imposes us to repel? Not Ulver, I’m afraid. In fact, Rygg even seems to even apologise on “Son of Man:” “Oh Father, Heavenly Father, forgive me / for I have sinned, against Your word / in sadness and joy / in rainbow light / and the dark woods.”

It is such a simple and material prayer that one could almost touch it. And that is rather disappointing, because I was supposed to tell you how snobby and pompous these guys are. No more William Blake and convolution? Devil of a man that is that Garm! Lo and behold, once these words are sang, it is already too late: the laical ceremony reaches its climax and the final, terrestrial communion is reaffirmed by a group of old Italian women filling the air with their pleads to the Holy Virgin. The circle closes, the decadence can rise.

Please note that neither the word ‘black’, nor the word ‘metal’ has been used in the making of this review on Ulver. Therefore it is possible: it is definitely possible.

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  • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

    Please, please, please: as a proud heir of the roman empire (yes, I am italian), don’t embarass my country further by naming, listening to or otherwise aknowledging the existence of the infamous sorry excuse for a musician that goes by the name of Giovanni Allevi. We are more than capable of embarassing ourselves in very many ways, so don’t twist the knife. Giovanni Allevi does not exist. Remember Italy for the Ulver theorem instead (really found it on a fanzine in 2004): “First records good, everything else is shit”. I disagree, but is by far the best way to give an opinion about a band you don’t know. 100% success rate! Sorry for the rambling. The record sounds good, got to give it a few more spins but it works.

    • soma

      dear italian fellow, “please, please, please” note that the word ‘Allevi’ has been used in an ironical and (subtly) polemical way.. no animals were harmed.

  • May I summarize? “I don’t want to like this, but I do. Check it out.”

    The sheer number of influences, that would seem on paper like diametrically opposites within the musical spectrum, in which Ulver is able to assimilate and re-purpose to create these dark, ambiguously cohesive (you touch upon that a bit) compositions is simply mind boggling.

    With all of that said, I sure miss the good’ole days of Bergtatt!

    What the heck are they going to play at MDF this year? Be real interesting to see what the pit looks like.

    • alexfranquelli

      Thanks for summarizing it. Next time you may even read it.

  • Feytalist

    I picked this up as soon as it came out.

    It’s… difficult. Difficult to listen to, *really* listen to. Whenever I try, I find myself drifting, only brought back in sections of Glamour Box and Son of Man.

    But damn if this album doesn’t do things. The first song (with the oh-so-subtle name) is such an unassuming, haunting little thing, but it sticks with you the whole day.

    The album is obviously some sort of experiment. I dunno if it works. I *do* know that I’m interested to see whatever Ulver will do next. Everything after Shadows of the Sun (which I happen to really, really like) has been sort-of a let-down, but Messe is… interesting.

  • Innit Bartender

    Another Italian here. Giovanni “media-darling-for-wallpaper-music-for-shitty-people-who-want-to-seem-cool” Allevi nominated HERE? I’m leaving this site. Steel Drhum, the only thing you can do to make me stay is review Malnatt’s discography. I’m serious.
    And I saw Ulver in Parma and they were great.

    • I don’t negotiate with musical terrorists. And who the hell are Malnatt??

      • P.S. You’ll be back!

        • Innit Bartender

          You know it…

  • Barbacuprum

    Dude you are on ULVER’s facebook page!!

    • We here at AMG <3 Ulver.

      • Barbacuprum

        you and me both braw, you and me both.. [extracts essence of jealousy]

  • I have thrown this record to people more used to listening this type of music than myself, and they all agree, it starts slow, as if they try too hard to sound like some musicians that have done this kind of sound all their lives, then they start to put their own imprint on it, that’s where the album starts to shine. I, by my own insctinct, since I have almost no experience listening to chamber music, like it a lot, but I’m a self-declared ULVER fanboi. I can barely contain my excitement for their upcoming collab with Sunn O))).,

  • Vega Magnus

    Another good album for “Things You Might Have Missed” is Purson’s The
    Circle and the Blue Door. You guys really should review that.

    • McBasstard

      I heard these guys on XM radio. Pretty good album.

  • beatoangelico

    this is the most overwritten music review I’ve ever read.

    P.S. I didn’t like the album, it goes dangerously close to soundtrack territory.

    • alexfranquelli

      Agree.

    • I think it’s underwritten and needs more flowery prose.