Ulver // War of the Roses
Rating: 2.0/5.0 —Oh Nattens Madrigal where have you gone?
Websites: jester-records.com/ulver | myspace.com/ulver1
Release Dates: EU: 2011.04.25 | US: 05.03.2011
Ulver is one of the greatest metal bands ever. If there were a “Big 4” for 90s metal, Ulver would be one of them because those first three records, Bergtatt, Kveldssanger and Nattens Madrigal (for the uninitiated) are absolutely essential Norwegian black metal records (obviously Kveldssanger isn’t black metal per se, but it is still an awesome record). But, of course, that same experimental drive that pushed the band into black metal also pushed them out of it, and Garm has been very critical of the scene since leaving it. That said, Ulver is also like Katatonia or Anathema in that their post-(extreme) metal music has been widely accepted by metalheads largely because of the already existing cred. But I get the feeling that War of the Roses will try that patience.
War of Roses continues the band’s experimental movement beyond black metal and also beyond their critically acclaimed Blood Inside and Shadows of the Sun. At this point, I’d just call them experimental rock or post-rock or… whatever, this isn’t metal. What it is, however, is a slightly orchestrated tracks which verge on ambient most of the time. While some of this is very cool, like the beginning of the track “Providence,” this record is more miss than hit. The aforementioned track spirals downard quickly into R&B styled, but breathy singing which feels weird, out of place – despite an amazing peak in the middle of the track. Another major miss is the final 14 minute talky track “Stone Angels,” which while poetically interesting is not much more than that and after the first listen I had trouble getting through it again.
Also, I’ve really always been impressed by Garm’s voice is in metal (he is hands down my favorite black metal vocalist and one of my favorite clean vocalists if you consider his work in Arcturus and Ulver), but there’s something that at times feels off about his vocals here – like walking into your living room and finding everything has been moved slightly to the left. He has such a blunt, forceful tone that lacks vibrato, which creates a very strange feeling in the slower, more delicate pieces because it’s like painting with a cudgel. Sometimes the nuances and differences are more volume shifts than tone shift and at times this hampers music that an emotive, delicate voice might work better in. What’s odd is that War of the Roses is the first post-black metal record he’s written where I had that feeling; so maybe it’s the production or a stylistic choice.
That said, there is some good stuff on here. I like the opening track “February MMX,” and the stretch from “September IV” to “Island” is enjoyable atmospheric rock with IDM underlay that really works in the context of the music. Everything here moves slowly and there’s even the occasional malevolent feeling, but largely the music is just pretty chill. “Island” is where Garm sounds best, and the mix is very cool. The song writing reminds me of indie bands I dare not mention here, but needless to say it’s almost like the softer side of Porcupine Tree or Anathema. The use of soundscapes and flutes and chirping birds definitely gives an Anathema feel at the end, as well.
Unfortunately, though, some good moments and three great songs are not enough to save War of the Roses for me. Largely I ended up bored or frustrated while listening to this record. It’s also very difficult to say to whom this record would appeal. It could appeal to fans of Ulver‘s later stuff, but I was a fan of the band through the Silence EPs and I’m not particularly taken by this. Blood Inside and Shadow of the Sun fans might dig it, but they might also feel let down. And so I’m left with the impression that Ulver has once again done what they have done many times before: pulled a 180 on their fanbase. They’ve turned it into an art, by now. Now if only they’d make a black metal record to really piss off the fans who like War of the Roses.