Yer Metal Is Olde is a recurring thing that we’re using to fill up space while we scramble around looking for reviews of new material that is worth reviewing. The idea was spurred on by the swath of amazing and classic records that are turning 10, 20, or 30 this year. It’s crazy to think that all the stuff that we worship is really as old as it is. Time moves quickly, but these classics never seem to lose their shine. Still, their enduring quality doesn’t change that your favorite metal is fucking old. Note: our focus today, Ulver‘s Bergtatt is actually only 19 years old, but it was recorded in 1994 and for some reason I thought it was released then, too. Once I’d written this retro-review, I discovered that I was wrong. While it makes it less Olde, it’s not so much less. And it certainly deserves recognition.

Ulver - Bergtatt

Ulver is best remembered in the metal scene for Nattens Madrigal, which was their first Century Media release. That record was a raw, grating and an ultimately ecstatic celebration of black metal that has become a polarizing classic in its own right. But the band’s most creative contribution to the scene was before that—1995, to be exact—their debut full-length: Bergtatt – Et eventyr i 5 capitler. This album is very much the opposite of what Nattens Madrigal was; it was an attempt to make melodic black metal, with folklore and national romanticism as a backdrop for the band’s immature—but innovative—vision of where the scene was and how they could do something novel in a sound that was already pretty well-established.

In some ways, the best way to explain the importance of Bergtatt is to point out the number of bands that have followed in Ulver‘s footsteps. Because the band used clean vocals and strange harmonies, but blended those with blasts, mid-paced Bathory riffing and a lot of reverb, they created a sound that has become quite ubiquitous today. When I listen to bands like AgallochCormorant, Alcest and October Falls the nods—and, to be generous, “quotations”1—to Bergtatt are numerous. And Ulver paved a way for bands that weren’t necessarily directly influenced by the band—like Vintersorg—to go their own way and be accepted. Bergtatt could be painted as the very first entry in the post-black metal movement. Musically, the album is focused on melody and atmosphere, it blends black metal with acoustics, reverb, and gorgeous, melancholic songwriting. It even eschews Satanism in text and imagery. Except Ulver was right there when it all went down; outsiders to a scene of outsiders.

Ulver 1997 - Inlay from Nattens Madrigal

Bergtatt speaks to that unique identity and a vision that black metal could be something else, with its audial storytelling. Bergtatt‘s flow—moving between thoughtful acoustic parts, droning vocals, atmospheric sounds and stories while interlacing blast beats and Garm’s remarkable black metal shrieks—made the album special. The “five chapters” are intertwined admirably with each other and the story of being “taken by the mountain,” which showed a level of sophistication and a love of album construction that was a sign of things to come. “Graablick blev hun vaer” is famous for its “person walking through the snow” sounds that were later quoted on Agalloch‘s The Mantle, while “Een Stemme locker” was a sign of records to come, showing off Kveldssanger‘s sound already there. The title track closed the album off with a perfect statement of a blend melody and an acoustic outro that is one of the best moments on any album I own. All the music contained within is magical, mysterious and evocative; words that one would hardly have associated with the other bands of the scene.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that Bergtatt is the work of kids. These guys weren’t old, they weren’t seasoned; they were 16 and 17 when they started this band, and 18/19 when Bergtatt dropped on the famous Head Not Found label 2 years later. They were—from Garm’s own mouth—not super mature or sophisticated.  While some of the ideas of Bergtatt and the rest of the trilogy might reflect that, I think it might be worth looking at the record from the other direction and admiring what it took to be outsiders in a scene of outsiders, and how cool it was that they dared to walk in a different direction. In some ways, it’s the pure essence of black metal that has been lost today in a scene of followers and orthodox purists. Ulver wasn’t following the trend, they weren’t trying to be the rawest or the darkest. They were doing their own thing—exactly like what they’re doing 20 years later. And every time I hear Bergtatt, I fall in love with it again.

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  1. Loving plagiarism?

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  • redrohX

    One of my favorite black-metal albums of the nineties and a classic. And wow! 19 years already… It amazes me how old some of this music is already. When I was young (and listening to Bergtatt for the first time) Seventh Son was old metal, by now that must be ancient and this old-school…

    • Powerslave is 30 years old.

      • doom-erik

        And let’s not forget The Last in Line and King of the Dead, etc. 1984 was an amazing year for metal.

    • marco o

      my idea of “old music” is everything i bought years after it actually came out… so seventh son is NOT an old album! :P

  • Patrick

    Hear Hear! Love this record. Their best pre-Blake by a long shot.

  • Refined-Iron Cranium

    I adore this album. The melodies are amazing and Garm’s voice is ethereal and absolutely wonderful. I wonder if he can still sing like that, since he developed a far more melodic and powerful voice from The Sham Mirrors onwards. I still think he’s a great singer (and musician), but for once I wish he could capture the mysticism and magic he once conjured in this album and Aspera Hiems Symfonia.

    • Garm’s vocal performances are possibly strongest on Aspera, but I love his early work in Ulver.

      Also: best black metal screamer bar none.

      • Refined-Iron Cranium

        I’m a bit more inclined towards Hoest, but he and Garm are the standard at which I judge black metal vocalists by. Very few people can conjure screams that powerful and do it with passion.

        • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

          Jens Ryden too

      • Feytalist

        Best screamer? Maybe. I tend to admire someone like Ville Sorvali a bit more.

        But Garm is certainly one of the most versatile vocalists in metal.

        I only recently came into contact with old Ulver, but Bergtatt is certainly amazing, especially considering it’s a debut album.

  • Grymm

    Such a masterpiece of an album.

  • DrChocolate

    Bergtatt is somewhere on my list of top ten favorite albums of all time. Bought it in used CD shop in ’98 in Provo, UT of all places. I absolutely adore it, but holy shit I didn’t realize they were all like 17 when it was written. That’s wild to me. No album on the planet better accompanies a snow storm in the mountains then this one. If you haven’t yet had that experience, it’s something else for sure.

    • Man, go back and look at the birth years of your favorite bands and see when they were putting out their best material. These Scandy kids were putting shit out really young. When I moved to Sweden I discovered that this is partially ’cause they meet in music schools and start bands when they’re 13 or 14. They’ve got tons of time, and love to play, so they get really good and gel as a band.

      • DrChocolate

        Didn’t know hat about those music schools. Makes sense now that you say it. I also just recently found out that Ihsahn and Samoth were like 18 during In The Nightside…, as well. That’s just wild because that album is so mature in it’s construction. No wonder every ’90’s Black Metal band I’ve been listening to for 20 years looks like they don’t age – they’re barely 40.

        • Well, I don’t know how it is in Norway, I should point out. That’s just what I saw in Sweden.

          But yeah, these dudes aren’t old. Garm is born 76.

          • marco o

            I was born in 76 too. thanks for the “not old” part, mate. ;)

  • And Emperor were around the same age when recording In the Nightside Eclipse. Amazing,

  • I’m kind of a late bloomer when it comes to Ulver material, I actually heard their ambient stuff before the “black metal trilogy”. It blew me away they were capable of such versatility.

  • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

    it’s the kind of record that grips you ineffably every time you listen. it’s the atmosphere, the cold wind of the first Capitel, the blast beat erupting through Capitel II and III and chasing you relentlessly, the brief moments of rushed breathing drawn by the acoustic guitars, the majestic, horrifying ending of Ind I Fjelkamrene. it is the kind of record they use to call masterpiece

  • MisanthropistRyan

    I’m buying this at the weekend.

  • Forest Father

    This album is an absolute breakthrough into black metal. Back then black metal was about being secretive, dark, misanthropic within a certain musical frame and it this band in particular took a totally new direction, opening so many ways for many bands.

    I’ve always felt that this album is a more restrained and focused expression of what Vargnatt presented: that demo was the really groundbreaking release with a heavy avantgarde/experimental feeling and performance: it had the bizarre atmosphere that Arcturus was polishing (see My Angel demo for references) and the folklore sensitivity thek took to the extreme with Kveldssanger (another album with a huge influence over black metal and neofolk acts).

    It’s a shame this album is not well known enough: I face almost daily to rabid Agalloch fans who claim how creative/inventive they are and yet don’t know how much they took of this particular release (they almost ripped off ‘I Troldskog Faren Vild’ entirely on Pale Folklore – all the midpaced black metal moments of that album, The Mantle and Ashes comes from those poor 5 chapters, ever to be ripped off in obscurity).

  • Pedro Morini Mietto

    That accoustic outro at the very end of the album makes me feel I had ran throught a wild, mystical journey, made of mostly harsh and strained moments, along with a few, brief and peaceful interludes, and when I get to the end of it, I’m allowed to be rewarded with a very small piece of sanctuary.

    Only the best of the best can inspire you to such things. That’s art.

  • Lucas Ciancaglini

    I love the acoustic sections of this album, and although I’m not so keen on growls (just with a few exceptions), the intense sections here are amazing. I’ve even heard it’s one of the most accessible black metal albums out there.

    Oh and by the way, I’m interested on your opinion of their experimental stuff, since Perdition City and on.

    • Hulksteraus

      Love Ulver – Perdition City blew my mind when it came out as well. Very Noir. Reminded me of 50’s detective movie themes…

  • fghbnj

    This album is the dritt