Ulver – Flowers of Evil Review

Off the back of 2017’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar and the Ulver Primer which we ran a few weeks ago, 2020 has bequeathed unto us a new full-length title from Norway’s Ulver. Flowers of Evil sits in an unusual place as successor to the most poppy Ulver release, an album which I underrated at the time but have come to love. Rarely simple and never expected, Ulver has built a career out of subverting expectations and always pushing into new territories. How does such a band follow the most accessible album of their story?

The musical progression is not drastic from Julius Caesar. Flowers is a distinctly Ulver-inflected form of darkwave, drawing on the synth-tastic pop elements from its predecessor but stripping back the overt vibrancy which dominated the melodies and the mix. It remains distanced from what could be described as ‘heavy’ as drums offer simple beats and the guitars are low-key. Everything about Flowers is more sedate. It’s tonally darker and lacks standout instrumentation as layers of synths and subtle guitar lines percolate. However, pop still rings out as a core part of its sound in its easy approach and Rygg’s sultry singing. He has a unique voice and can really hold his line in an engaging way which most once-extreme vocalists can’t do. He has a buoyant approach and his lyrics, as ever, offer poetic analysis of modern themes.

Despite the musical changes across Ulver’s discography, relatively minor though they may be between Julius Caesar and Flowers, deep and thoughtful compositions have always been core to their sound. This holds true as the weaving synths, subtle crescendos, vocal layers and electronica-influenced embellishments build deceptively complex structures. It’s a skill particular to Ulver that they can write music which is not easy but which is easy to appreciate. Space and repetition is used to good effect too. The closing 2 minutes on the opener “One Last Dance” features one looping passage which only subtly varies across its duration. It’s not musically complex but as the first minute ends its emotional hold takes effect. The deliberately plodding, passionless, lifelessness is very powerful and wields darkwave synths in a way which creates a drone-like effect. “Little Boy” generates an equivalent emotive response by similarly trailing off for its closing moments, breaking down its stuttering guitars and filling the void with spacious synths, whining glitches and slow, ominous chords which bring the song to a sober but overwhelming end.

Flowers is not particularly musically experimental when lined up with Julius Caesar. That record was fresh and catchy whereas this one is thematically and tonally drearier. It is deliberately less inviting which ultimately limits the raw ‘enjoyment’ which can be gleaned from its 39 minutes. The choruses are there but more subtle, and lacking the BIG melodies at their apices. The slower rhythms and downcast melodies sits this alongside the saddest of darkwave bands. Despite this, it’s far from unenjoyable. I remain a fan of Ulver and their unique song-writing and melodic approach, and Julius Caesar stuck out in the discography as the happiest of the bunch. This is a return to the musical style of the prior record but with the themes of the records before that. I’m left pondering what has inspired this record, its lyrics and how it will sit in the entire discography with a couple of years under its belt. Ulver’s enigmatic quality is one of their greatest draws and the fact I’m left with more questions pleases me.

Though Flowers is not the most exciting or unexpected release in a repertoire full of such moments, it remains a record I will continue to explore. The perennially excellent production polishes the album into a cohesive whole with its roomy master and spot-on tonal choices. Its emotive power and pop-infused sadness still draw me in. I don’t love it like how I love many other Ulver cuts, which limits my numerical award, but it’s a solid album and one which fans of a stranger The Cure and Depeche Mode will enjoy.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 11 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: House of Mythology
Websites: www.facebook.com/ulver | ulver.bandcamp.com
Releases worldwide: August 28th, 2020

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