Ulvik – Last Rites | Dire Omens Review

Last Rites | Dire Omens. Interesting album title, that. Last rites signify mourning and gentle acceptance, while dire omens suggest malevolence, a promise of death yet to come. Likely by design, these contrasting themes directly apply to the kind of neofolk and atmospheric black metal that Canadian duo Ulvik peddles, as the sad beauty of their folk music inevitably succumbs to a more pronounced black metal malevolence. Hailing from the endless pine trees of Canada’s westernmost territory British Columbia, Ulvik invites you to immerse yourself in their rural melancholy with their fourth opus, Last Rites | Dire Omens.

Ulvik’s atmospheric black/folk manifests in ways both familiar and unfamiliar for the genre. The implementation of acoustic guitars and strings reminds one of bands like Nechochwen and Panopticon, while the emotional tone wouldn’t feel out of place alongside the prairie-doom-isms of Altars of Grief. The metal, on the other hand, challenges the atmoblack label. Opener “Through False Dust” may initially give the impression of a traditionally atmospheric approach with distant, chilly tremolos, but the guitars quickly gain an uncharacteristic urgency as the album progresses. Last Rites | Dire Omens won’t allow you to drift into pleasant listlessness as you might elsewhere; many of the album’s deep, at times almost chugging riffs have a blunt force to them that demands your attention, while the vocalist’s emotive shrieks and all the wailing layers of guitars veer more into post-black metal territory. But while I typically associate emotions like sorrow or grief with the peaks of typical post-black metal, when Ulvik is at their heaviest in a track like “Sown on Earth,” I hear only anger.

Much of what works about Last Rites | Dire Omens lies in the simple appeal of Ulvik’s soundscape. Within the greater pantheon of folky atmoblack bands, Ulvik’s folk elements are some of the best I’ve heard. They bring to life the album’s bleak atmosphere while simultaneously underlining it with beauty; the heavier songs open with densely layered strings that have real grit to them, while the acoustic guitars are softer, offering a comforting reprieve. The acoustic interludes, which could’ve just been unremarkable asides, become genuine album highlights in Ulvik’s hands. This evocative, expressive dark folk pairs nicely with the metal’s bluntness and serves as an effective foil to the folk’s subtleties. After the gradual build of miserable strings and anguished spoken words in “Sown on Earth,” that aforementioned anger in the song’s crushing verse cuts all the deeper. That same bluntness did initially make the eight-minute “Glass & Scythe” feel tedious, but I’ve grown fond of its variations-on-a-theme approach to a simple, satisfying motif, for within this simplicity lies an emotional clarity that is thus enabled to shine through.

For most of the album’s duration, few issues stood out as terribly damning. The folk instruments are sorely missed within “Life & Death Are One”‘s repetitive avant-garde dissonance, and the first interlude, “Woven Into Threads,” is placed too early as the third song, but nevertheless, the album was overall an easy recommend. Emphasis on was, because the closing duo of songs changed matters for the worse. “The Pallid Mask” mirrors the increasing violence of the spoken words from “Sown on Earth,” but the speaker’s forceful delivery isn’t as believable and the song crawls to an insultingly short payoff that’s negligible in comparison. “Yesterday & Years Ago” has a more concrete, satisfying melancholy to it, but toothlessly meanders into yet more overlong spoken words without ever hitting its stride. Perhaps these songs might not offend as much were they spread out, but together they end the album on an extremely dour note that I’ve begun avoiding altogether on repeat listens. Each song builds towards a resolution that either disappoints or never even arrives, and in so doing rob the album as a whole of the resolution it deserved.

Perhaps the final word on this album isn’t as positive as I’d like, but I’m glad I found Ulvik. There’s a lot to like about the evocative dark folk and emotionally charged atmoblack that Ulvik brings to the table, and there are plenty of moments in Last Rites | Dire Omens that demonstrate why Ulvik is worth your time if this type of music appeals to you like it does to me. What a shame, then, that this album stumbles so hard at the finish line. There exists a differently organized or edited version of this album that I’d have gladly rated higher, but when an album ends on consecutive songs that so utterly miss the mark, it can’t be ignored.

Rating: Mixed
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps
Label: Avantgarde Music
Websites: bandcamp | facebook
Releases Worldwide: May 24, 2024

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