"Great sorrow from the Norwegian legends Ulver. Music driven to despair, all sad and solitary, written and produced under the threat of extinction. Low-key, dark, and tragic."
This description, found on the album's shrink-wrap sticker, is actually quite accurate. Further suggesting that the band will appeal to "fans of: Guapo, King Crimson, Univers Zero, Coil, Nick Cave, [and] David Sylvian", it quickly becomes apparent (upon listening) that the album really does have elements that resonate with previous works from the aforementioned artists (especially Coil, David Sylvian, and Univers Zero). It is important to note, however, that these comparisons are merely used as points of reference. There are many aspects of Ulver that cannot be readily found in the aforementioned bands (and vice versa), most notably an ethereal quality to the songs which, having been progressively hinted at in their previous albums, has been developed to a much more distinct degree on this album.
The tracks on the album all adhere to a basic structure: Kristoffer G. Rygg's haunting and cryptic vocals (often multi-layered for dramatic effect) provide companionship to Tore Ylwizaker's subtle synth arrangements (which are usually quite minimal, except for several moments of confident assertiveness on a few songs) alongside Jørn H. Sværen's occasional percussive contributions (although on the Wikipedia page for the album he is credited for "miscellaneous" duties). In addition to the regular members, the album also features many beautiful moments provided by the Oslo Session String Quartet (Hans Josef Groh, Dorthe Dreier, André Orvik, and Vegard Johnsen). Finally, the album also has performances by Norwegian jazz musician Mathias Eick (trumpet), guitarists Espen Jørgensen, Christian Fennesz, and noted thereminist Pamelia Kurstin.
During the period between Blood Inside's release and now, while Rygg was involved with several musical projects, most notably Head Control System, Professor Fate, Solefald, and Ihsahn, among others, Tore Ywlizaker took a year off to study classical composers and compositional technique. And it shows, as the album features an extensive amount of piano interludes, ranging from the pleasant to the challenging. But it is not only instrumental concerns that have benefited from this study: Rygg's vocals have also never sounded better. While his delivery is (predictably) restrained in comparison to some of Ulver's earlier works, it also meshes smoothly with the mood set by the music. In case you thought he would refrain completely from showing off his impressive vocal range, he does expand a bit of "Shadows Of The Sun" and "Let The Children Go", but it is in harmony with the instrumentation: using vocals as another, expressive instrument (in figurative and literal senses, such as the multi-track introduction to "All The Love").
The album is notably brief, containing nine tracks and roughly forty minutes of music. Ulver has removed any sense of musical or conceptual indulgence that may have been present in their present work. Instead, the songs are tightly-knit 'movements', more often than not flowing from one song to the next. While some of the songs can comfortably be heard by themselves, it makes for a much more effective listening session to listen to the album straight through. This also re-enforces the fact that the music has a deeply cinematic quality to it. During the songs, I often felt that they could comfortably progress and develop for twice their length (which is an unusual sentiment to feel, given the ridiculously extravagant lengths many 'avant-garde' artists take their compositions), but there is also a feeling that, as brief as the songs are in general, that they are complete in themselves. Complaints of frequent tempo and mood changes, as well as the accusation that the music is used more for textural purposes may be true, but that does not exactly detract from the album. After all, Pink Floyd's "The Final Cut" often faced this and similar criticism (granted, the impending dissolution of the band and traumatic member interactions also dogged the album, something which Ulver has thankfully avoided).
The first three songs, "Eos", "All The Love", and "Like Music", all smoothly segue into one another, and admirably set the mood for the rest of the album. "Eos" features mournful keyboard waves and a delicate theramin solo (quite frankly one of the most beautiful and emotional moments on the album). Soon, the magisterial sound of the Oslo Session String Quartet arrives, increasing the sense of loss and tragedy (which is magnified somewhat when paying attention to the nature of the lyrics, which feature such verses as "The sun is far away / It goes in circles / Someone dies / Someone lives / In pain"). Somewhat suddenly (but not abruptly, as "Eos" is the second longest song on the album), "All The Love" begins with an intriguing 'multi-layer choir' that Ulver is known for. A bit more uptempo than the first track, this song introduces understated percussion, a soaring trumpet solo and piano sequences (the instrumental section roughly two minutes in, while initially unusual-sounding, quickly impresses due to the alternating tempos of the various elements, achieving an impressive sonic effect with somewhat minimalist arrangements). "Like Music" is somewhat more erratic. With the first half similar to the two previous songs (with a small cello solo from H. Groh), it suddenly switches pace and instruments, featuring an almost atonal electric guitar solo (or synth, it' s hard to tell) towards the end amidst strange chiming in the background.
Then the listener arrives at "Vigil". I must admit that this was the song that initially got me excited about this album. Violin, viola, cello, piano, electronic "shimmers" from Christian Fennesz and, of course, awesome lyrics:
For all who used to be
And now are
In the dark
Light a candle
And say their name
One last time
Let them go
We will follow
When time comes
To pray for life
To begin again
On the grave
The cumulative effect that these forty-five words have, when coupled with the music, have a much greater depth of meaning, hope, and emotional impact than something of much greater length and detail. Seriously. It also ends as it began, with another impressive contribution from Fennesz.
The next three songs are a bit more direct, in comparison with the previous four. "Shadows Of The Sun", starting with a vaguely Eastern drone (sorry, I can never remember the name of the instrument that is used at the beginning of this song), it soon launches into a pleasant synth/organ/piano midsection, but then just as quickly meander off into unknown territory, into echoing ambience, with seemingly random electronic bleeps and string plucks before dissolving into nothingness. As such, it is somewhat less consistent and harder to 'digest' than the previous songs. "Let The Children Go" is (arguably) the album's most 'upfront' song, featuring a prominent synth foundation (with assertive stabs every so often), jazzy trumpet proclamations, and cavernous percussive barrages (of a surprisingly diverse palette of instruments). The lyrics on this song (highly abstract and philosophical, as usual) seem to address the preciousness and innocence of youth (although it is certainly open to interpretation). One of the shorter songs, it builds gradually in intensity, until, without warning, it drops you off a sonic precipice into the next song. Despite a slightly surprising sonic shift (which was perhaps expected, given that the track "Solitude" is a Black Sabbath cover). While that may come as an odd choice for some, Ulver does a commendable job with the track, featuring a pensive bass line, submerged piano chords, breathy trumpet blares, and a classic tale of love and loss ("Crying and thinking is all that I do" / "Memories I have remind me of you").
If "Shadows Of The Sun" could be considered an exercise in mourning, then "Funebre" would definitely represent the actual funeral. The second half of the track features a lengthy piano solo, in which the 'classical composition' techniques are particularly evident, while the theramin returns to give the song an otherworldly distance to it. Finally, "What Happened?" (an appropriately titled song, as I will explain in a minute), begins with uneasy 'industrialesque' noises humming in the background, while the last piano melody slowly hangs over your head like a death sentence. A bell begins tolling shortly before two minutes. However, the Oslo String Session Quartet quickly moves in and delivers their most moving moment in the album, a fitting end for the album.
The last two minutes of the album are naught but digital silence. What happened?
If you have not already guessed, this is not a 'perfect' album. It is, however, extraordinarily good. It would be foolish to compare it's merits to "Blood Inside", as the albums are so different on both musical and philosophical levels, that direct comparisons are rendered useless. The main point to remember about this album is that it is not easily accessible. Despite it's short running time, it will take many multiple listens before everything 'clicks' (trust me on this one). Also, the songs are highly symphonic and cinematic in nature, meaning (as stated earlier) that there are often abrupt changes in mood, tempo, instrumentation, and delivery. Thus, the album is highly diverse and fluid within it's powerfully homogeneous nature (this is a good thing, as it increases it's potency and emotional impact). On the whole, if you devote enough time to attenuate yourself to the album, you will find a beautifully depressive masterpiece in "Shadows Of The Sun". Melancholy never sounded so good.
"In Memory Of Us All"
Ulver Official Site
Ulver Wikipedia Page
The End Records
PS For better or for worse, the "Shadows Of The Sun" review is complete. I am not 100% satisfied with it (mostly little textual elements here and there to either clean up, specify, or simply change), but for the most part it is finished as it is. It was one of the hardest (and paradoxically, one of the most enjoyable) reviews I have written yet. Ulver is a hard band to review (anyone who has ever reviewed "Blood Inside" or this album will likely agree with me), because their music tends to connect with people on an emotional level rather than a physical/specific level. You are likely to relate to the reader how you feel rather than how the music was composed and performed (which is a testament to Ulver's increasingly complex and powerful songwriting ability). Furthermore, after listening to it many times, I still do not entirely agree with the "Sigur Ros" comparisons (I know how people could make that conclusion, but most of the people who do so had a mostly negative response to "Shadows Of The Sun").