Review: Ulver - Wars of the Roses (2011)


artist: Ulver
release: Wars of the Roses
format: CD, LP
year of release: 2011
label: Kscope / Jester
dur­a­tion: 45:37

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com

The stand­ard ques­tion accom­pa­ny­ing a new Ulver album: what are they going to do this time? Actu­ally, for the first time since quite a few of these albums, the answer must be that it’s not as dif­fer­ent as we might have expec­ted. Wars of the Roses sees the Nor­we­gian shape­shifters mainly solid­i­fy­ing the musical style built up on Blood Inside and Shad­ows of the Sun, while adding only a mod­est spec­trum of new ele­ments. On the one hand, we have the at times frantic mix of rock and elec­tron­ics, on the other, ambi­ence and con­tem­pla­tion. Where the pre­vi­ous two albums focused mainly on one of these, this latest one aims for a fusion.

One of the more sur­pris­ing tracks might be the opener, “Feb­ru­ary MMX”, which explores areas of catchy pro­gress­ive rock, pol­ished and twis­ted in a style that is typ­ic­ally Ulver. The return of drums and gui­tars to Ulver’s music is noth­ing to deplore, espe­cially in parts like the middle of “Provid­ence”, where the rock sec­tion beats on along­side a syn­thetic orches­tra spurred on by the solo­ing cla­ri­net of Alex J. Ward. The rest of the track is a sur­pris­ingly calm and soul­ful piece rest­ing on a duet of front man Kris­tof­fer Rygg and Siri Stranger.

I must say that the plod­ding mid-tempo track “Septem­ber IV” forms a bit of a low point in the album, not really adding any­thing sig­ni­fic­ant to the mix, and rehash­ing the mix of rock and classical/electronica we’ve heard before on “It Is Not Sound” off Blood Inside. Slightly bet­ter are “Nor­we­gian Gothic” and “England”, both of which are mod­estly exper­i­mental songs, and set­ters of atmo­sphere.

How­ever, the final two tracks hold some pleas­ant sur­prises. “Island” is a beau­ti­ful calm piece, rivalling the atmo­sphere of some of Shad­ows of the Sun’s finer ambi­ent moments, but some­how more bright. A gentle rhythm, synths and acous­tic gui­tar work­ing in uni­son, soft vocals, and a fine ambi­ent end­ing. Simply a stun­ning track, and one that clears the mind for the mono­lithic track which fol­lows: “Stone Angels”. This fifteen-minute piece is a read­ing by Daniel O’Sullivan of Keith Waldrop’s entire poem of the same name, accom­pan­ied by a subtly flow­ing organ flow, and the impro­vised cla­ri­net works of Stephen Thrower. Not sur­pris­ingly, the pres­ence of Thrower’s work, as well as the set-up of the track in gen­eral, its calm expans­ive mood, the spir­itual them­at­ics, it all refers back Coil, who obvi­ously have been a great inspir­a­tion to much of Ulver’s music for over a dec­ade. Regard­less, this is a track of rare beauty, some­thing I real­ised first when I saw it being per­formed in its entirety and the end of a recent con­cert, along with visu­als of slowly dis­in­teg­rat­ing and rein­teg­rat­ing blocks of stone, aligned in an array. The hyp­notic cadence of the voice and music is entran­cing, and the listener is guided effort­lessly to the cli­max of the piece, after which the final words fall into silence.

Listen­ing back to this album, it is a many-faced beast. On the one hand, a couple of older Ulver styles are integ­rated here, along with some small innov­a­tions, mak­ing this album per­haps the least sur­pris­ing in many years of their career. Not to say that this is a bad thing per se, but in some ways, that can be dis­ap­point­ing if you were expect­ing to be over­whelmed by another whole new album style. On the other hand, the final two tracks left such a massive impres­sion on me that I can’t help but love this album for it. And I guess this still means Ulver can sur­prise me, even if it is not with an album as an integ­rated whole, but rather a part of it.

Opin­ions are likely to be divided as to how this one will fit into the over­all pic­ture of Ulver’s musical devel­op­ment. As an album, it is def­in­itely not the strongest, nor the most ori­ginal. Nev­er­the­less, it is worth hav­ing for its very spe­cial moments alone, which rank among the high­lights in the band’s career after all. The vinyl edi­tion in par­tic­u­lar is worth the invest­ment, as it con­tains a chap­book reprint of the “Stone Angels” poem.

Reviewed by O.S.

Track­list:

1. Feb­ru­ary MMX (4:10)
2. Nor­we­gian Gothic (3:37)
3. Provid­ence (8:10)
4. Septem­ber IV (4:43)

5. England (3:57)
6. Island (6:00)
7. Stone Angels (15:00)