by Conor Fynes
When I sat down to write this, I realized that the reviews I’ve written for Ulver‘s other modern albums have all started out the same way. I’m sure I could break tradition by diving straight into the gothic synths and pop melodies of this new work, but it would be a disservice not to restate the astounding hubris of their consistent reinvention. It’s usually impressive enough when a band nurtures some dynamic evolution over a career, but the notion of building a new sound from the ground up with each album is impractical and, frankly, perhaps a bit insane. An artist would have to conjure the creative inspiration for an entirely new sound with each new turn of the page, leaving promising ideas behind for untested territory; not only that, but the constant genre shifting would risk alienating a growing portion of the fanbase.
Ulver have remarkably never fallen prey to these shortcomings. Somehow, each new style is handled with every bit as much poise as the next, and they’ve still managed to weave a throughline that ties it all together. People who like Ulver seldom seem alienated or divided in opinion over a new shift; the only notable exception could be their departure from black metal, but there have been a lot of twists since then. So, when I first heard that The Assassination of Julius Caesar was effectively a synthpop record, I don’t think I blinked twice over it. It may well be the best Depeche Mode record since Violator, but a change like this shouldn’t shock anyone if we’ve already been conditioned to expect the unexpected.
I have had the feeling in the years since Shadows of the Sun that Ulver were possibly releasing too much material for their own good. Everything was interesting enough, but the only truly great album I thought they had released this decade was their darkly neoclassical Messe I. X-VI.X, and though it stands to reason that a chamber orchestra would have felt more encompassing than what is predominantly a clever pop record, it’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar that feels like the much-awaited Ulver masterpiece for the 2010s.
In my eyes, Kristoffer Rygg established himself as one of the best clean vocalists around with Arcturus; Ulver seldom offered the same potential for acrobatics, but The Assassination of Julius Caesar may be the best showcase for his voice yet. This is effectively pop music we’re talking about after all, and I don’t think we’ve seen an album before that hinged so much on his voice. I love the impression Ulver gives on their best records that they sound as if they were born for this sound. If the new approach raises doubts at first, Ulver squashes them early on with ‘Nemoralia’, a slow and driving piece of pop with mysterious ambiance and esoteric lyrics to match. Surprisingly, I actually think the album’s longest piece, ‘Rolling Stone’, is the one with the most immediate appeal. The deep thrumming synth has a danceable, even sensual pulse to it, and that soulful gospel angle they’re going for is the most infectious thing I have heard this year, hands down.
The more I listen to The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the more I look at it as a more nuanced, realized successor to Wars of the Roses: that 2011 album that practically drove me mad with its inconsistent quality and awful pacing. The mid-album tracks sound like a more synth-oriented take on Wars of the Roses‘ dreamy art-rock sound, and any one of them would have stood out as a highlight of that album, although ‘So Falls the World’ and ‘1969’ are definitely my favourites. ‘Coming Home’ ends the album on a very Perdition City-ish note, with deeply spoken vocals, wandering saxophone, and leisurely experimentation. It’s actually the only piece here that didn’t leap out at me right away, although that’s probably because my ears got so spoiled on the amazing vocal melodies throughout the rest of The Assassination of Julius Caesar.
With a definite exception at least being made for ‘Rolling Stone’, I wouldn’t say that Ulver’s ‘synthpop’ phase is an incredibly radical change from what they’ve created before. If anything, it’s one of the most quintessentially Ulver-type albums they’ve ever put out. Messe I. X-VI.X brought the radical inclusion of classical instruments, the recent ATGCLVLSSCAP was spontaneous and jam-like, and the collaboration with Sunn O))) speaks for itself. The brushstrokes here are devout to whatever common aesthetic you could say ties their work together.
What makes The Assassination of Julius Caesar so much more than the more adventurous albums is the rare emphasis on pure songwriting. Since they left the frozen woods, I don’t think they’ve put out a collection of such memorably written and impactful songs; only Shadows of the Sun stands on par for songwriting and emotion. When Ulver are so wont to careen across experimental genres, it’s easy to forget how well they can piece a more conventional song together. I know they’ll continue onward as they always do, but this is one style that would have definitely deserved sticking with a few albums longer.