The last time I saw Ulver, almost exactly four years ago, they had only recently begun to exist as a fully functioning live group. That concert at the Arena had something of a rarefied atmosphere, with flickering candles adding to the heavy air of expectation that attended the performance. Since then, though, Ulver have gone the way of seemingly every other once distant and mysterious studio-based outfit, and have begun touring on a regular basis. As a result that sense of occasion was largely missing from their recent show at the Szene, although there was certainly enough taking place onstage to mitigate that absence.
They’re a strange-looking bunch, that’s for sure. Two serious techno types at the front, focused on their various dials and buttons; a dapper Roy Harper lookalike at the keyboard; an energetic guitarist; and a couple of drummers at the back, whom I hardly caught a glimpse of all evening due to my front centre position. But the music they make together is a compelling blend of noise rock, dark isolationism and playful, infectious grooves.
Indeed, it was that grooviness that made the strongest impression on me. The 2010 concert was great, but it was also a touch doomy and portentous, qualities that Ulver seem to have largely shaken off in the meantime in favour of a looser, more improvisatory approach. On this occasion Kristoffer Rygg’s sombre vocals were set off perfectly by insistent percussion, churning ambient textures and Daniel O’Sullivan’s strikingly expressive guitar work. With a succession of sinister back-projected images adding to the overall sense of unease, the music of Ulver is deliciously spare and unsettling: the sound of an unwelcome presence, somewhere close at hand.
Not a group I know very much about, this, but I was sufficiently intrigued by Ulver‘s reputation to check them out at the Arena last week, and was highly impressed by the power and intensity of their performance. Seemingly with their roots in black metal, they appear to have abandoned that particular creative cul-de-sac in favour of an uncanny and highly original synthesis of avant rock, prog, noise and electronics. As is often the way with music I’ve never heard before, I found myself groping for reference points, and was initially befuddled by clashing impressions of Pink Floyd, King Crimson and late-period Coil. Things started to make more sense when I realized how close elements of Ulver’s sound were to the more liturgical moments of Dead Can Dance, with the same atmosphere of metaphysical grace and eerie, otherworldly detachment that I loved in that fondly remembered duo.
More striking still were the similarities with Towering Inferno’s Kaddish, a mostly forgotten, hugely powerful multimedia project that I had the privilege of seeing twice in London in the early 90s. Described as “a dream history of Europe in the wake of the Holocaust”, Towering Inferno used back-projected film montages alongside pulverizing rock music, Jewish chant and serene eastern European folksong to shattering effect. I was more than once reminded of Kaddish while watching Ulver, whose use of film (Nazi rallies, death camps, pornography, bloodthirsty wild animals and so on) as a visual accompaniment to the music was frequently devastating.
None of these lazy comparisons are intended to detract from the uniqueness of Ulver as a proposition. Urgently driving these short, potent songs, the dense, riffing guitar was offset by plaintive, haunting vocals and sonorous keyboard lines. I found this music to be affecting in a strange, almost dehumanized way, insidious in its ability to channel atmospheres that many people would prefer to remain dormant.