Beginning life as a folklore-inspired black metal band in the early 1990’s, the Kristoffer Rygg-led Norwegian collective have since become one of the most sonically adventurous and unpigeonholeable acts in the world of music. Past albums have incorporated almost everything including ambient, drone, orchestral arrangements and various forms of rock from prog to psych. Yet even with their reputation for unpredictability, Ulver have managed to spring another surprise on their latest effort The Assassination of Julius Caesar.
Self-described as their first pop album, it is by far the collective’s most melodic and straightforward work to date. Taking inspiration from a host of 80’s synth pop groups, most notably Depeche Mode, close listeners of Ulver may have picked up on hints of a possible directional change of this kind from some of their releases during the 2000’s. However, the most honest among them would probably agree that they didn’t see an album quite as accessible as this coming.
Even with this new style, they remain distinctively Ulver. Named after the ancient Roman festival of torches held in honour of the goddess Diana, seductive opener ‘Nemoralia’ reeks of Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode. It serves as the perfect introduction to the overall sound and lyrical themes that are found on the album, which blend events of the modern world and those of the past, featuring frequent references to the Roman Empire. The embrace of synth pop also allows the voice of Kristoffer Rygg to take centre-stage, further highlighting what an incredibly diverse vocalist he is.
The Depeche Mode influence can be heard once again on the elegant ‘Angelus Novus’, but rather than merely mimicking 80’s synth pop artists across the album, Ulver manage to put a refreshing spin on that sound. ‘Southern Gothic’ blends together the likes of Duran Duran and early George Michael into something new and interesting, while ‘Transverberation’ takes things in a slightly cheesier direction as Kristoffer Rygg sings about the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.
Elsewhere, ‘1969’ tackles the year the hippy dream died while being reminiscent of early Talk Talk. ‘So Falls The World’ begins as a piano-led ballad with lyrics pointing out that “tragedies repeat themselves in perfect circles”, before transitioning into an electro-pop stomp. Ulver don’t fully relinquish their more experimental side either, with the closing section of the hypnotic ‘Rolling Stone’ ending with a cacophony of noise. While the menacing, industrial-inspired ‘Coming Home’ closes the album on a darker and more personal note.
Given that their last four releases have included a modern classical collaboration with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra (Messe I.X–VI.X), a collaboration with drone metal outfit Sunn O)) (Terrestrials), a live experimental rock album (ATGCLVLSSCAP), and a dark ambient film score (Riverhead), to then go down the synth pop route is intriguing by itself. That Kristoffer Rygg and company have produced an album of such quality puts The Assassination of Julius Caesar among the most essential listens of 2017.