Album Review : Ulver - The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2017)
Norwegian avant-garde rockers Ulver have always eluded definition. If you think Radiohead refined the art of reinventing themselves from one album to another, understand that Ulver drifted from blackened folk metal to multiple forms of experimental rock over the span of two decades and managed to keep the majority of their fan base. They're not a complicated band to love if you have a propensity to enjoy surprises. Their latest full-length album The Assassination of Julius Caesar might be the biggest surprise of them all : a catchy and accessible pop record.
I know, right? How can you slide from black metal to electro pop without setting your integrity ablaze? It's what we're going to discuss today, because Ulver pulled it off.
I'm selling the album short a little by calling it pop. The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a curious, but oddly efficient mix of coldwave, EDM and synthpop. It's still quite surprising from a band that went from ambitious and disjointed art rock to ambient drone music on previous releases, but I don't believe there's an underlying artistic statement to be drawn from the choice to make educated pop. I think Ulver's leading force Kristoffer Rygg simply felt like tipping his hat to bands like Depeche Mode and New Order and that his ideas could help perpetuate their sound in the twenty-first century. And he was absolutely right.
There's very little organic instrumentation on The Assassination of Julius Caesar. There is some spacey, lingering guitar here and there and drums that I'm not sure aren't programmed, but the showstopper on this album really are the luscious vocal harmonies. The chorus on Transreverberation or the implementation of female voices on Rolling Stone are absolute gems that enrich the very idea of coldwave music. It's like Abba suddenly started crafting sophisticated beats and writing historical metaphors in their lyrics to go along with their trademark harmonies. The tension between the simple and efficient broad strokes and the intricate details is what makes The Assassination of Julius Caesar such an efficient album. It keeps you in with the former and rewards you with the latter.
Ulver's foray into pop music wasn't the most mediatized crossover effort of last year, though. A couple months after the release of The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Linkin Park released a terrible pop record titled One More Light that was a commercial and critical failure. Why did Ulver succeeded and Linkin Park failed? It's simple, they didn't abandon their musical identity. What makes Ulver who they are is their musical and intellectual boundlessness and much of it was transferred into the lyrics on The Assassination of Julius Caesar. There's a lot written about the fall of Rome on this record, but it echoes the fall of the modern world and the fall of relationships too, like on Nemoralia or Southern Gothic.
So, Ulver didn't make a pop album to make money. They genuinely wanted to resurrect and enrich a sound that was slowly slipping into oblivion and, well, it's mission accomplished. The Assassination of Julius Caesar is not of a mind-melting complexity, but it's a ruggedly efficient album that will have you singing elaborate choruses without even noticing it. Kristoffer Rygg's never done anything like the others and this record, while wearing its influences on its sleeve, sounds like nothing except pure Ulver. This is something we should celebrate. Not that many musicians (or artists) can distill their identity and philosophy into so many different forms. Ulver's pop record is pretty good, guys. And most important, it's damn Ulver-esque.