Ulver: The Norwegian National Opera

Ulver - The National Norwegian PhilharmonicSynopsis: Ulver returned in 2012 with their latest album Childhood’s End. Early pioneers of Norwegian black metal, the band have continually evolved throughout their career and now stand as living legends of the dark music industry, blending rock, electronica, symphonic and chamber traditions along with noise and experimental music to create ground-breaking material.

Until recently however the band had remained exclusively within the studio. This changed in May 2009 when the band accepted an invitation to appear at the Norwegian Festival Of Literature. The success of this gig lead to them embarking on a string of other gigs in 2009 and 2010, selling out prestigious venues such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Volksbühne in Berlin and La Cigale in Paris before they returned to their homeland for this landmark gig at The Norwegian Opera House.

The 2 hour concert married tracks from throughout the band’s catalogue to stunning visuals to create a spectacle fitting for such a grand venue.

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Ulver: The Norwegian National Opera 7.5

eyelights: the atmosphere. the visual presentation.
eyesores: the near-indistinguishibility of some of the tracks.

Ulver is a Norwegian band I know very little about. I picked up an album of theirs eight or nine years ago, based solely on its title, ‘Blood Inside’, and because it had a song called “Christmas”; I was still doing my weekly radio show at the time and I was always on the look-out for unusual holiday cheer (don’t ask). I hesitated quite a bit since I knew nothing about them and the store I picked it up at had no listening post. If I remember correctly it took two or three visits before I decided to make the purchase.

I was taken by surprise by the sound of the band. Whereas I had expected a metal-industrial outfit, this was dark experimental. I played the album a fair bit, all things considered, but it wasn’t an easy listen: these tracks were all over the map, style-wise, and they didn’t follow conventional song structures. There was even an avant-garde sax solo at one point – something I’d never expect in metal or industrial. Needless to say, I didn’t get my expectation met. Or my itch scratched.

And I never did use “Christmas” on the radio show. It just never seemed to fit anywhere.

But Ulver remained on my radar. I was intrigued. And so it was that, many years later, when I got the chance to buy a brand new copy of their double album ‘Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ at a flea market, I snatched it up right quick. And when I stumbled on the DVD/BD set of ‘The Norwegian National Opera’, I just had to get it; the artwork alone made me want to watch its content.

‘The Norwegian National Opera’ is a live performance by Ulver which was recorded on Saturday, July 31, 2010. What’s interesting is that Ulver had performed live only the one time in 1993, and then didn’t perform again until 2009, when they were invited to perform at the Norwegian Festival of Literature (at least, according to all online accounts). So they had only performed something like two dozen concerts before doing this one.

Their chosen venue, the Den Norske Opera & Ballett, is a gorgeous modern opera house, shaped as a four-tiered demi-circle in front of the stage. Ulver, which were then a four-piece band, were accompanied by four other musicians. For this concert, they were backed by a large screen that showed all sorts of 8mm footage on it from start to finish. The footage that the band showed was blended with the performance during this programme.

Nota bene: the songs listed with an asterisk (*), to me, were nearly-indistinguishable; I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began – I had to review them later to be sure. As such, I grouped them in my commentary.

1. The Moon Piece: The programme takes us to a darkened stage. To piano, a light shines on a bald-headed man hanging from the ceiling. He is wearing early 20th century military garb and blood is dribbling from his mouth. All sorts of atmospheric effects blend into the music. The lights gradually reveal the band and the stage. I felt bad for the bald guy, who had to stay still the whole time. But it was a very good start to the show. 8.0

2. Eos: Taken from their follow-up to ‘Blood Inside, ‘Shadows of the Sun’, “Eos” begins with shots of a sunrise. The track is fairly atmospheric, with soft vocals from the singer, who is backed by harmonium, strings and effects. There were also shots of a full moon halfway through. It’s a pretty good piece. But the drummer looks bored, as he’s got nothing to do. 7.0

3. Let the Children Go: Also from 2007’s ‘Shadows of the sun’, this one starts with black and white shots of clouds moving, of the moon, and then dusty African landscapes filled with zebras and lions. The song is atmospheric, almost ambient, but experimental, at first, and then it kicks in with percussion and becomes heavier later on. 7.0

*4. Little Blue Bird: This one’s another atmospheric number with vocals, this time backed by grainy b+w underwater shots, men an women diving into pools, and clouds. There were light columns that shone blue light on the stage, a nice effect. Halfway through there were the sounds of harpsichord and a soprano. The singer’s got a pretty good voice; he stabilizes notes for long periods of time. Towards the end, the full band joined in with drums, etc. It was pretty epic. 8.0

*5. Rock Massif: This one starts with the band in full swing and the sound of horns backing them. It was quite dramatic. There were also lots of guitars and drums. The visuals were appropriately dramatic with shots of Nazi youth, fascist rallies and World War II prisoners in camps. The columns went from blue to red for this one and there were lights flashing dramatically. Heavy. And appropriately so. 8.0

6. For the Love of God: Ulver continued with more challenging works with this rock, nearly metal, track taken from ‘Blood Inside’. This time the visuals consisted of flashes of trees and weeds, followed by African-Americans being baptised in lake. Then a b+w montage of religious imagery, nuclear bombs, sex, and a crashing zeppelin, flashed by. I wasn’t that hot on the song, but the visuals were right up my alley. 7.25

7. In the Red: This is a keyboard-led rock number, also taken from ‘Blood Inside’, that featured jazzy horn bursts. It eventually went super heavy after a series of rings/pulses. For this one, the stage was awash in red lights. The videos showed us some microbiology, a woman giving birth at a hospital, shots of big city nightlife and a burlesque dancer – a weird mix. 7.25

8. Operator: The closing number from ‘Blood Inside’, this is a heavy dirge with the band in full swing. Most of the performance shows shots of a long-haired, bearded young man lying in a bloody bath, committing suicide. Not fun, but certainly memorable. 7.5

*9. Funebre: This piano-based cut from ‘Shadows of the Sun’ is heavy on atmosphere and features mild effects. During the performance we are treated to lots b+w footage of overlapping clouds and birds flying, but there also images of priests and a funeral. 7.5

*10. Excerpts of Silence: I actually don’t know where this track is from, but it could conceivably be snippets from their EP, ‘Silence Teaches You How to Sing’, which I don’t have. Not that I could have recognized it in this context. Anyway, it starts with a repetitive loop and shows an early-20th century stripper dancing with long feathery things. It closed with a shot of an eye which continued into the next track. 7.5

*11. A Memorable Fancy: This is an excerpt from ‘Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. There are five tracks called “A Memorable Fancy” on this album, so I have no idea which one they performed. In any case, this one starts energetically – very rock, with a heavy synth backing. The vocals are more of a spoken-word performance, however. The visuals are a bit obscure: flashes of blueprints, iconography, …etc. 7.5

12. Hallways of Always: Taken from “Perdition City’, this one begins with rhythmic pulses, then piano and effects. There are light pulses and swirls accompanying them, as well as more iconography. For this one, the band goes in all sorts of directions; it’s basically an experimental jam. 7.5

13. England: This track was a first taste of Ulver’s then-unreleased new album ‘Wars of the Roses’, which would be released some nine months later. The track is more of a gothic metal affair, sounding not unlike Moonspell in some ways, and it resonated in the room. Accompanying the piece was archival footage of horses, hunters, and groups of horseback men going on a fox hunt. Very British. 7.5

14. A Cold Kiss: This may be a snippet of “Porn Piece or the Scars of Cold Kisses”, from ‘Perdition City’. But I don’t have that album either, so I’m not sure. It was a bit abrupt and dissonant; there were absolutely no hooks to be found here. 6.0

*15. Like Music: This one’s from ‘Shadows of the Sun’. It starts with vocals and piano, during which there are shots of the inside of a piano. Then the track turns into dissonant guitar noise, after which it flows into an experimental, atmospheric vibe. During that part a spinning record figured prominently. Or maybe it was a close-up of a spool spinning. Not sure. 7.5

*16: Not Saved: This one is taken from an EP called ‘Silencing the Singing’. It’s a lengthy melancholy number that focuses on piano and atmospherics. There are more shots of the spinning thing. It creates an interesting effect when it’s blended with the concert, giving the illusion of streams of light or a rain of light. I think that it comes from the grooves in the spinning thing. At the end, there is the image of young teenaged boy in white on a white background. I’m not sure what it was supposed to convey, but the track was excellent. 8.0

*17. The Leg Cutting Piece: The closing number, which consisted of piano and atmospherics, brought back the weird guy from the opening. Now he’s all white, naked and propped up on these weird-looking tall stilts. He barely moved, but he was a bit shaky. 8.0

The show ended with the words “What kind of animal are you?” presented on the large screen. It took me a little bit of digging to find out that this is a reference to a song by Coil. They are obviously trying to convey a message, but since I don’t know the band very well, this was slightly lost on me. Oh, I can give it many meanings, but what was their intention?

Still, even though Ulver’s references are obscure, if not cryptic, and their music not remotely accessible, I really enjoyed this concert film. ‘The Norwegian National Opera’ was more than just a concert, really, it crosses the line from rock into performance art. That makes them far more interesting than most rock bands, eschewing bombast for something more profound.

I plan to further explore Ulver in the future. And I certainly recommend this show as a first taste of what they are about. But do yourselves a favour: get it on blu-ray. And turn it up: it’s one of those experiences you want to be immersed in. If you can’t catch them live, this is going to be the next best thing – so don’t ruin it by watching it on your laptop.

Date of viewing: November 21, 2014

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