18 July 2011

Ulver, Improvisation and Modernity in Extreme Music

As a continuation of my current listening habit of extreme metal, Ulver is of course a must in the stereo system recently. The band has been variously described as post-metal and genre-hopping but most writers seem to skirt around the actual musical content of their post Nattens Madrigal output by focusing more on their radical move away from the Norwegian Black Metal sound to embracing electronica, Coil-like compositions, soundtrack-y, etc and etc which at times feel convenient and perhaps even slightly clueless to what Ulver seem to be doing.

I am no expert in extreme Metal but listening to many of their post-Nattens albums gave me an interesting epiphany: the creative forward-path of the band reminds of that of David Sylvian, the ex-frontman of New Wave/New Romantics forerunners, Japan, and since the late 1980s, has been a marvellously innovative artist in his own right. The parallel might seem improbable but the creative trajectories of both artistes do have much similarities between them.

Both David Sylvian and Ulver emerged from their previous reputation as key players in their respective fields but both did an about-turn and move towards a route of departure from prior musical association and experimentation subsequently. While Sylvian collaborated with established names in the field of avant rock, electronica and Improv like Holger Czukay, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Robert Fripp, Derek Bailey, etc, Ulver got their hands dirty by working with Christian Fennesz, Steve Noble, Stephen Thrower, Alex Ward, etc. The results of the two are elegaic, thoughtful investigation of song form, mannered fitting together of disparate elements into tracks of sublimity and subtlety.

One common thing which I heard in both is the vocal evocation of Sylvian and Ulver: at times tender whispers, falsettoed emphasis of words, crescendoes of vocal swipes across the aural space and glissandi of nuanced articulation. Of course, Ulver still allow unease and at times, moments of silent dread seep through their compositions while Sylvian's spirituality trades for more transcendentalism, both deal with human fragility and frailty.

Both Ulver and Sylvian work in the very under-populated musical enclave of contemplative and innovative music made for the jaded, the thirty-something and above; not AOR, not MOR, not bland radio/iTune fare but music to grow wise and gracefully to with the right doses of experimentation for the restless-at-heart of the 21st century.

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