Their new Flowers Of Evil album is co-produced by Youth and combines sparse heavy grooves with the gorgeous and sonorous crooned vocals. It’s an epic work and a perfect hour of dark, sparse neo-pop that instinctively matches a death disco, dark shadow pop, crooned vocals and a swapping melodramatic drama that soundtracks these melancholic and dystopian times.
The Norwegian band have been on a fascinating trip since they emerged from their home nation’s home-grown black metal scene in 1993 with their already own unique take on the form. Teenage music heads Kristoffer Rygg and his friends made their own fanzines and were drawn to the intensity and darkness of the black metal scene based around the Helvete shop in Oslo. It was a cultural crash course that saw them exposed to the opposing forces of darkness in the scene that resulted in some of the more extreme adherents indulge in tragic murders opposed to many others who found it to be an empowering springboard to an artful creativity.
From the off and their 1995 released, Bergtatt album – the first part of what has become known as their Black Metal Trilogie, saw them already playing with the form adding a haunting neo-Gothic melodic noir to the mystery and folklore twist to the dense claustrophobia of the scene that in turn became a key influence on so many bands afterwards. Somehow even by their second album, Kveldssanger, they were mixing classical and folk stylings and textures and yet retaining the atmosphere of black metal with none of its cliches.
After their third album Nattens Madrigal when they immersed themselves into the rawest black metal ever, they added Tore Ylwizaker to the line-up and have stylistically twisted and turned through a myriad of styles and yet never losing their vision beginning with 1998’s Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which was a hypnotic mix of industrial and electronic musics and the key turning point release in their fastening journey. Since then there has been the almost psychedelic Shadows of the Sun, the film noir of Perdition City, and the tranced-out splendour of ATGCLVLSSCAP – just some of the highlights in a long and productive catalogue that also includes a collaboration with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra. Their own distinctive merging and mashing of multifarious styles into their own distinctive and brilliant trip has now become honed down to a perfect groove on the new Flowers Of Evil album and the sparse textures that bed Kristoffer Rygg’s distinctive croon have become key parts of their later career trajectory that has seen them refine the style over a series of remarkable albums resulting in the about to be released new album.
It’s the first Ulver album for some time that doesn’t embrace an overriding historic theme and yet, conversely, comes with a beautifully laid out book – the new 336-page book of their career, Wolves Evolve about the band’s own history. It’s a twisting tale that needed telling and underlines that through all the stylistic and line up changes, their’s is a pure and powerful vision and a complex story.
I caught up with band driving force and vocalist, Kristoffer Rygg, on Skype from his home in Oslo where the singer has been recovering from a sleepless night that was dominated, fittingly, by the forces of nature.
‘There was the most insane thunder here last night,’ explains Kris. ‘All animals must have trembled.’
Almost perfectly as the kinetic electric storms and nature at its most extreme and life affirmingly powerful filled the nighttime air and somehow suit this band who take their name from the Norwegian word for ‘wolves’.
He adds, ‘there were about 20 000 strikes of lightning, quite the spectacle, but since I live in a wooden house on the top of a hill, and next to a big open plain, I must admit to feeling a bit small.’
Flowers Of Evil, with the Baudelaire-referencing album title, is an impressive work. It’s a further step of the band honing their current groove style that they have been working on for a few years. It’s a finessing that makes me wonder if they have arrived at an ‘Ulver sound’ after a long and fantastically varied musical journey.
‘I guess it only took us a quarter of a century to find our true calling (laughs)! Seriously, I think our 2017 album, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, was a foundation that we finally actually wanted to build on more. That’s a first for us, you know, as we were always quite restless, or relentless in moving on… The sound we had on each album always had to do with the constellation of the band at the time and who was in it, or available, and also the way we worked in the studio. The technology available to us. Anyway, we did feel that there was more to be done with this sound we’ve now had in the last couple of albums, but maybe in a sparser sense. The music is more to-the-point, this time. It’s also a bit more airy and spacious sounding. We were trying to hold on to the nucleus of these songs, careful not to lay it on too thick, in a way. I’m sure some will disagree with us for refining this formula, and not going for another sharp left turn, but it made sense to us to linger in this space for a bit. Or to put it another way, maybe that is the surprise this time (laughs).’
This refining is thrilling. The huge bass drum owns the heartbeat and the dancefloor but there is so much space to breathe. The album sounds great. Big and expansive with lots of space and subtle textures, the rhythmic tracks are perfect grooves leaving wide open space for the vocals to command the atmosphere. How important was Youth’s production in this process? He seems to add an amazing clarity to the sound for someone who likes a smoke!
‘(Laughs) People react differently to that stuff! There are people in this band who are persistently in that state and I hardly notice any more. If it was me I would be flat out on my back and dream about unicorns! Anyway, Youth’s input has obviously been super important, and Michael Rendall! They’re just an awesome team who add this vibe to things. Crystal punch! It just clicked the first time we worked with them, on Caesar… It sounded so good that we wanted to go back and do another round, quite simply. Thankfully, they were up for it too.’
I know he can tweak the grooves and create space but does he also get involved in the melodies?
‘Well, Youth would come in whilst we were working and hear things that we hadn’t even thought about. And that’s the great thing… He would go, ‘guys, why not try doing this… repeat that part’ and it would work! Although we did have most of the album laid out before we went to London. It’s more a matter of meeting similar minds, I think, some creative sparring to get things to sound right. When we went there in early February, just before this pandemic, we did talk about how maybe the next time we should do something more from scratch, set off the time to brainstorm and come up with ideas, track these from the ground, do something together all the way… I think that would be amazing, and I really hope we find time in all our busy schedules to do that some day. The way we’ve done these last couple albums though, I would describe as creative mixing, mixing with add-ons! (laughs) And we are eternally grateful… those guys make us sound way better than we can do on our own. Most albums benefit from having a qualified person listening, weighing in, and the different perspectives or knacks that they bring to the table, create a balance, a better reading of the music.’
The best bands are bigger than the sum of their parts and the creative process is between all those people – like in Ulver – with Youth this time and over the years, the many different band members who are referenced in the accompanying book.
‘Definitely! Oftentimes this band has been described as a collective, and I guess to some extent that’s true. You know, we have amazing friends who will contribute to a certain project, who will add beautiful colours and shades… presence, even if they are not necessarily part of all the daily diddle-daddle. These days we tend to be a core of 4–5 people but in the bigger sense we can be 10 people depending on what we want to do and that, of course, can really affect the sound, especially live.’
When you start the process of the record, what starts the project – is it the storyline and the vision of the album and then you build the music around it to match that vision.
‘It can be both. But there usually is a vision for what an album is supposed to be, what we wish to create, or say with the music. We talked about this last time, I think, with Caesar and how when the title of that album was in place, it became a kind of thematic overlay for whatever followed. But it’s a process, of course, and until you walk the path, you won’t know where it leads. With this album, we made the demos quite simple, the initial musical ideas were like a part A and possible part B and then we wrote down some words, scraps and pieces from the mental notebook, to test and see if the syllables danced with the music, so to speak. Then we go several rounds like this, and if it clicks, then you start to think about bridges or more elaborate twists and turns.’
At some point, do the songs suggest a narrative, maybe reflecting the Vicino Orsini the commissioner of the Mannerist Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo with its nightmare visions of grotesque statues that is featured in the book or was that a parallel interest.
‘To be fair, this statement is written by Tore Engelsen Espedal, the main narrator of the book, who used this Italian monster-garden you mention as a sort of analogy, so it’s strictly speaking not from us.’
Maybe I was over thinking it but the garden of grotesques overgrown with plants of flowers felt, to me, like such a perfect reflection of some of the themes on the Baudelaire inspired album title Flowers Of Evil.
‘This album is not really a conceptual album in any other sense than that it touches on the fears and tremblings of mankind, which is what made the use of the classic Baudelaire title somehow fitting.’
It’s very fitting with the pandemic! The themes you often touch on somehow soundtrack where we find ourselves now…
‘Strangely true, yet this is not the first time that has happened for us. There are a couple of tracks that now almost seem like downright commentaries on the ongoing onslaught! It has been burning under our feet for quite some time before this moment, of course, but this year has been very special in that regard – seems we have tapped into the 2020 zeitgeist. Evil flowers growing rampant!
But yeah, sometimes we can be inspired by things we’ve read or a memory of something, an image, or it could be a movie, which was the case with the last song on the album, A Thousand Cuts. This started with Pasolini, then we mixed in some other things, symbolist stuff. In the end it feels more like a Sleepy Hollow romance. Another track, Nostalgia, Jørn (H. Sværen) and I were discussing the final scene in a film by the same name, by Tarkovsky, and then it became more and more about our own childhood – our personal nostalgia. So when we will have these writing sessions where one of us will usually have something in mind, to start, it could be a very simple thing, like a line from a poem, a dream, it could be anything… We then start looking for things that match this landscape, so to speak, and compile information, and what unfolds, unfolds.’
This dystopian vision fascinated you from your earliest visions through your industrial phase tinged by the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and Coil to now – a long and enthralling journey into the heart of darkness. Have you always been fascinated by the dark side?
‘I think there may have been something that happened with me as a 15–16-year-old getting into occult metal stuff stuff and being attuned to, shall we say, dark matter. I don’t have a good answer to why we keep digging deeper and deeper into the dark, though, as I think we are actually pretty congenial people in real life, but… life comes with suffering, unfortunately.’
For me, this puts you in a tradition that goes back before pop culture to the romantic poets like Byron, Baudelaire and even the likes of Crowley and that swirling and captivating romantic notion of the dark side. An Ulver album is always a crash course into an other world of ideas and an education of possibilities and other art.
‘That is your words! But sure, we like the idea of being… door openers, gatekeepers. We like the idea of taking people to places they might not venture on their own, you know. Even if it is not a pleasant place.’
This dark artistic yearning stretches back through the centuries to the ancient narrative of long lost neolithic campfire tales to the classical period Romans and their obsession with ghosts and through the shivering centuries.
‘We like to look back in time, we do. As we say in the first song (‘One Last Dance’), we search the ruins… Of history, but also popular culture. Flowers of Evil might not have that same antique clout, in a way, that The Assassination of Julius Caesar album did. It’s a bit closer to our time, this album, albeit with a few nods to Caravaggio!’
Thematically though it’s still fascinating…
‘… and ‘Little Boy’ is obviously touching on Hiroshima and a WWII scenario, which I guess is not all that recent but in Biblical terms it is.
Do you use older themes to reflect modern times? Hold them up as a mirror to our own madness?
‘Yeah, for us it’s like warnings from the past. Tragedies repeat themselves, became a kind of motto from our previous record. The same shit can, and will, happen over and over, and we humans… we are capable of great beauty, of course, but we fucking excel at destruction! The will to power, conquer, control, all the needs, greeds and expectations of humanity… we are doomed to fail. To go Schopenhauer for a second: Our great mind is a threat to our existence.’
I imagine your front room is like Youth’s front room – a dusty treasure trove of old books and ideas.
‘(Laughs) Well, compared to Youth… his house is a museum! But sure, there’s some stuff here too, amassed over the years… I’m looking at some of it right now actually, a self-built cabinet of curiosities!’
As a voracious reader, this downtime must have been good for a catch-up…
‘Actually, in the last years or so I’ve been on a rock ’n’ roll biography trip – that’s a hang-up for me at the moment. In dark times I’m keeping it light with some sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll! (laughs)’
Ulver albums inevitably are ambitious, expansive and cinematic. They are almost like a theatrical production!
‘(Laughs) We are not afraid to go grand, no, or even for the sound to go quite high fidelity at this point. The new album may be sparser though, musically speaking, and as I said before, we owe a lot to Youth and Michael Rendall (from the Orb) for seeing the power in a bit of restraint this time, and for getting the lesser to sound like more, in a sense… without losing that expansiveness.’
When you write these days, do you start with groove and add the vocals or do you match the groove to the melody?
‘Well, we do usually start with a simple rhythm, or a loop, just setting a tone and tempo, maybe add a bass line or an arpeggio or something, and then we’ll usually try some ideas for a vocal line or two. Sometimes we might even start with the vocals. You see, I’m an avid phone recorder, and oftentimes things just drop out of the sky! I’ll hum it onto my phone. And if we feel that this is something we could build more around or is worth pursuing, then we’ll start to throw more things in the mix and try to make that into a song. Sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn’t.’
Since you started playing gigs in 2009 after a 15-year break did it change the way that you made the music after seeing how the audience was affected by the songs as you played them live? When you write now can you can almost imagine the crowd’s heads moving to the music…
‘Actually, yes… it did. The recent albums certainly are made with that in the back of the mind. We are not going to shy from things that are difficult to reproduce live, but it certainly does colour the way that you approach the music. Before we started playing live we simply didn’t care. We did what we wanted, just because the whole live thing was out of the question. We didn’t consider that at all. Most of the early music would have worked well live, but it was the later records, from Blake and onwards that was considered for live actions when we eventually started to think about all that stuff. In late 2008, that’s when we started to locate all the different files and make preparations to bring it to the stage. The live thing is now very important to us, but that’s all changed again now with the pandemic. We were just about to invest lots of time and money on a rather ambitious visual production for our planned April tour, but for obvious reasons that didn’t happen – when our dystopian vision came true for the whole planet!
As the music constantly looks forward and keeps moving the band have begun to document and embrace their past. The Wolves Evolve book that comes with the album tells the full story of the band from their inception in a series of essays, interviews and quotes. Have you been to the Gardens of Bomarzo?
‘Not personally, no, but the interesting thing is that some years back I remember taking note of an image from that same garden. It was an old photo of a woman standing with her flock of sheep in the ‘Orcus mouth’… a really haunting photo, from the 1950s I believe. Tore (Engelsen Espedal) is a lot more versed in the mythology of that place than me, but I find it a curious coincidence that this imagery was already somehow in Ulver’s path before he wrote about this place for the press release.’
Is it the actual grotesque sculptures that you find fascinating or the way that the plants have reclaimed this folly?
‘I suppose it’s a sort of literal flowers of evil going on, isn’t it? I think that is why Tore used this place, to set the scene. But as I said, I have not been there myself, so I can’t really answer this on his behalf. I believe it’s more of a concrete backdrop from which to paint our album in words, basically. A sort of visual reference point.’
Or as the author states: ‘The book is 150 pages of conversation with the band, conducted and framed by Tore Engelsen Espedal, alongside textual detours by Phil Alexander, Nile Bowie and Torolf Kroglund, plus a wealth of photographs from the private archives of the band and others.
Wolves Evolve follows Ulver through the dark woods of their infancy and into the dead city centres where they would shift between their many shapes to come. It’s a labyrinthine tale of musical evolution on a grand scale. Some may be confused. Others will follow the band through their pantheon of friends and associates, obsessions and affinities. And while there, they will get a glimpse of the shapes and misshapes that have made up the alternative cultures of the past three decades, rescued from the iniquity of oblivion.’
In many ways this is the perfect time to put out the book…
‘For me, the book and the album are two separate items that sit side by side, in that both are kind of summing things up. We’ve been talking about making this book for years, and one of the plus sides of whole Covid thing – if I’m allowed to say that – was that it gave us a bit more time to make sure everything was in its right place. It gave us some breathing space to look more carefully at the book. All in all, it’s been a two-year process, and it kind of made sense to postpone things, album included, when shit hit the fan. I reckon people have had other things to worry about in the meantime. But in many ways, this is our biggest statement till now, summing up a lot of things… in words, sound and picture.’
It must have been an interesting process as I imagine you don’t often look back and keep moving forwards…
‘It was, of course, and a major challenge as well. 25 years in any band history is a long time… lots to rummage through. And there are probably many things that we could have talked more about or maybe there are some things that we could have talked a bit less about! (Laughs) We had to trust our own instincts in what would be interesting or not, too nerdy perhaps, or what would be interesting to someone coming to the band from a different place. From the outside. We had to kind of find that balance and decipher what’s the most relevant parts of our story, you know. I guess the point of no return came around 1998 with the Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell album. From that album to where we are now feels like a natural trajectory despite all the different mediums and formats. The shifts and changes often have got to do with personal shuffles and yet something in all of that tastes of Ulver in a way, at least to us. I do hope there is a soul in there, despite the sort of perceived contradictions in our artistic development.’
Music keeps moving…
‘It does… And already in the early days, we wanted to introduce something new in a scene where things were starting to conform a bit too much. What was interesting for me then was to bring something ‘foreign’ and put that into the music and sound that we loved, and that is something that we have always done, I think. Add these strange or curious elements to something that may be perceived as rather straightforward, or belonging to this or that musical tradition.’
It’s amazing how on this shapeshifting and beautifully challenging trip how the audience has stayed with you!
‘Yeah, many people have tagged along for the ride, that’s true, and we feel real lucky in that respect – our audience seems to enjoy being fucked with a little bit! (Laughs) We appreciate that listening to music made from a different headspace each time can be difficult. It’s easier for some if it always comes from the same place, you know, a place that you are familiar with and can depend on.’
You also still get covered in the metal press who have remained loyal despite your creative journey.
‘And we appreciate that too, of course, but at the same time we can’t help but wonder, why so much rock and metal… why do all these demonic metal mags still write about us! (Laughs) Sometimes it can get a bit strange. Professionally, it’s been a bit of an obstacle, as Spotify and other players still put us in the metal playlists and we still go straight into the metal sections in record stores, you know, rather than in pop, indie or alternative or whatever.’
Without the history this would be embraced as a dark pop record.
‘That’s how we see it, yes. That’s what this is, quite simply. There’s no way Flowers of Evil would go in the metal sections had it not been for a few albums we made 25, 20 years ago!’
You have also been innovators. Adding the folklore element to black metal, then the electronics which have created whole sub-genres on their own with people running with your ideas and even Taylor Swift new album Folklore having artwork that resembles an Ulver outtake!
‘I saw a couple memes about that recently, and it made me smile, but I doubt Taylor Swift is dabbling in Ulver in her spare time! (Laughs) I also saw a lot of people were alluding to that with Myrkur, I actually produced her debut album. The photo on that album (M, Relapse 2015), it does in fact resemble the new Taylor Swift, and was taken in my extended garden here, about two hundred metres from where I sit. It’s pretty funny.’
It’s always interesting how the underground feeds into the mainstream.
‘I suppose that is true. The mainstream steals from subcultures all the time. There is nothing new about that in that sense.’
On the new album, your voice sounds great – full of even more texture and nuance than usual. Did you work hard to get this?
‘Thank you so much, man. Not so much in recording itself. Most time is spent just trying different melodic parts or ideas, you know, trying and failing, as we demo things. So when it finally comes time to record things properly, it’s done fairly quickly. It’s already under the skin by then. Speaking of under the skin, when I listen to those screams on the early stuff I think ‘holy fuck! I wish I could do that now!’ I secretly want to go back there sometimes (laughs), but that’s just not possible any more. But on the first album I also used a very clean voice and it’s fairly obvious from the onset that we would probably shed that harsh stuff at some point. Besides, the more you work and record things, the more you repeat something, I think a few things become apparent, things that work for you, sound like you.’
One of the key factors could be that over time there has been more and more space in the music for the vocals.
‘Well, for the last two last albums, the voice has of course been a focal point in the music. It was not necessarily so much before. Then the beats or samples, or earlier, the guitars, could be more important than a strong vocal presence. But yeah, there has been more of an emphasis on the voice in recent years, and lyrics too… which is rather natural considering our flirtations with the pop format.’
A pop that you have been honing down since the William Blake album?
‘For us, this all goes back to that album. That, as said, was the big turning point. By then we had established our own studio and we used the studio as an instrument in itself, so to speak. We were also listening to a lot of electronic and industrial music and that changed the way we thought about music. This would be the late nineties, and we were now becoming a studio-only band. The only time we would actually play together was in order to come up with initial ideas for songs which we would then tweak into the unrecognisable again, in the studio. We would spend a lot of time in the studio, basically, working on these crazy things, honing every little particle of sound. These days we are a bit more back to being a band, in some respects, we create and rehearse with live gigs in mind.’
Playing live after all that time must have have been a real profound moment. For a start, I guess you would have to learn how to inhabit and then how to project the songs.
‘Yeah. Big time. That was another big turning point, of course, and an even bigger learning curve. The big difference between Ulver live 2010 and the last couple of years is that now we kind of know how to do it! (Laughs) But yeah, playing live was like starting from scratch, to be honest. We felt like complete amateurs as it was something that we just didn’t do, that is, until 2009. And we’d been playing music and recording things since the early nineties… But even that live train is 11 years ago since it started rolling now. Jeez, time flies when you’re having fun!’
With your reputation already intact with the earlier records were there a lot of expectations when you started playing live?
‘There were, indeed. It was nerve-wracking as hell when we finally started doing that, we did not necessarily feel overly confident. (Laughs) But then you just throw yourself into it, and then suddenly you might start to think of certain songs more as live pieces, and the gigs slowly start to work, things gel. All of a sudden you are playing some really good gigs.’
Did you find out what you were and form an idea of Ulver, of what Ulver are about from doing gigs?
‘It changed a lot of things, for sure. Obviously, we had to recruit more people to pull it off, and who in turn got more involved in our next steps in the studio, and so when we started to make songs for the next album – Wars of the Roses – by then it had become more firmly planted in our heads that we had to find a way to combine our studio life with the live life, so to say, which changed the way things were written, fleshed out…’
That key fulcrum moment of the William Blake album and the starting to play live shows had a profound effect on the band. I saw them play By:Larm festival in Oslo in 2011 and it felt like a hallowed occasion. There was a level of awe in the room and the band’s collision of ideas and dark atmospherics was enthralling. Since then they have run with the moment and used the opportunity to create on their own terms on an idiosyncratic journey. Flowers of Evil is part of this process. Deep into their dark pop the band operate beyond the rules. Their music draws you into their world. It’s a powerful sonic perfume of perfect heartbeat grooves and that seductive croon that stretched the fabric of dark shadowy music into new vistas. The overgrown growth of the garden of Bomarzo is the perfect reflection of the music – natures rustling and never-ending march will always win, the pandemic humbled the mighty human race and the greenery invades the gothic statues of the Italian folly, nothing is permanent and everything is of the moment. Ulver somehow embrace these huge eternal themes in their huge musical vistas and embrace you in their textures and ideas.
It’s a great trip… immerse yourself.