John Robb explores the boundary-pushing creativity and musical brilliance of the black metal Norwegian band, Ulver
Ulver is the Norwegian word for a wolf but that gives you little clue to one of the most remarkable and original bands out there at the moment.
Founded in 1993 in Oslo, the band has made a career out of an astonishing musical diversity starting with their roots in the Norwegian black metal scene, with an added folklore edge, that made them stand out with their debut album twisting the distinctive dark blue of black metal with a melancholic mystery in its crooned melodies. They then swerved into the darker and danker corners of Norwegian folk music, working with an orchestra for a Scandinavian melancholic classical music piece; took sojourns into psychedelia, chamber, electronica, blues and their current imperious brooding electronic phase.
Somehow, though, they have always made it sound like their own and retained that hypnotic darkness that is at the heart of black metal – a fascinating sub culture of highly intelligent and driven individuals who are on a helter skelter creative overdrive.
Ulver never strayed into the more dangerous and uncomfortable corners of black metal that saw church burnings and violence. They were young kids hanging around the fringes of the scene at the famous Helvete shop in Oslo which was at the heart of the action and were drawn to the unique musical vision of the shop.
Like punk, black metal was a moment in time, a door opening into a Pandora’s box of possibilities and ideas – for some people it was creative empowerment – a portal to a shape- shifting musical world and a journey that took them from music fans in small towns to prime creative forces who created a music with no boundaries like Ulver; and for others it was a spiralling route to self destruction.
Ulver are a great example of the stunning creativity unleashed by the form. There doesn’t seem to be any creative barriers that get in their way. A few years ago I saw them live at By:Larm music festival in Oslo and it was quite an experience – a multimedia and multi-musical event that was a swirl of brilliance and managed to incorporate the challenging ideas of Throbbing Gristle, the dark blues of Nick Cave, Norwegian folk, classical brooding and even touches of black metal into a stunning set.
Their current albums are entirely different from anything else that they or, for that matter, anyone else has ever done - heavy atmospheric grooves with clever lyrics about William Blake or Julius Caeser. Their current albums are full of hypnotic grooves and melodic neo ambient music that draws you in with its own swirling power.
Just how does someone get here? What is this journey that goes from the more extreme ends of metal to this kind of utterly original music. Born in 1976, Ulver frontman Kristoffer Rygg tells us, in this interview, his unique and creatively daring story.
John Robb films In Conversations for Lush’s Gorilla channel, fronts his acclaimed post punk band The Membranes and is also a music writer who wrote many groundbreaking features the late Sounds music paper
'The John Robb Tapes' is a podcast series which unearths the incredible archive of old interviews that music journalist John Robb has amassed over the years. Listen on the Lush Player here.