Ulver's journey into the unknown

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An uncertain band for uncertain times, Ulver have spent most of the last two decades defying expectation and avoiding musical convention. In fact, ever since they followed up the trollish black metal of their 1995 debut album with a collection of acoustic folk songs, they’ve been keeping their audience guessing, and that’s a situation that looks unlikely to change. Sure enough, having impressed fans and critics alike with the brooding orchestral intensity of 2013’s Messe I.X-VI.X, the (mostly) Norwegian institution now present a very different side of their musical personality. Titled – somewhat improbably – ATGCLVLSSCAP, the new record is a varied and playful effort that blends the spontaneous with the premeditated, its foundation built from recordings of the largely improvisational shows performed by the band in early 2014, with editing, arrangement and additions later taking place in a studio setting.

As founding member Kristoffer Rygg explains, the initial impetus for this unusual way of working – and for the tour as a whole – was actually surprisingly prosaic, namely the fact that the band were lacking material to play live. Wanting to tour but not wishing to repeat either the songs documented on 2011 live DVD The Norwegian National Opera nor those on War Of The Roses – which had been played extensively live following that album’s release – the band took their chances and opted for a series of what Kristoffer describes as “trippy jams”. It’s not only an interesting way of making new material but one that would have been unforeseeable just a few years ago, since both the band and its founder were famous for not playing concerts. Presumably he’s rather more comfortable with this setting now?

“Well, there is no longer a total crippling fear involved,” he replies with a dry laugh. “That being said, it was a bit sketchy at times; we went in a bit too cocky and we needed a few shows to get things to gel as well. But once it did it was liberating and groovy, for want of a better word. It was just about embracing the music. Like, ‘If we’re going to be a live band, let’s be a fucking live band.’”

Curiously, ‘groovy’ is a good adjective for much of the resulting album and while there are minimal and meditative parts, the tone of the record overall contrasts with its more weighty predecessor. The reasons for this shift seem to be a combination of the personnel involved (much of the studio work was handled by Englishman Daniel O’Sullivan, who was not involved in Messe), the nature of the live performances and the mood of the band.

“It’s natural because this is coming from the ‘live big band’ aspect of Ulver,” considers Kristoffer, “not unlike Childhood’s End and Wars Of The Roses, which is also more Ulver in ‘rock mode’. Then factor in that these are basically long-form jams, based on the live situation, locking into a groove you know, repetition and such. It becomes aesthetically different than what Tore [Ylwizaker], Ole-Alex [Halstensgård] and I did on our own with Messe I.X–VI.X, which was us more in studio mode. Especially after that album and because of things going on in our personal lives, this tour was about letting loose, having fun and just playing music, and it is consequently not as dark. There’s an element of getting away from yourself and the seriousness and self- importance of some of the works of the past.”

Doing something different is almost a default setting

As Kristoffer suggests, the focus on jam-heavy rock music is perhaps less shocking when one considers the material on the band’s 2012 cover album, Childhood’s End, which features songs by late 60s artists such as Jefferson Airplane and 13th Floor Elevators. Interestingly, the other dimension to the new album – namely the electronic tinkering – also has its roots in a music form from that period.

“As far as music history goes, the biggest genre imprint on this record would probably be Krautrock and early synthesizer music like Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze. We’ve been listening to that stuff for years, bands we usually have on heavy rotation when we are touring, all together in the van rolling towards Cologne in Germany. We love the vibe of that stuff and it has informed this album in a massive way. It’s what came after the things we were paying tribute to on Childhood’s End, that psychedelic garage sound.”

Krautrock’s theme of constant motion is certainly apt in this context given the nature of Ulver itself. After all, whatever musical connections might exist between various albums, evolution and reinvention remain keywords for this unique group.

“Working on something that is quite focused and fixated on a certain aesthetic,” Kristoffer replies, “to us it’s only natural that the next project be something entirely different. A lot of bands will consider that if they’re doing something radically different it might alienate their fans. We started doing that so long ago, it’s almost like a default setting.”

Before we leave Kristoffer, we have to ask about that unpronounceable record title. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

“No, it doesn’t,” he laughs. “Internally we dubbed it, ‘Music From The Dozen’ or ‘Twelve’ for a long time. We became sort of hung up on the number 12 for a couple of reasons: first, it was the number of gigs involved here, and in the end it turned out to be 12 tracks, and depending on your definition of ‘albums’, it’s our 12th full-length. Then this mnemonic came up: ‘All The Great Constellations Live Very Long Since Stars Can’t Alter Physics’, which is basically this epic sentence by which to remember the different signs of the zodiac, from Aries to Pisces.” He laughs again before adding, “We found that pretty hilarious, that it’s impossible to vocalise. To me that’s funny, in a contrarian, punk sort of way.”

ATGCLVLSSCAP is out on January 22 via House Of Mythology. Ulver play London’s Cafe Oto on January 20