Ulver at Islington Assembly Hall, London - live review

Norwegian experimentalists team up with Jaga Jazzist man Stian Westerhus for one night only in London

Daniel O'Sullivan from Ulver playing guitar on stage with the band
(Image: © Will Ireland)

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Make no mistake: Ulver’s The Assassination Of Julius Caesar is a sublime album. But the Norwegians’ long journey from eerie, folklore-inspired black metal into something entirely disconnected from their early days – where sumptuous, uplifting instrumentation mixes with the giddy kick of the dancefloor – presents something of a problem: how do you make this stuff work live?

The answer, it would appear, it to get the light show to do the heavy lifting. But more on that later. It all starts out with a short set of angular solo guitar from former Puma and Jaga Jazzist man Stian Westerhus (who contributed to …Caesar, and has joined Ulver for this tour), and as the last notes of his set fade, the band assemble and launch into the languid throb of album opener Nemoralia.

The band are huddled onstage, only visible in silhouette as lasers dance, wheel and spin pictures in the air. It’s a slow-burning, gently atmospheric beginning, and is followed by Southern Gothic (the setlist rearranges the album’s running order slightly), a song that manages to be both sombre and quietly exhilarating at the same time.

Something doesn’t quite translate though. Plumbed through an otherwise decent sound system, the machine-tooled perfection of the album is suffocated. All those moments of woozy, honeyed brilliance are rendered rather inelegant, the album’s lightness of touch and personality lost to the limitations of the PA.

The laser show doesn’t help. It’s probably another hat-tip to the past — along with the nods to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Yellow, The The, Banco de Gaia and the rest – with graphics that recall Yes’ 90125 tour laser show, or the early thrill of computer gaming. But the band remain in darkness throughout, making it all rather impersonal, like a visit to the planetarium rather than a real-life show involving real-life musicians. It’s a human experience that feels perplexingly inhuman.

It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all: it’s just not as good as it should be, or as good as Ulver deserve. The crescendo at the close of Rolling Stone is both chilling and triumphant, and the tracks from the band’s new Sic Transit Gloria Mundi EP at the set’s conclusion are the night’s highlights. Bring Out Your Dead is graceful and atmospheric, while Echo Chamber (Room Of Tears) finishes with an elongated, acid-drenched, off-yer-tits wig-out.

They encore with a stirring rendition of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love, and an audience that probably never gave a fuck what Frankie said roar along with great gusto.

Perhaps the key ingredient to enjoying an Ulver show – at least for the moment – is to only listen to their music after you’ve seen it performed live.

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.