In the tumultuous mid-90s Norwegian black-metal scene, Ulver were already the odd men out, immensely respected by their peers yet never a part of the church-burning gang. Rightfully so, considering how much they evolved and how weirdly they did so in just a couple of years. In hindsight, they were just getting started on a journey that is far from being over.
It’s easy to forget that by the time they definitively severed their ties with the rest of the pack with the genre-bending and trip-hop-infused double album that was Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, their ringleader Kristoffer ‘Garm’ Rygg was barely 22.
So what’s really fascinating about this box set, compiling their only proper demo from 1993 (Vargnatt) and their first three albums released through Metalion’s (from Slayer Mag fame) Head Not Found and Century Media, isn’t exactly how dramatic the changes they underwent over the course of only four years were, but also how non-linear they were.
If after some harsh debuts other bands tend to soften their music and stay on that road, very few choose to follow their classic-sounding first album (Bergtatt) with two such drastic left-turns, firstly with a still twilit but all-acoustic affair (Kveldssanger) and then the most lo-fi and heinous thing they could think of (Nattens Madrigal). What this collection offers by compiling all them in one place is an overview of how musical the whole endeavour was, no matter its outcome.
Far from the merry-go-round beer-raising struck in similar fashion by Finntroll’s Visor om Slutet in 2002, Kveldssanger exhales a stark and solemn beauty that predates Wardruna by a good 10 years. And far from being a disposable bonus, that recently unearthed instrumental rehearsal tape of four out of eight tracks from Nattens Madrigal just underlines the complexity and subtle guitar interaction that hid underneath its surface.
Completed by a meaty booklet and a 106-page hardback with liner notes, comments and unpublished photos, this is a mandatory purchase for those who missed the Norwegian black metal scene’s most adventurous mavericks the first time around./o:p