Ulver are one of those rare gems of the music world – daring experimentators that shapeshift with each release, the only constants being high quality and change. They kicked off their European tour in support of their latest album ‘The Assassination of Julius Caesar’ in the beautiful Islington Assembly Hall whose exterior could well pass for a Roman building, aptly echoing the title of Ulver’s opus.
The evening begins with a short solo set by experimental guitarist Stian Westerhus, who is also touring with Ulver. Westerhus’s music is as eclectic as you could expect from an Ulver collaborator, covering all bases from thumping drones à la Sunn O))) to hypnotic singer-songwriter passages that would fit in a James Blake song. All of this is created just using a guitar, an extensive set of pedals and effects, and his voice, giving us a flavour of the level of musicianship we were about to witness later on.
The reverb-soaked echoes of Westerhus’s last song transitioned seamlessly into the pounding beat of album opener ‘Nemoralia’. As the rest of the band join in, the sound blows up to the multidimensional blend of thumping drums, rich synthesizers, and sonic ornaments that comprise the essence of Ulver in 2017 – a singular brand of dark synthpop, both immediate and multifaceted.
True to their chameleon-like reputation, Ulver focused solely on their newest incarnation and performed ‘The Assassination of Julius Caesar’ in its entirety (albeit in a different order than the album sequencing). A stunning light show, customised for each song, bathed the hall in flashes of technicolour. Ulver mastermind Krystofer ‘Garm’ Rygg filled the space with the warm tones of his voice, showcasing his impressive range by frequently shifting between the multiple harmonic vocal lines from the record. Save for a few shaky moments when he went off-key, his delivery was assured and breathed organic quality into the otherwise deeply processed wall of sound.
As reliant on electronics and technology Ulver’s performance is, it is by no means just an exercise in button pushing on a Mac – there is serious work going on at the stage in order to craft those soundscapes. Stian Westerhus did every possible thing to his guitar – beating and bending its neck, running a violin bow trough the strings and, only very rarely, traditional strumming, whilst no fewer than four people take part in forging the percussive backdrop. The rhythmic section has atomic-clock tightness but by no means sounds mechanical – a testament to just how much groove there is in these songs. Unfortunately, the band was steeped in darkness for most of the show, rarely graced by the projector lights. As beautiful as the light show happening above Ulver’s heads is, there was precious little opportunity to have a proper look at the musicians at work, and understand how each musical element is created and where it sits.
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After the full performance of ‘The Assassination of Julius Caesar’, we were treated to the live premieres of the songs from their newest EP – ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ – which dropped without any forewarning just the Friday before the concert. The EP includes two new songs which were “left on the drawing board” during the album session and finished after its release. Both ‘Echo Chamber (Room of Tears)’ and ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ fit seamlessly into the style of the album tracks with their strong hooks and luxurious synths.
Ulver are known for their inventive reinterpretations of old pop songs, but it’s still a surprise to hear what they had in store for the encore – a gothic synthpop interpretation of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Power of Love’. Ulver may constantly change, but their live performances continue to be a feast of audio-visual brilliance. If you enjoyed ‘The Assassination of Julius Caesar’ (and I’d find it hard to believe you didn’t), do catch them on this tour – god only knows how different they will sound on the next one.
The evening’s setlist:
So Falls The World
Coming Home (with extended jam)
Bring Out Your Dead
Echo Chamber (Room of Tears)
The Power of Love (Frankie Goes to Hollywood cover)