Throughout their storied and lengthy career, Ulver has been in a constant state of flux. Starting as perhaps the first ever folky black metal band, no one could have envisioned where Ulver would end up, more than 20 years later. Of course, that could just as easily be said album to album, and on The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the Norwegian group’s 13th proper studio release, Ulver has once again turned expectations on their head, and challenged listeners by making the most straightforward album of their career. And it’s absolutely brilliant.
Let’s get this out of the way now; Bergtatt and Nattens Madrigal are great albums for what they are. However, they’ve also been plagiarized to death, and frankly, the world doesn’t need any more clones. If you’re looking for a remotely metal album, this is the wrong place for you. Then again, Ulver has probably been the wrong band for you since Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, if that’s what you were looking for. The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a beautiful and lush album. It is dark, brooding, but almost danceable and catchy. It flirts with radio friendliness for much of the album, but maintains an experiemental and forward thinking approach to songwriting. I’ve recommended this album to many people (who have in turn recommended it to their parents and siblings) who all have tastes that skew towards more typical radio fare. Not one person has complained or found it too weird for them. Everybody’s weird uncle who lives and dies by Black Celebration will love this album. This is a pop album, for certain, but there is so much more to it than that.
“Nemorlia” opens the album in territory familiar to fans of Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. The overt synthpop influence is at the forefront early on and does not let up. However, Ulver doesn’t settle into a groove, and the very next track, the album’s opus (and perhaps career high water mark for Ulver), “Rolling Stone” takes the sheen and danciness of the opening track, and darkens it with experimentation and ambiance recalling shades of their prior work on Perdition City. If I had to use Ulver’s prior work to pigeonhole a snapshot description of this record, I would compare it to that album mixed with Blood Inside, as the prominent electronics found on both records appears hear, and Garm’s voice, beautifully baritone as ever, leads the songs on all three releases. His delivery is as varied as Mike Patton’s without ever sounding goofy, insincere, or as if he’s singing outside of his range. The instrumental component of The Assassination of Julius Caesar is generally restrained, led mostly by keyboards, strings, and light uses of guitar. When percussion appears, it is mostly drum machine, and used to create a pulsing backdrop that simply furthers the pop idioms on display throughout the album. Songs like “Southern Gothic” and “Angelus Novus” have truly anthemic choruses that remained in my head long after my initial listen, and that is all thanks to the amazing vocal patterns, and clever use of backing vocals employed by Garm and his cohorts.
The lyrics on The Assassination of Julius Caesar deal with many different subjects through outright homage and clever metaphor. Princess Diana’s demise, Anton LaVey’s Black House, Sharon Tate’s untimely demise, and other celebrity fixations are the focus of the album, but you don’t need to “get the references” to find Garm’s storytelling as compelling as his somber voice.
Complaints about the album? I have none. This is a logical progression, yet a curveball all at once. I am not quite sure where this fits into the canon of Ulver’s career as far as ranking based on quality. I am sure that it stands up there with their finest releases such as Blood Inside and Perdition City, and is certainly their best effort in quite some time. I wouldn’t say Ulver has ever put out something I’ve disliked, but it’s been a while since I’ve spun one of their albums four times in a row, and I’ve done that for two straight days with The Assassination of Julius Caesar. If you’re into the catchiness of pop music, but find what is readily available too saccharine and bland, this may be exactly the record you are looking for. For those who’ve wanted to see Ulver use their experimental flair to tackle more conventional songwriting, this is the perfect example of that. Me? I’m in utter awe of this record, and can’t believe that four months into the year, I’m rating yet another album this highly.
Release Date: April 7th 2017
Label: House of Mystery/Jester Records
Favorite Tracks: “Rolling Stone” “Southern Gothic”