Ulver’s transformation from black metal heavyweights to dark synth rock practitioners has been utterly fascinating. The Norwegian band has been in existence for around 27 years and to celebrate (because the 27th is as good as any other anniversary to mark in fine fashion), they’re not only releasing a new album In the shape of Flowers Of Evil, but also a book entitled Wolves Evolve: The Story Of Ulver. A significant tome, it’s a document of a band that has, over the course of 16 albums, constantly endeavoured to change and explore new territories.
Their incarnation as a black metal band feels like a lifetime ago, and in terms of their career, that period would register as the birth through to angst ridden teenage years. This is not to dismiss their earlier work at all, for Ulver set the bar high with their take on black metal, but their main strength has always been to keep moving, utilise different instrumentation and genres, and never rest in one place. Their embracing of electronica and synth pop has been something of a revelation, and has led to the creation of some of their most intelligent and accomplished work.
Their last album The Assassination Of Julius Caesar found the band melding post-Cold War politics with infamy in Rome, all carefully aligned to a soundtrack crafted to evoke the darkest electronic rock sounds of the 1980s. Flowers Of Evil carries on in a similar vein and Ulver has continued to work with producer Flood and Martin Rendell of The Orb to create a polished and chilled sheen. The band is still dealing with big ideas and sprawling concepts. Laid out in essence on the opening track One Last Day, they sing about the human race being tested by God, “so that we may see we’re just like the animals,” whilst a relatively calming synth track thrums along in the background. Flowers Of Evil is awash with religious imagery and allusions, snatches of mythology, and nature. The band is looking at the state of humanity and how progress doesn’t necessarily get us very far at all.
Guns And Peacocks sees the band slipping into Depeche Mode form – another act notably produced down the years by Flood. A mid-paced affair with chugging guitar, singer Krystoffer Rygg juxtaposes feathers and flowers against automatic weaponry. He references Blade Runner as he stands in the garden of delights and singing into the void, describing the destruction of great art, and fires raging. It’s no coincidence that in the picture he paints with his words, it will forever be two minutes to midnight.
Ulver tend to deal with the serious subjects such as humanity’s failures, murder, and the rise of fascism – this is a band once described by Julian Cope as “cataloguing the death of our culture two decades before anyone else has noticed its inevitable demise”. But Flowers Of Evil underlines that they are also capable of making danceable and catchy tunes amidst these themes. Somehow they’ve turned in a propulsive earworm about the Waco siege: Apocalypse 1993 mixes up religion, David Koresh’s Rock Star with messiah complex mystique and the tactics used by the US State in the event. It’s fair to say that Rygg’s words, all delivered in a perfect ’80s Simon Le Bon manner, raise more questions than answers.
If there’s a theme to Flowers Of Evil it’s that even in the presence of love, there’s something malevolent lurking not too far away. In the Garden Of Eden, there were weeds ready to choke the life out of the fruit trees. The most overtly pop moment on the album, Nostalgia, traces the history of the band and looks back fondly at the town that spawned them and their sepia tinted youth. It also acknowledges the decay and loss of innocence. A Thousand Cuts starts off with two young lovers but places them on a war torn beach with washed up bodies, before being swept away by an angry sea. Here you’ll find pleasures of the flesh, pain, chalices smashed into skulls, palaces of excess, soldiers waltzing at the end of the Earth, and – well, why not – life and death.
Ultimately, Flowers Of Hell finds Ulver at a point where they may be feeling the need to move and change once again. Having explored the possibilities of mixing weighty themes and doomladen lyrics with “fluffy” disco tunes whilst taking a nostalgic look over their remarkable career, the path is clear for something new. For now though, picking over the chilled bones of their latest offering is well worth the effort.