Ulver. To twist their admittedly arrogant quote slightly, they are as unknown to us as they always were. Or perhaps not so anymore. Fifteen years ago I got my hands on the band's first two albums, and they managed to draw me in instantly. We were both young and inexperienced, lured in by the rawest of emotions, be them violent, romantic or anything in between. With _Nattens Madrigal_ they tried unsuccessfully to surprise me, something they finally achieved with their William Blake inspired opus. And what a magnificently flawed album that was. Perhaps the peak of their creative angst, before they burned their metal corpse down only to resurrect it veiled in electronica. _Perdition City_ finally cut the cord between them and half their old fan base, only for them to expand to territories unknown even to themselves.
Almost a decade after _Perdition City_, Ulver have not only completed their metamorphosis, but they have proven themselves a constant chameleon, using this ability not just for mere survival but also (and mostly) for their art's sake of progression. And finally, in 2009 they decided to become a live band too. Something Kristopher Rygg seemed to be completely against in the past, for both Ulver and Arcturus. In fact, if I remember correctly, his reason for leaving Arcturus was him not wanting to be in a touring band, when Arcturus decided to become one. Now, a month before the release of their new album _Wars of the Roses_, Ulver are out on the road promoting it live.
But I hasten my words. The first stop of Ulver's 2011 tour is London's Koko and the band is supported by Zweizz and Virus. Having never been in Koko before, I am pleasantly surprised by the ample space provided for both stage and viewing. Wanting to buy the new Virus album (which is rather good, if eclectic) I head straight to the merchandise kiosk, only to find a disorganised mess of a queue (is this not England?) and a single bored chap behind the desk slowly selling T-shirts and vinyls. While waiting for my purchase, I was under the impression that some sort of sound check was on the go. After a while I was not so certain. The weird noises and screams sounded more like someone taking the piss rather than any kind of sound equipment check I had heard before. And then I remember that Zweizz is the opening act. True enough, I catch a couple of minutes of Svein Egil Hatlevik screaming nonsense with his head inside a made up toilet seat video fed to the big screen. The 'electronics' that accompany him confirm to me that this is some kind of joke from a guy who is either bored, or fancies himself being an artist just because he has a single good album under his belt over fifteen years ago. (Fleurety's _Min Tid Skal Komme_ was an utterly compelling album, and it is such a pity that the band drifted into non-existence or confused irrelevance after that.) Thankfully, his set did not last long.
When Virus strutted along on stage, the audience greeted them with a long drawn applause. Carl-Michael Eide slowly set himself on a chair in front of a mic (apparently him still having problems from the accident he had some time ago) and promptly they got on with their set. I like Virus. I am not enamoured with them, but I certainly appreciate what they are doing. Especially their new album _The Agent That Shapes the Desert_ is an interesting mix of rock and avantgarde metal, peppered with a distinct guitar sound and the unmistakable (if not to everyone's taste) vocals of Eide. Of note is Einar Sjurso's excellent drumming (why is Beyond Dawn dead???) and the very enjoyable base on the set. The band's set comprised of songs from all three of their albums and was very well received. Note that this was the band's first live appearance and they did tremendously well, being a cohesive and tight unit with excellent sound.
But I was there for Ulver. And at half past nine, they appeared on the stage with minimum fanfare, announcing that they will only play new material this evening. So they proceeded to play the entire new (and as of yet unreleased) album live on stage. I did not know what to expect and how much they would have changed their sound in the new album. But soon doubt passed from mind and was replaced by enjoyment, as soon as I gave in to the music (and the initial disappointment of missing the chance to hear old and favourite songs live). Starting with "February MMX", the first things that came to mind were, one, they haven't changed that much and this feels like a natural progression, and two, they brought back the drum kit again! In fact, I thought that the drum sequences in the new material were exquisite and gave the music a sense of power and depth that sometimes is missing when the drumming only comes from electronics.
I must admit that my knowledge of electronic music is minimal to non-existent. Except for the obvious instruments, I had difficulty understanding what some of them were doing on stage. Anything to do with turn tables, consoles and the like escapes my grasp. Nevertheless, throughout the set, it was the presence of Kris and Daniel (O'Sullivan) that dominated the stage (and the thunderous sound of the almost hidden drummer!), Kris with his stocky cool demeanour and Daniel with his impossible height and pop/rock appearance. As Ulver have mentioned when they recently started playing live, their music is not the easiest to reproduce in a live environment. Having said that, their live set was more bombastic than the studio material, and it really came alive on the stage. When at one point something went wrong with the equipment, Kris signaled the band to stop, gracefully apologised and on they went again. Perhaps it is not so surprising that they quickly managed to deal with the live situation. If nothing else, this band has been in constant evolution and adaptation since their early beginnings.
I liked the light, and the sound was crystal clear most of the times, though I must admit to not really paying much attention to the video imagery. Having not heard the new album in advance, it was surprising that I was often mesmerised and drawn in to _Wars of the Roses_ without prior familiarisation to it. The strong, rock oriented songs were definitely more my cup of tea, but the long drawn instrumental ambient pieces were excellent too. To my disappointment, their set lasted only about an hour (the length of the new album, I guess). Once they exited the stage and the crowd went crazy with encore requests, they came back for one last song. Though I was hoping for "The Future Sound of Music", they played "Hallways of Always" from _Perdition City_. What a brilliantly excellent finale that was. They transformed the song into this bombastic, trippy labyrinth of sounds that exceeded the original by leaps and bounds. And however much I wanted more, and none would be offered, I could not have asked for a better encore.
I must admit to feeling elated at the end. I arrived without expectations really, only to be almost blown away by a band that always surprised me and frustrated me in equal measures. It has been clear for a very long time that the Ulver of old is long gone and never to return. However, contemporary Ulver is only a metamorphosis and continual evolution of what the band has always been about: imagination.
One last note, about the crowd. It seems that the fans have now accepted Ulver. Accepted that their past as a black metal band has passed without return. And this evening's crowd gracefully allowed the band to be who they wanted to be at that moment in time. Which was nice.
Till next time.