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Written by Christian McCrea
Atomic Threat Summer 2006

Kristoffer Garm Rygg has been Ulver's chief alchemist and creative force since the band's formation in the early 1990s. While also performing with Borknagar and Arcturus over several standout albums - the former's The Olden Domain and the latter's La Masquerade Infernale remain two of the fiercest moments in metal — Ulver is Rygg's first and foremost musical outlet. With Jørn H. Sværen and Tore Ylwizaker manning the artillery, the band has steadily devoured genres as they progress, fuelled by the fire of constant renewal, re-assessment, study and chaos. Few bands have had such distinguished careers in thematic trickery and treason, or constructed a resume of such artistic breadth.

I spoke to Rygg some months after the release of Blood Inside and the more recent arrival of Head Control System, a collaboration between Rygg and Portuguese Daniel Cardoso, and their first album, Murder Nature.

The Heart of the Wolf

Amidst the din of a global implosion of all forms of heavy music in the early 1990s, Ulver emerged with a clear heritage in the grim world of black metal. From their first stirrings, it was clear that if the myriad scenes and studios of Northern Europe were cast as the one-eyed father Osiris, Ulver were happy to play the rebel son Horus. Destined for a tragic and mythic clash from the beginning, their early albums rebelled from the impulses of their contemporaries in style and structure, moving between folk harmonies, the primal sonic force of black metal.

Their fourth major release came in 1998 with Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which saw the original poem as a epic drama of bombast and hope. Instruments took on the personae of angels and demons making their presence felt, the acoustic responding to the collapsing fury of the heavy, split like the poem into a series of lies and arguments.

The release caused issues for many metal fans who saw a genre's purity as its strength, and found themselves unable to follow Ulver into the afterlife. Those who did were rewarded with one of the decade's most incredible albums, a densely layered opus that was fiercely loyal to a singular conceit. Rygg is reflective about this watershed moment: "People generally understand that being a black metal band wasn't our end-all." Often described as Ulver's first 'change of heart', it set the tone for a career of shape-shifting music; "Changes of heart are only human, but perhaps most people don't wear their [hearts] on their sleeves like we do."

So, in the aftermath of Blake, UIver entered long years of 'silence'; during which they produced EPs of electronica, sonic landscapes, and other quick fixes alongside award-winning film soundtrack work (for 'Lyckantropen', 'Svidd Neger', and 'Uno'). The album Perdition City: Themes To An Interior Film forged an abandoned metropolis from a series of smoky noir images. Noises coruscate and shimmer, each sound vibrating in a sinister world.

There was also the small matter of the album Ulver: 1st Decade in the Machines in 2003, which used their back catalogue as an anvil on which artists like Third Eye Foundation, Fennesz, V/Vm and Merzbow would hammer out the steel of electronica, glitch and ambient music and fill every notch and groove with warm blood. Perhaps the over-arching aesthetic philosophy of Ulver is perhaps evolution itself; is there simply a restlessness of spirit for the band: "We're an ephemeral lot. But I don't really feel that the changes that have taken place after the Blake record — to me, that was a new beginning — have been that momentous."

If you have never heard Ulver's music, this would be incongruous; a change in genre is a change of all the artistry that goes into music, isn't it?: "There's a heart there, the same heart, always. It might be tremorous of course, but it's the same heart. The rest is mere medium." Ulver's quest to be true to themselves is ongoing, and by now their fans are ready for anything that the band puts them through. We are possibly a bit childish in that we are so set on finding our 'own unique identity'. And while I don't think we've found that identity yet, I think there's an ectoplasmic something floating around."

Breaking the Silence

On the 2003 EP, A Quick Fix of Melancholy, a soaring voice laments our inability to make the smallest efforts when change seems beyond us. The lyrics are taken from Christian Bök's poem of the same name; "Vowels." The book in which it appears, Eunoia, is a colossal achievement in formalist poetry. Entire chapters of prose are crafted only with words containing a particular vowel; constraints and rules are laid down, which allow single words to take on heart-wrenching meaning. "Vowels" is a short poem made up of its component six letters; v, o, w, e, l, s. Reading like the diary of a wistful lover, we begin with 'loveless vessels' and end, appropriately enough, with 'wolves evolve'. This track is in some ways Ulver's anthem; a re-invention of a poetic moment and a exploration of its heart, so I wanted to know about how the track came to be: "[The poem] had the right components; the love and the loss. Actually, the 'wolves evolve' wasn't really a hang-up for us, it was more of a golden twist."

In fact, it was more the processes that Bök drew on that inspired the track: "The book, Eunoia, is in addition to being absolutely beautiful writing a mammoth disciplinary achievment. We appreciate systematic processes like the ones Bök employs in his book. And we relate because he works in ways akin to how we do with the technology of sound and music." Looking over Ulver's history, you see a band fascinated with poets of great emotionality but tremendous formal skill; Blake and Bök. The avant-garde are always those who trim the fat.

This purity of form is often something impossible to communicate, but it resonates with warmth and generosity on many of Ulver's releases; the pleasures of listening move from noise, to silence, to lyric, often in the same song. If there was a key to the Ulver manor, this was it; making the tensions between form and content a way to experience sound. I asked Rygg about this: "I have friends who I talk to about the art of living and what have you, who don't necessarily know I'm in a band. I can be very incognito if I want to, and I tend to distinguish a lot between things. There's a huge gap between how I live and how I think. And although that may sound inconsistent to some, it's besides the point. I simply couldn't live like I think; I'd be dead already." Ulver's releases have used many collaborations and session musicians, and Rygg sees this as part of the same process: "A lot of people who play on these records, they're not there to share my demons with me, they aren't privy. It's no problem."

The narrative these past few years had been marked by restraint. One of the most abstract soundscape releases was literal: Silence Teaches you how to Sing. "There is a reason for the silence. ... that Rimbaud poem we used, "Bad Blood", captured how we felt." In particular, the line 'without knowing how to express myself without using Pagan words I prefer to remain silent' tells the story of Ulver between 2000 and 2005. "To me, a lot of people in music, they're just babbling. And since we're certainly not going to write lyrics 'just to have something to sing', we decided to shut up instead. We basically needed that time to find our own syntax; and there was a lot of reading in the interim. As far as content is concerned I think we've more or less landed at what is probably best described as 'the human condition'."

Finally, a full-length album, Blood Inside, arrived late last year. It was the sound of the hospital doors flung open to reveal a ceremony of red and white, birth and death, and the road between; a return to the sheer force of the early material, but as much a caesarian of something new. Most importantly, after tipping their hats to poets and stepping around language, this album pushed their own lyrics to the fore: "We are of course far from the perfect sentence, but I feel we conceived a tongue that is our own with Blood Inside; we figured out how to write, if nothing else." The result is all heart, simple images and phrases like Operator's "Truth is a hospital / Please be patient / Hold the line" give the listener an impression of leaking emotions, embodied in the album's cover image of a heart surrounded by swirling filigree. Despite all the blood, there's still patterns and games afoot: "We like to write big without using big words. And it is imperative that you look beyond the asceticism of the language. We have this euphemism in the band: 'to see from the white in the eye'. It is a paradox, yet right on."

The Jester's Head

Rygg's collaboration with Daniel Cardoso, Head Control System, is a machine of driving, thrashing beats and screaming melodies. Garm speaks about his experience with the joy of someone experiencing a long-deserved holiday; "I think it's good for your personal dynamic to branch out a bit, otherwise you're just going to vanish in the darkness of your own ass. It was great for me to work with someone with a different set of eyes and ears and just make the kind of music you want to blast out of your car or something. As a vocalist it was great, and I had great fun doing it." The resultant album has again proven Garm's versatility as a vocalist, taking him to the realm of chaos and energy where Blood Inside delivered practice and precision.

Garm also provided vocals for a track ('Homecoming') on Ihsahn's solo album, The Adversary. In the coming months he will also appear on Mick Kenney's forthcoming Professor Fate album, and is also currently collaborating with Daniel O'Sullivan of Guapo and Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))) on a project called Aethenor.

As if there weren't enough tricks up the sleeve, Jester Records is Rygg's own label, under which an array of left field artists, among them When, Single Unit, Star of Ash and the now-defunct but brilliant Bogus Blimp have released albums. "Most of the things that Jester has released, I've been involved with from inception at some level. If it's going to be on my label, I'm going to heed to it as if it were my own. I'm not a peripheral producer, Mannfred Eicher style. I've made a few bad judgments, but for the most part I think the things that have come out of it have been remarkable music." A band and a label specializing in the difficult poses real challenges; "It's a financial disaster, and I should probably be spending the money on my family instead, but Jester kind of feels like family business as well. It's the freak family, and the label is our home. It's just something I have to attend to, that I love to keep busy with; even though it's ruining me. I think that's more important than doing everything right from a business perspective. It's wrong music all the same.