Having seen Ulver play their first ever show in 2009 at the Southbank Centre and once again in 2011 at London’s Koko, first playing hits of the albums that defined them; Perdition City, Blood Inside and Shadows of the Sun, and then touring for their underwhelming album War of the Roses, you might not be blamed for expecting more of the same. It’s been six years since those shows, and whilst some teething issues as they attempted to incorporate the electronic elements of their sound, their most recent London date at Islington Assembly Hall confirmed a confident and impressive live act.
For two hours they played through their entire 2017 output of The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, which, although their best material since Shadows of the Sun, on record never achieved the same film-noir atmosphere of Perdition City or the funereal masterpiece of Shadows of the Sun. Instead, the band show off the strength of the material live over a sound system, which lends fidelity to the cinematic scope of their sound, accompanied by an immersive light show, which functions in tandem with each crescendo and break within the music.
Although possibly disappointing for those expecting them to touch upon their older material, especially their earlier black metal albums, Ulver defy convention, playing The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Sic Transit Gloria Mundi in their entirety. in this way Ulver work through the peaks and highs of the albums, in turn highlighting the evolution of their band from awkward trip-hop/electronica act to fully-fleshed psychedelic synth-pop band.
Opening with the euphoria of The Assassination of Julius Caesar‘s opener ‘Nemoralia’, before playing through ‘Southern Gothic’ and into the first emotional peak of the night, the MGMT sounding ‘1969’, the band’s new material clicks, as a shower of lasers rain from the ceiling and apparitions appear behind the band. The romance trapped behind the introspection of their earlier work breaks through in Garm’s voice and it’s in this vein the rest of the night follows. The band play through passages of yearning before erupting into the unexpected techno pulse of ‘So Falls the World’, exhibiting Garm’s Prince-esque singing on ‘Rolling Stone’, and finally climaxing amongst the cacophonous squalls of noise and guitar and synth before clearing into the 90’s inspired ‘Transverberation’.
It’s been 20 year’s since Ulver have touched upon anything even remotely similar to their early days in metal, and ten since they managed to write an album as emotive as Shadows of the Sun. But that might not be the point anymore. As bands claim that ticket sales are drying up and magazines write think-pieces about the lack of attendance at gigs, it’s evident that this is where Ulver want to stake their claim. It’s rare seeing a band dedicate so much time to the production details of their gigs. While maintaining the soft-loud dynamic of contemporaries such as Agalloch or Wolves In The Throne Room, married with a pop sensibility and immersive, psychedelic live-show, Ulver have achieved a spectacular live show worth the price of attendance – more than can be said for the majority of bands, from the prettiest of indie darlings to the most grizzled veteran metal act. With such a rich, conceptual body of work behind them, hopefully, it won’t be long before they rival Pink Floyd in terms of live status and break into the mainstream.
Words: Joe-Julian Naitsri