The shapeshifting nature of Ulver should be so accepted by now that it’s almost more of a surprise when they don’t change their sound between albums. Having started life as black metal upstarts, they’ve then gone on to experiment with electronica, prog, and everything in-between, before seemingly taking on a new form as purveyors of dark 80’s-influenced pop. I doubt that even five years ago many people expected Ulver to become the best Depeche Mode-style band who aren’t Depeche Mode, and yet here we are, with Flowers Of Evil picking up where The Assassination Of Julius Caesar left off. It’s not so much a change of sound as it is a refinement, honing in on some aspects of that sound and largely disregarding others.
The Assassination… was an album steeped in mood and atmosphere, where lengthy songs sat next to four-minute dark pop constructions. Flowers Of Evil is more evenly spread, with each song between four and six minutes long, and sticking more closely to a verse/chorus/verse structure. It makes Flowers Of Evil the more accessible of the two albums, and were it not for Ulver’s long history of disregarding convention you could almost imagine it was written with one eye on mainstream success. That idea is quickly shown to be false, though – not only by a glance at Ulver’s past, but from Flowers Of Evil itself. No matter how seductive and catchy it sounds, there is a real darkness underneath it all, a tension and quiet horror in the lyrics that pick from history and myth, weaving it together with more modern images to craft something that bridges what has gone before with what is happening now. The concept of myth has always been key to Ulver – both in terms of tapping into those ancient stories and crafting their own tale – and Flowers Of Evil continues that long thematic trend. “One last dance / in this burning church” they sing on opener ‘One Last Dance’, a line that pulls together their black metal past and modern incarnation in one image – with subtle sonic contributions from Christian Fennesz showing that experimental electronica is now a key part of their DNA, no matter that Perdition City was released over 20 years ago.
“Seductive” is probably the most apt word for Flowers Of Evil. This is an album that sounds like velvet and silk, gloriously decadent and warm, its melodies and rhythms as suited for the bedroom as the dancefloor. A lot of this can be attributed to Rygg’s wonderful voice, his vocals as warm and strong as ever; but repeated listens also reveal a throbbing heart to the music, an insistence and urge that is almost biological, especially on ‘Apocalypse 1993’ – which is quite something, considering that the song draws lyrical inspiration from the Waco Siege of the titular year. Yet it’s hard not to long for just a little bit more punch to some of these songs – as smooth and catchy as Flowers Of Evil is, it lacks a stand-out moment as strong or as cathartic as The Assassination…’s ‘Rolling Stone’. Yet this is, perhaps, an inevitable result of the stylistic choice for Flowers Of Evil – the tales it tells are more ordinary, less grandiose than those on the previous album, and it is only fitting that the evil it describes is more understated.
As such, Flowers Of Evil is what you would expect from Ulver in 2020, in that you probably didn’t expect it in the first place. Their musical restlessness has served them well yet again, and whilst it is difficult to say if it is stronger as The Assassination… – given that I’ve listened to that album maybe 100 times – Flowers Of Evil is another superb release from one of music’s modern greats, who have once again mutated their DNA into new forms that are as interesting and irresistible as ever.
Words: Stuart Wain