Astrological symbolism used to hold weight. The twelve little icons that carry a celestial bond to your time of birth, which all coincided to determine what kind of person you’d become and what kind of day you’d have today, has long lost its presence. Zodiac signs are pretty much regarded as nothing but hokum now, with as much fine-tuned sophistication and careful thought put into them as modern-day fortune cookies. But for Ulver, the zodiac signs remain meaningful: a twelve-pronged inspiration for their twelve-part twelfth release.
ATGCLVLSSCAP is technically a live album. No, what you hear isn’t the product of one studio session where the band gave it all they had. Instead, Ulver utilized over a year of scheduled live shows to experiment with the direction their next record would sound like. So, sometimes songs would devolve into droning ambience for a few minutes longer than anticipated. Other times a solo would explode into a symphony of black metal fused with short bursts of world music. There was no restraint, and the Norwegian outfit utilized audience reactions to figure out what worked best. Taking the best of the best from what was discovered during these live performances, the group created what they describe as “blissfully free of genre or convention”. This free form approach to storytelling is the perfect musical equivalent to the astrological themes of balance, energy, and time.
Telling a story, especially one as daunting as the exploration of all that’s encapsulated by the Zodiac ideology, can be especially difficult without the use of words. But the lack of lyrics forces the experience to be one of individuality, a sort of self-reflection on all things emotional. Who’s to say whether “Gold Beach” is ironically uplifting amidst the previous hour of sullenness? Maybe it truly is the beacon of light that weathered the storm. It doesn’t matter. Just like a horoscope, it’s all about what you take away from it.
When ATGCLVLSSCAP starts, it feels like a stark contrast to past Ulver records. This is not the deafening drum fill of “Capitel I”. This is not the ominous string-led acoustic ballad of “Østenfor sol og vestenfor mane”. And this is certainly not the electronic disarray of echoic synths and drum pads of “Lost in Moments”. No, this is the eye of the hurricane. This is the moment of tranquility that washes over seconds before a car wreck. This is “England’s Hidden”, an ambient track whose opening revolves around the subdued clangor of cathedral bells while soft synth tones tiptoe about. The innocence of the simplicity slowly distorts and contorts over the course of seven minutes, growing more sinister and malevolent. Suddenly, the bells don’t feel so sanctimonious.
This instrumental bait-and-switch transforms into “Glammer Hammer”, an exploration into Ulver’s deep-seeded post-rock influences. There’s a driving momentum that’s assuredly building towards something greater. And yet, just when all signs point toward a crescendo, the building rhythms die. Backing key hits are sustained, but the pulsating bass pedal and trudging guitar are gone. The tonal bleakness of the opening ambient moments has returned in lieu of a climax. In typical Ulver form, the track grows atypically. Suddenly a cacophony of destruction explodes against the fluttering synth notes and electric guitar rings. The power and density brought about by that pure Norwegian black metal sound is undercut by a rumbling surge of bongo rolls. It’s a dazzling spectacle of musicianship, gorgeously wrapped together by an impossibly human worldliness.
But Ulver is more than a group of technically proficient musicians. They’re abundantly clever, evoking senses of disillusion and nostalgia amongst feelings of looming death and fresh surroundings. They’re well versed in the endless cultural realms that come with spirituality. A prog metal jam is propelled by the ethereal repetition of the wispy “hanumate namah” chants, a phrase whose recitation, according to Hindu beliefs, produces inner strength and unforeseen physical power.
ATGCLVLSSCAP is not only an exploration into the bounties that world religions and historical beliefs have to offer, it’s also an exploration into Ulver’s past, reimagining it for the better and the future. It’s hard not to listen to the eclectically entrancing “Moody Stix” and not be reminded of “Not Saved”. Both evoke an eerily hypnotic vibe, akin to what a moth must feel as it approaches a flame, blissfully unaware of its imminent demise. But where “Not Saved” lingered for ten minutes, “Moody Stix” evolves while retaining its pummeling foundation. Perhaps more obvious is the updated version of Perdition City’s closer “Nowhere/Catastrophe”, which has been reworked into “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)”. The lyrics remain unchanged, but the instrumentals have been transformed into a deftly layered and atmospherically darker vision of an already brilliant song.
And sure, the quality Ulver sustains throughout this 80 minute album isn’t consistently high. The moments of droning are significantly weaker than any other. The drops of black metal don’t always hit as hard as their build-up would lead you to believe. But despite its occasional inabilities to evolve or its tendency to meander with little direction, it’s an expedition worth taking. ATGCLVLSSCAP is a world tour of the unbelievable. It thrives in the universe it creates, the kind of plane in which hurricanes and docile ponds coexist simultaneously, occupying the same space but never intruding on one another. It can transform from a cataclysmic cannonade of metal into an apocalyptically barren soundscape of field recordings without notice. And to be the central figure in that unconventional exploration is something special.
– Zach W.