The bewitching black metal of Ulver

ULVER: Trolsk Sortmetall 1993-1997

Year: 2014/2019
Label: Century Media Records

Ulver are certainly one of those artists who should need no introduction to any extreme metal fan. Though their time as a black metal band was limited and yielded only a small body of music, it has risen to become one of the most quintessential depictions of the golden age of Norwegian black metal in the years since. This despite some initially having some reservations about the band, as is documented in the liner notes of this box set.

Originally released in 2014, Trolsk Sortmetall 1993-1997 compiles almost entirely Ulver’s first period; it contains the Vargnatt demo and their first three albums, so the only thing missing is their first rehearsal tape from 1993 and an instrumental rehearsal tape with tracks from third album Nattens Madrigal. The original 2014 edition of this box came with the latter, but I don’t see the omission of four instrumental tracks as a huge deficit for this re-release.

Dissecting the box in chronological order, we begin with the demo Vargnatt from 1993. Whilst being very embryonic, more than a bit clumsy and rough around the edges, it shows that already then Ulver mainman Garm had ambition and ideas. The clean vocals sound pretty fucking horrible and the black metal sounds considerably more generically Norwegian than on the albums, but the combination of acoustic passages and raw black metal, clean and rough vocals and the shifting focus between abrasive rawness and building atmosphere shows that Garm already had a good idea of what he wanted to achieve.

On Vargnatt, it’s still all in very rough form, and on its own, the demo wouldn’t be one for the ages. Luckily, this was only the first step in the continuum.

Just a bit over a year later, in February 1995 (Vargnatt was released in November ’93), a much revised formation of Ulver released their debut album, Bergtatt. It’s incredible how much Ulver had matured in this short span of time, gaining an incredible amount of confidence in expression and composition. Beginning with I Troldskog Faren Vild, a mid-tempo track with clean vocals only, Bergtatt moves away from convention and whatever mediocre generity could be heard on Vargnatt, into its own realm of splendour.

Of course, being part of a rather incestuous and isolated scene, the Norwegian roots of the band can be heard, and not just in the Norwegian lyrics. The guitar tone and some of the folk-inspired elements in the riffs faintly echo the likes of Storm and Isengard, but by and large, Bergtatt is an album that shows why black metal period Ulver deserve their place up there with the other Norwegian legends: they crafted something uniquely their own. And it was good.

Building on the basic formula outlined already on Vargnatt, Bergtatt is an atmospheric voyage into the mysterious nighted forests and enshadowed mountainsides of Norway, into the age of legends. The acoustic passages fit more seamlessly into the black metal, and Garm’s clean vocals have evolved greatly from their rather horrid shape on Vargnatt. Bergatt sounds like the beautiful cover art looks: atmospheric, foggy, majestic.

Not being content with doing the same thing over again, Ulver shook things up seriously with their second album Kveldssanger. In hindsight, an early indication of the rambling paths their expression would take after ’97! Abandoning all traces of black metal rawness, Kveldssanger is an album consisting entirely of acoustic neofolk laden with nature mysticism, tender guitars, clean vocals, flutes and the like. Basically, taking the acoustic passages of Bergtatt and building an entire album from them.

Whilst it certainly threw a lot of people off at the time of release, it has since become an accepted and respected part of Ulver’s first phase. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit burdensome and dragging. Even though it clocks in at a rather reasonable 30 odd minutes, I feel it overstays its welcome with a track or two. Things aren’t exactly made better on this box set by the addition of an extra track, Synen, not present on the original album.

For their third album, Nattens Madrigal, Ulver returned to form with an album full of furious black metal. By and large abandoning the blueprint of Vargnatt and Bergtatt, the combination of acoustic passages and Norwegian black metal, Nattens Madrigal takes the latter to the next level of under-produced, unpolished raw fury and fades the former completely. Trebley, abrasive, furious and raw to the extreme, with drums a mere muffled plod in the background, this sounds like a conscious reaction against the softness and tenderness of Kveldssanger. Nattens Madrigal sounds almost punk in a way, in the furious urgency of its speedy music, the rough sound and the spur-of-the-moment way the tracks begin and end like pressing start or stop on a tape recorder.

Another U-turn.

And after this, Ulver would start to make such turns, that nobody would know ahead of time what the next release would bring. But that’s another story.

For the longest time, I considered Nattens Madrigal to be the unquestioned prime of Ulver’s first phase. Whilst it undeniably has many qualities going for it – the sheer fury of its riffs, the sense of urgency, the raw and primal, dark mystery it emanates – upon listening to this box set from start to finish a number of times I’ve had a change of heart.

Now, I’m raising Bergtatt up on that pedestal. On it, things just click in that magical way that words can’t express. The sound, the compositions, the atmosphere, everything just finds a balance and harmony that the abrasive treble of Nattens Madrigal abandons for the sake of over-the-top rawness. On the other hand, Kveldssanger’s focus on just the atmospheric passages doesn’t bear for the entirety of its duration. On Bergtatt – to reiterate – things click, find a balance. But, all albums have their merits, and this box set certainly offers value for money.

During a very brief period – just four years from 1993 to 1997 – Ulver released a small body of work that has affected the shape of black metal to this day. Countless are the more atmospherically bent black metal acts that have built their sound upon the basic formula Ulver laid down a quarter of a century ago, but few if any have surpassed what the Norwegians did. That’s no mean feat, although I guess you could say the same for quite a few of the Norwegian pioneers – testament to the burning vision of the golden age of Norwegian black metal!

This box set comes in a stylish cardboard box, each album presented in their own digipak with original cover artwork in beautiful quality. The inside and back cover artworks are new for this set – high quality nature pictures. The 100-page booklet comes with lyrics and their English translations, plenty of pictures and lots of more or less interesting liner notes by the likes of Michael “Lords Of Chaos” Moynihan and Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen. As far as I can see, all the original liner notes are included as well, although the original booklets are not reproduced.

The audio sounds clear and powerful, and has apparently been carefully remastered. I didn’t perform a side-by-side comparison to the original albums, but it seems to me like the original sound has for the most part been preserved, with some clarity added. Especially the bass rings clear in the mix, which is an unusual thing for 90’s black metal, where its role was often quite subdued. Even the demo sounds clean, crisp and sharp. So the technical work for this box has been done with commendable results.

All in all, Trolsk Sortmetall 1993-1997 is a very fine package. With the exception of Vargnatt, which is clearly the weakest item in the set, all of the albums have been readily available throughout the years, so it’s hard to consider this an absolutely essential release. But especially Bergtatt and Nattens Madrigal as albums are essential for any black metal fan – and this box set is a great way to get them in one go for a reasonable price; I paid 50e for my copy, which is quite fine for four CD’s.

5/5

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