The trajectory and artistic vision of Norway’s Ulver is truly unlike any other group out there, particularly those associated with heavy music. The band completely abandoned their black metal beginnings shortly after the scene peaked, while delivering some of the genre’s classics, and have since been exploring much more experimental territory. Since the late 90s they’ve been operatic, electronic, ambient, soothing, dark, quirky; you name it. But if there’s one thing that Ulver was beginning to sound like over the past few years, unfortunately, was complacent. Their collaboration with drone overlords Sunn O))), while certainly competent, seemed to flatline for most of the release’s three tracks and really felt underwhelming by the end. It’s not that either band was writing bad material, but no song really felt like it was challenging for either the band or listener. But that’s what makes ATGCLVLSSCAP so much more exciting in context. The idea to improvise an entire new album on the road while also reworking a few pieces of old material feels like the ace in the hole Ulver knew they had lurking around all along.
At just over 80 minutes, ATGCLVLSSCAP (which, by the way, is the first letter of each symbol in the Zodiac) is a masterfully-crafted sonic journey, and one that can’t be pigeonholed by any descriptors less than a paragraph long. This is a fearless set of twelve tracks; a hulking monolith of droning electronica, jam-heavy rock, thick sheets of ambience, and loads of unpredictability. And even though it was arranged in the studio through compiling various live performances from 2014, this feels like the band’s most seamless work since 2007’s Shadows of the Sun. It’s spacious and certainly challenging material, sure, but it’s never overly-indulgent or unlistenable. The interplay between the now 7-piece lineup of Ulver is simply astounding, as the group always seems to know when to accelerate as well as they know when to allow plenty of breathing room. There are plenty of feature-length films hitting theaters right now that don’t have this level of cinematic depth. ATGCLVLSSCAP is about as grandiose and ambitious as anything that experimental rock titans like Swans have been cooking up lately, although you’ll probably have a few less nightmares afterwards.
Sporting a nearly-flawless mix that feels like the perfect blend of the analog and digital worlds, ATGCLVLSSCAP does a great job of merging vastly different moods throughout. Whether it’s the cosmic flourishes of vintage Pink Floyd in “Desert/Dawn,” the post-rock elements of “Cromagnosis,” or the eventual inclusion of frontman Kristoffer Rygg’s incredible vocals in “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen),” the band’s self-produced efforts have yielded their most sonically-pleasing recording to date. Yet despite this amazing mix, the most impressive aspect has to be the fact that ATGCLVLSSCAP is improvised; something you rarely see bands even remotely associated with Ulver attempt. At a time when the band needed a new creative spark in their now-lengthy career, this album has delivered the perfect dose of rejuvenation within the band. By forcing themselves into a new and undoubtedly uncomfortable environment, the band’s need to rely on one another as musicians and as people is truly apparent here. You can really hear the natural chemistry between all seven of them, and it’s a truly breathtaking experience.
Their drone pieces have never been more captivating, the album’s first several tracks really know how to get heads bobbing, and it’s as easy to get lost in the ambience as it is their tripped-out artwork. If you’re looking for something that’s gripping, emotional and challenging, you’ve got it here in droves. Regardless of your musical preferences or possible previous knowledge of Ulver’s music, this is unquestionably the first album of 2016 that should be on everyone’s radar and could easily be an early contender for the album of the year.