How big was the Roman Empire? That question is almost too complicated to answer. First of all, what do we mean when we say “big”? Even if we use the most literal meaning of the word and ask what the Roman Empire’s size was, we can’t accurately answer and must drill even deeper: do we mean where the borders of its law, the limes of its authority, stopped? Do we mean where its armies could reach? Are we referring to the middle era of the Republic or to the height of the Imperial throne? How does one even measure the size of an empire so influential that it shaped both the memory and the actuality of human life in the “western” world forever? These questions and more all tear apart that supposedly simple question and remove science or history from being able to answer it. Thus, where rationale can not avail us, we must turn to art.
Art, you see, is less concerned with clear borders or delimitation. In fact, it thrives where uncertainty flourishes, giving us a wordless dictionary to help us understand, empathize, and connect with phenomena too nebulous for a direct approach. The artist (and this is no original thought, as reading any number of countless thinkers on aesthetics will show you) is more of a mediator than an explainer, someone who is able to speak both the odd un-language of art and the odd language of our daily lives. Ulver have always understood this. From their black metal roots, channeling the wild indifference of nature, and through their by-now countless transformations, they have served as a unique trumpet for the unintelligible and yet impossible to ignore intonations that flash ceaselessly across the skies of our culture.
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The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Ulver’s latest effort which was released not too long ago, is a further exercise in this endeavor of cultural translation. In it, the artists attempt to grasp the multitude of associations, ideas, and concepts that the so-called “fall” of the Roman Empire contains for those of us here in the “west”. It is a subtle and often beguiling journey through these complex topographies of associations, all backed by nothing else than the best darkwave pop album we’ve heard in years. Ranging in influences from Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and The Cure, The Assassination of Julius Caesar is as musically intricate and rich as the themes it tries to convey. Thus, both our intellects and our emotions are rung through this sieve of cultural, social, and historical meaning and emerge on the other side, transformed.
Due to the sheer scope of this undertaking we won’t be able to touch on all points of its trajectory and, for this album, that’s truly a shame. However, in fear of losing the trees for the forest, we’ll attempt to focus on those points that most convey both the musical and the thematic attributes of the album. As such, starting at the beginning is a no brainer, even if said beginning hadn’t been as good as it actually is. Fortunately, opening track “Nemoralia” is every inch the crowning jewel its location implies it should be. Musically, it’s one of the most quintessential tracks on the album; the groovy bass line, the rich synths, the atmospheric vocals which move between sweet allure and chilling mystery. Everything about it is 100% what makes this album work, and work well.
Conceptually, the track is chock full of references and clever juxtapositions that lead us around and around its main theme. Is that theme the historical events described, their cultural referents or something all together alien to both? The trick is not to try and answer that question but rather let it soak into you as you listen again and again. First, “Nemoralia” itself is a Roman ritual to the goddess Diana. It wouldn’t surprise you to learn that, on top of being the goddess of the moon, she’s also the goddess of the hunt and the wolf, fitting in beautifully with Ulver’s history and namesake. The festival itself was also called “The Festival of Torches”, explaining the opening lines but did not take place on “the 18th to 19th of July”, as the track’s chorus says.
Instead, those are the dates of the “Great Fire of Rome”, when the infamous Nero burned down the everlasting city in the fires of his madness. Torches and fire mingle together as the moon rises above, blending celebration, ecstasy, divinity, and destruction into one heady mix of meaning and imagery. However, we’re not quite done as the next few verses twist the very meaning of Diana’s name, suddenly referencing the equally infamous Princess of Wales and her untimely death in Paris. From Rome (city of empire, burning with the lights of Diana’s torches) to Paris (city of lights, cold with the death of Diana’s life), the tapestry of the culture of death, worship, hedonism, folly, nature, and madness is deftly woven. Along the way, Peter and Paul (none other than the founders of the Catholic Church) are referenced, making sure we remember the religious significance of Rome in the interim of these events. All of this, on the first track, as the most Gothic (more on that term later) of synth-pop croons in our ears.
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Our second way-point through the album hits immediately after the first, with second track “Rolling Stone”. Building on the musical formula of the first, this track turns the groove up a notch with its insanely catchy chorus that’ll ring in your ears days after your first listen. It also, after the track proper has ended, contains a more experimental and chaotic breakdown of instrumental logic, a fascinating three minute exploration through the underlying musical elements of the album as they break down. This is only fitting at the end of a track whose ideas and images explore the death of the world, of innocence, and of power. “Rolling Stone” is the fulfilled potential promised by “Nemoralia”, both musically and theoretically. Where the first track showed us the door, “Rolling Stone” pushes in head over heels, executing the original ideas to their extremes.
After these fires of indulgence, it only makes sense for our next way-point to freeze us to our core. This chill is accomplished by the next couplet in the album, beginning with the most autobiographical and self descriptive track on the album, “Southern Gothic”. It presents a much more musically somber facet of the synth-pop/darkwave influences we had heard on previous tracks. The synths are still very much there and so is their groove but everything is coated in a more austere and unapproachable veneer, as are the vocals, this time forgoing their gentler approaches for a cutting delivery of their ominous lyrics. The result is a track that’s still very dance-able but invites a more detached and introspective language of the body.
It also talks about the very effort of the album itself: “I want to tell you something / About the grace of faded things”. These are the lines which open the track and repeat throughout it, initially capturing Ulver’s purpose with this release. Added to this idea is the very last words on the track, “And words they mean nothing / To anyone anymore”. This is the tension that runs through the entire album: the grace of the past, the desire to utter it, the absolute denial of the possibility of uttering it in a present which has lost a grip on its meaning. In the middle blend all the images that are supposedly meant to communicate with us: France, cherubs, murder, Louisiana, Gothic architecture (both the heritage and the doom of the Roman Empire), light, and shade. Art attempts to speak these ideas and, while it ultimately fails to get through to us, we attempt to make sense of the melange created by its passage.
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All of which, confusion, pretense, failure, language, death, the muddied past, lead us to the second part of this couplet and our last way-point through The Assassination of Julius Caesar. “Angelus Novus” (New Angel) expresses the ultimate dejection we are left with in the face of these forces, the forces of progress, memory and the incompatibility of language and meaning. Musically, it is perhaps the darkest track on the album (although closer “Coming Home” might hold that title at the end of the day, with its odd brass instruments and drawn out run-time), a deep dive into the bleak synths and spacey compositions of the preceding track. All edge has left the vocals, which take on the aspect of a weary storyteller, completing this sparse and dreary interpretation of pop.
Lyrically, the track is a release in the face of progress, in the face of everything which makes the very effort of the album pointless. Marching ahead, forging on, robs the retrospective of its force and impact. We are small in the presence of these forces, both the dead past (summoned like troops before the narrator) and the crushing strength of the present. This perfectly encapsulates the impetus of The Assassination of Julius Caesar; the blend of what is essentially a modern movement of music with ideas that channel the grandeur of the past is perhaps inherently futile. But, in the course of failing to communicate, Ulver leave behind an impressive and somehow deeply effective work of art. In a career already rife with ambition and experimentation, what might seem (on the surface) like a simple album proves to be something much more complex and brilliant.
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Ulver’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar released on April 7th. You can purchase it via the band’s Bandcamp. Please do.