Twenty years is a long time. A decades-spanning career is a dream most bands fail to actualize, so celebrations are certainly in order for Italian psychedelic doom masterminds Ufomammut. You simply can’t last that long without breaking some new ground, blowing some minds, evolving as to not bore your following, and maintaining a high level of consistency; or as in Ufomammut’s case, doing all of the above. So, how should a band recognize such an occasion? Well, their upcoming box set, XX, seems like a pretty good way to go about it. Pulling together their entire discography into one tidy package is a cool bit of fan service for the collectaholics, but they take things a step further with the inclusion of XX the album, a re-working of previous material in a dialed back, subdued sort of manner.
Each track serves as little snapshot that looks back at their twenty-year journey, though they reinvent each piece with a fresh perspective. It’d be unfair to call this release “acoustic,” but in comparison to the swirling cacophony that defines the rest of their catalog, XX feels unplugged and organic. Yeah, there’s synth and electric guitars to be heard across the record, but it can’t be understated just how new these songs feel because of how stark this tonal contrast really is. This feels designed for more intimate and much easier listening, as if to gift listeners a well-earned break for getting their eardrums annihilated over the past two decades. The cool, spacey synths keep them rooted in their cosmic brand of psychedelia, but this feels like drifting through the nebulous aftermath of a supernova rather than experiencing the celestial violence itself. There is a sense of darkness, serenity, and calm about these interpretations that posit them as essential listening in their canon as opposed to one-offs.
Even as layers of distortion and roared vocals fall to the wayside, the signature vastness of Ufomammut remains. Their prowess in atmosphere building still resides at the core of these songs, and that’s ultimately the experiment at hand here. Ufomammut leverage their underpinning post- and prog rock abilities to immerse listeners in a cooler, understated, and retro style of psych. Whether it’s the strummy “Satan” (which calls to mind Thou’s earthy Inconsolable), the ethereal “Plouton,” or the droney “Infearnatural,” they find unique ways to tackle these pieces, and ultimately, each one succeeds. They’ve done a noticeable amount of trimming and editing along the way (no seven-minute sprawlers to be found here), lending a sort of ephemeral complement to their softer textures. Still, “Mars” and “Destroyer” find ways to approach the source tone more so than any other track with a little extra crunch; but generally most of the heavy comes about in a very Pink Floyd way, where you can essentially hear laser beams cut through the fog as Urlo’s soft, reverberating voice dissipates among the synthesized haze of each delicate passage.
XX a nice way for the band to commemorate their anniversary as they move into their third decade. Though the droves of enveloping doom are absent, longtime fans can still appreciate these tracks through a new lens. They will also prove welcome to those who are spiraling down into Ufomammut’s discography for the first time, especially for those coming from a prog or post-rock background. Generally, there’s little reward in re-imagining prior material as familiarity tends to supercede a re-working, yet XX finds a purpose beyond b-side listening. In many (if not all) cases, I’d opt for the new adaptations instead. Is this just a means of taking a break? Yeah, but maybe we need that every once in a while. This record is so well-crafted that I’d be unsurprised if they phase this style into a new chapter of the band, maybe in a sort of Ulver-esque evolution for their twilight years. Or maybe they could offer up something in this style alongside a heavy companion piece a la Opeth’s Damnation? XX shows something like this can be done well, and it’s not just the familiarity that makes revisiting these works such a treat.
The XX box set is available September 9 via Supernatural Cat Records.