My review for the previous Ulver album dealt with the album in broad, conceptual brushes because the release itself was broad and conceptual. This new release, Flowers of Evil, feels like a more intimate and low-scale effort and, as such, I will attempt to write about it in the same way. To be clear, this is still less of a “review” for the album and more my thoughts on the ideas expressed on it. Musically, if you’ve been following Ulver for the last few years, you probably know what to expect here; the Norwegian gang are continuing their foray into darkwave and 80’s EDM, channeling dark, moody, and atmospheric synthpop into their sound. But Flowers of Evil reveals a new type of message and perspective for the band and one which, depending on our mood and taste, we might not find all that palatable.
This mood is, perhaps unsurprisingly, nihilism. The kind of dark, dejected, and anti-humanist nihilism which, interestingly enough, is rife throughout black metal, where Ulver began. Where other “dark” albums in the band’s career, like Shadows of the Sun and, indeed, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, already contained something of this stance, Flowers of Evil seems more vehement and hopeless about it. The former was more metaphysical and psychological; it described depression, feeling lost, a dissatisfaction with the fragility of the soul and the body. The latter was more mystic, seeing the fall of modern life as a religious, world-soul moment to be approached via aesthetics.
But Flowers of Evil is all about the inherent failures and shortcomings of humanity qua humanity, limited, angry, nostalgic, violent creatures that we are. The album opens with the following lyrics, from “One Last Dance”:
We have seen the burden God has laid upon the human race
All the oppression that has taken place under the sun
He tests us so that we may see we’re just like the animals
All go to the same place – all come from dust, and to dust return
And while it’s true that the rest of the track gives a sort of solution in the form of animism and carnal release, which the previous album did as well, it is marginalized here, a side-note in an otherwise vociferous condemnation of the human equation. In other places, specifically on “Apocalypse 1993” and “Little Boy”, Ulver dive deep into human tragedy. The first track explores the Waco massacre and cult while the second focuses on the bombing of Hiroshima. These events are like an articulation of the ideas presented on the first track, driving the point home. The point is that humans are destined, by their very (un)divine nature, to violence and destruction. Empathy is doomed to fail while anger, misunderstanding, and confusion (all of which lead to murder and death) are destined to prevail.
Coming full circle, this also affects the music. As I hinted at above, Flowers of Evil is less grandiose in its musical expression and more intimate, closer, smaller. There are less big, sweeping hooks and moments on the album than its predecessor and more of a persistent mood, a sense of dread that is built up by each track in its turn. This is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it means that the album feels more cohesive and more fluid; Flowers of Evil is less of undertaking than The Assassination of Julius Caesar. But on the other, it also means that individual tracks blend in a bit, losing their distinct personality and sense of place on the album.
Which brings me to my true criticism of the album: Flowers of Evil feels a lot more one sided and monochromatic when compared to The Assassination of Julius Caesar. It’s a good album, don’t get me wrong; Kristoffer Rygg’s voice is still the perfect accompaniment to darkwave. The production is still excellent and the style is still effortlessly executed. But emotionally, the album feels pale in comparison to the depth of expression and poetry on previous albums (Shadows of the Sun included). This is true musically as well; the lack of those big, sweeping moments leaves the album thin at places, with lines and sounds blending into each other.
You can see this play out by looking at a counter example, what is, for me at least, the best two tracks on the album, closers “Nostalgia” and “A Thousand Cuts”. The first, true to its name, breaks with the nihilistic theme and looks fondly on the past, dotted with music and happy memories fading into the past. It also adds a dreamy, psychedelic sort of synth line that breaks the noir starkness of the rest of the album. And while the closing track is definitely nihilistic, it draws a conceptual thread back to a very interesting character: the Marquis de Sade.
The closing lyrics of the album are a retelling of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film ‘Salò’, which was, in turn, based on the Marquis de Sade’s ‘Days of Sodom’. As such, there is something more charged, more essential, more lively about the nihilism which the track conveys. It feels more urgent, less detached and judgmental of humanity, more participatory in their burden. This is also manifested in the music, with its strings and more mournful guitars. Perhaps it is the ghost of de Sade, calling to Ulver across the gulf of time and reminding me them that yes, all is meaningless but humans are alive and, as such, we can still burn brightly as we go. Perhaps also that is what is missing from Flowers of Evil as a whole: the fire of resistance that burns in different ways on Ulver’s previous releases which set them ablaze from within.
Ulver’s Flowers of Evil was released on August 28th. You can get it from their Bandcamp page above.