A return to humility: Ancient and Ulver

“What does black metal mean to you?” The phrasing of this question implies that musical messages are not just inter-subjective, but utterly atomised. Music and culture hold no collective meaning, but exist solely to serve individual egos and their alleged stake in the zeitgeist. Culture becomes nothing more than a means to furnish one’s personality (or lack thereof), a way to be noticed in the market of transactional relationships. New artists and opinion makers come along every year declaring that black metal means “x”, with little grounding in collective reality or history beyond blunt assertion. But equally true is the notion that a dogmatic adherence to rules – rules that effectively arose in arbitrary circumstances and became solidified through force of will/habit – leads to stasis, a constant replay of the same moments over and over.

And that, barring some worthy exceptions, is essentially the contemporary picture of black metal. Hordes of artists lift templates from the past wholesale, not so much taking influence from previous artists as they are repurposing their ideas fully formed, using them to determine the shape of their craft; the Deathspell Omega school, the Darkthrone academy, the Wolves in the Throne Room collective. Those artists that do attempt to strike out on their own path – barring a few exceptions – usually do so with so little regard for context or the possibility of inter-subjective meaning behind their work that they often come off as a Dadaist nightmare.   

But twas not always so. I do take great pains to champion new work that is clearly forging a new narrative, so I hate to play the “wasn’t like this back in the day” fiddle. And it’s certainly true that in black metal’s heyday the music was still hotly disputed, the meaning still open to multiple interpretations for sure. But there were some unmistakable underlying threads that connected these artists together, and made their work undeniably unique yet still contained within the same general genre borders. To flesh out this point, let’s turn again to Norway, to two artists that aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence aside from the fact of their nationality.

Ancient are an unlikely holdout of second wave BM. Their origins were commonplace enough, but after succumbing to some regrettably CoF shaped trends in the mid-90s – a time when metal reached a state of postmodern fervor – they provide an interesting pocket of additional reading for anyone with a passion for Scandinavian extreme metal. No one can deny that their debut ‘Svartalvheim’ released all the way back in 1994 is a solid survey of black metal as it was at the time however. Emphasis on the word “survey”, because much like Gorgoroth’s Pentagram, ‘Svartalvheim’ comes across as a summary of Norwegian stylings to that point. It utilises a broader range of styles and moods than Emperor or Burzum were doing at the time, whilst still managing to retain a distinctive character. And these stylistic nods remain couched in relatively simple music from a technical perspective.

The real tension at the heart of this album is between black metal’s drive toward mysticism, replete with ethereal keyboard textures, acoustic guitar flourishes, and a pronounced melodic impetus, drawing on symphonic and folk traditions in metal, such as they were in 1994. This is then smashed against the pre second wave characteristics of dirt simple blackened thrash riffs, a heavy bass tone, and slower, punky rhythms that look positively bouncy when set against the mid-paced blast-beats that also fill out this album. This tension, between spiritualism and primitivism, the barbarian and the warlock, is one that surprisingly few artists are able to contain within one album, especially one as technically modest as ‘Svartalvheim’. But the albums coming out of Norway at this time remain special for this very reason, maintaining a unique and distinctive character without compressing their sound into an overly bespoke and focused niche.

The majority of these songs are relatively slow for black metal, marching along at 120bpm or thereabouts. The riffs are a chimera of folky punk, old school thrash, and highly melodic waves of black metal riffing. The result could be approximated as a more focused version of ‘Dark Medieval Times’. Ancient are not afraid of a catchy riff, one that in a different key would be at home on a pop punk track, but it works primarily because the keyboards and low, roaring vocals maintain a subtly evil atmosphere. The framing, presentation, guitar tone, and surface level adornments maintain an unmistakably glum vibe. But offsetting this are simple yet elegant melodies, sometimes articulated through the distorted guitars, but just as often found in acoustic passages and an array of keyboard sounds, all of which maintains that childlike fantastical quality that strikes at the oddly naïve heart of black metal.

“Ulver used to be a black metal band”, yes grandad. Whether latter day Ulver fandom is born of a genuine love for whatever style they’re playing this week or as a replacement for having a personality, the fact remains that their early black metal offerings are still worthy of remembrance. Oh I’d love to slay another sacred cow and write a tirade about how they weren’t all that, but on re-listening to ‘Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler’ after a few years I have to admit, the fucker holds up. Ulver come from the slightly younger crop of Norwegian bands to emerge in the mid-90s, along with Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, and Enslaved, and indeed of the latter Ulver’s debut comes across as Enslaved on a particularly sombre day.

Ponderous, bouncy, understated, knitting together elements of ambience with catchy melodic hooks, gentle clean vocals that avoid the pitfalls of over-egged sentiment. Indeed, albums like this would come to cement black metal’s relationship with folk music, whilst retaining a degree of gravitas and dignity in stark contrast to the clownish direction this marriage would later take. The key to this album’s success seems to be nothing more than balance and variety. There are slower, simple passages formed of elegant melodic phrases, fleshed out by the distant choral chants and vocal hooks. Whilst these passages have an understated charm to them, the more aggressive segments of blast-beats, traditional black metal riffing, and distorted vocals brings a welcome sense of melodrama to the table, raising the stakes and the forward momentum of each piece.

Darker numbers such as ‘Capitel III: Graablick blev hun vaer’ broaden the emotional range of the album whilst retaining the same ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere. This is also a good moment to mention the fragmentary nature of many of these pieces. In stark contrast to the highly structured symphonic world of early Emperor, Ulver opt to lay out a series of suggestions, knitted together by loose themes and moods. The effect is akin to a series of dreamscapes, bound by their thematic content as opposed to a formal musical structure.

The minds behind this album may have been too young or inexperienced to string together stricter works from a compositional perspective, but this point is really by the by, the effect (as with so many works born of youth’s audacity) is uniquely immersive. The acoustic guitars and pianos, gentle lead harmonies, and audible bass are all welcome additions that go towards achieving this effect. This is lightning in a bottle that many have tried to recapture over the years, but more often than not prove to be too heavy hand with one ingredient or the other, resulting in works too monochrome to stand up in comparison to this rare work of folk black metal.

The lesson that can be learnt from these two albums is that, despite their obviously differing approaches to the form, they both tap into a shared underlying spirit of black metal through relatively straightforward and direct musical messaging. This is in stark contrast to the overly specialised lifeforms that populate the modern landscape. Both are simple works that still touch on many techniques and styles throughout their short runtimes, but in balancing the impetus to stretch one’s compositional ambitions with the competing desire to ruminate on a specific theme and mood for extended periods, each retains a unique and immediately identifiable character. These are qualities largely lacking in modern black metal (barring some exceptions), which is so often hamstrung by its overbaked specificity at one end, or postmodern messes of self-referential musical montages and wacky provocations aimed at imagined elitist boogeymen.

In terms of the pick of the week, this will in part depend on preference. Do you prefer the darker yet barbarically celebratory tone of Ancient, or the gentle lamentations of early Ulver? If we assess this in terms of who achieves their desired artistic vision more successfully, I am siding with Ulver. It’s not that ‘Svartalvheim’ is an obviously inferior work, it belongs on the shelf of any proud collector of 90s BM, it’s that ‘Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler’ is just that unique as an album, all the more so when one considers the delightfully irritating twists and turns of Ulver’s career after this album.

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