The Assassination of Julius Caesar
House of Mythology
Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
Despite their longevity and their prolific nature, I have to admit that Ulver’s career has largely been a mystery to me over the years. Perhaps it's by virtue of the fact that I got in on the ground floor with them on 1995’s Bergtatt, but their sharp trajectory from second wave black/folk metal into an act that deals in ever-changing experimentation swiftly left me behind.
This isn't to say that I didn't try to keep up with them for a while, though. I still really enjoy 2000’s Perdition City and a number of their EPs from that period (Metamorphosis, Silence Teaches You How to Sing, Silencing the Singing, and A Quick Fix of Melancholy), and I even had myself convinced for a number of years that I liked 1997’s Nattens Madrigal, but the effort required to stay across the work of a constantly changing band eventually became more than I was willing invest.
Apathy notwithstanding, when The Assassination of Julius Caesar arrived in my inbox, I have to admit to feeling some curiosity about where the band is at musically these days, and unsurprisingly it's not what I expected to hear. What we have here is, in their own words, the band's pop album, but obviously that statement should be understood to mean that it's pop through the Ulver lens.
As I've spent time with Assassination and digested it, there's been a niggle rattling around at the back of my mind that I was really struggling to articulate. I can't dispute that Ulver have done due diligence with respect to clean and over-produced synthy '80s pop, but the more I think about it the more it occurs to me that the fact that they've had to pay due diligence is what's really bugged me.
The album sounds to me so much like the work of a band that's trying to sound like their inspiration rather than a work that could have come from their inspiration. Add to this the fact that Assassination is so earnest and po-faced that I've had a lot of trouble taking it anywhere near as seriously as the band seems to. I know this is probably a fairly uncharitable position to hold, because I've little doubt that Ulver are indeed quite serious about what they're presenting here, but I just can't shake the feeling that there's a lot less fun being had here than you'd otherwise expect there to be.
I'm certainly not trying to suggest that there should be no seriousness at play in the crafting of an album, but I tend to think that a band like Ulver that has gone out of its way to explore a panoply of genres and influences would exude a little more playfulness than your average long-running band that's settled into a creative holding pattern because it's comfortable.
All of this might be easier to gloss over if the material on this album were of a higher quality, but sadly so much of what's here just isn't all that interesting. Now it's true that I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things '80s pop music, but even with a severely limited expertise I can say that what I look for there is musical hooks, catchy choruses, and great vocal melodies. Frankly, little of Assassination manages to capture any of these things for me, with the bulk of the album being pleasant enough to listen to but sorely lacking in any real memorability, despite the quality of the performances being as high as one would expect them to be.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar is not a bad album by any means, but I can't really say that it's a particularly good one either, even though it does have some really enjoyable moments here and there.
Because I've effectively been out of the loop with respect to Ulver for the better part of 15 years, I can't say whether or not this album will appeal to ardent fans of the band, but what I can say for sure is that this is not the album that's going to bring me back into the fold.
More from Ulver
- Bergtatt [review]