Ulver | ‘Childhood’s End’
It’s taken a long time but I have finally – FINALLY – come to terms with 2012 Ulver.
It’s been difficult. This is the band that to these ears created quite possibly the finest 35 minutes of black metal known to mankind in the form of 1995’s ‘Bergtatt’ record.
Concise, soaring, intricate and reflective, it’s perhaps the ultimate in ‘landscape’ black metal and puts firmly into the shade 99% of these ‘post’ black metal bands currently doing the rounds.
Nevertheless, I acknowledge that since around 1998 they have taken the defiant and commendable step of forging their own path, eschewing any ‘metal scene’ expectations and bravely embracing a veritable smorgasbord of soundscapes.
Electronica, ambient, jazz, post-rock, everything has been chucked into the mix in a bid to truly define the word ‘eclectic’. Put simply, Bergtatt – Part 2 ain’t going to happen and I’ve just got to get over this.
So – ‘Childhood’s End’. Sixteen relatively obscure tracks from the 60′s given the Ulver treatment as a way of paying homage to their influences.
I’m familiar with a few of the artists here but I’d be lying if I said I knew these songs inside-out so I’ve diligently tracked most of them down (via Youtube I’m afraid!) to see how Ulver have decided to present them to us.
They’ve played it relatively straight if I’m honest. No noise-rock breakdowns, electronic ‘reimaginings’ or any such malarkey here – by and large, these are relatively sensible and faithful covers with just a touch of experimentation here and there.
Some of the songs are well suited to the sound of Ulver circa 2012 – the subtle drama of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Today’ is rendered effectively and opener ‘Bracelets of Fingers’ by The Pretty Things is given sparkling treatment.
Ulver are enjoying themselves here, that much is obvious with plenty of flourishes (such the Hammond organ madness on Gandalf’s ‘Can you Travel in the Dark Alone’? which will bring smiles to faces) that have been crafted with love and care.
What does really shine through is the quality of these songs – these are not the hoary old classics of this era that most of us know, Ulver have shone the spotlight on a number of hidden gems and there’s a definite spark in a lot of the material.
The Electric Prunes’ ‘I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night’ is a rollercoaster of vocal hooks with Ulver relishing replicating the tremolo-heavy guitar tones. Common People’s ‘Soon there Will be Thunder’ and ‘I Can See the Light’ by Les Fleur De Lys are pleasingly reflective, draped in the atmosphere of the era.
Despite these efforts though, ‘Childhood’s End’ does miss the mark a little. Much of the recording is clean – REALLY clean – without the organic fuzz and crackle that this sort of thing really needs to give it life.
OK, there’s no way they were going to render this material to QUITE the level of analog crustiness of a lot of the originals but the snappy drums, heaving sub-bass and layers of Garm’s pitch-perfect, Americanized vocals seem to suck the life from proceedings.
This is another case in point. Rygg continues to foist his transatlantic warble on us on ‘Childhood’s End’, again torpedoing much of the charming idiosyncrasy of the originals. Technically, the man is clearly an excellent vocalist but there is something about his excessively clean, affected delivery that just grates with me.
I can’t fault the ability but since he adopted this style back in 1998 (on the ‘Themes From William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven & Hell’’ album), it hasn’t worked for me. I can’t help but yearn for the less controlled, more sonerous and – frankly, to these ears – sincere tones of the clean vocals on the first couple of albums.
I’ve given it a go, I really have, but despite the undeniable quality in execution and the undoubted visionary ambition of the band’s more recent material, something about their prog-tinged AOR leaves me cold and I’m afraid ‘Childhood’s End’ is no exception.
For all the supposed genre-splicing ambition, Ulver’s material over the last decade or so has always struck me as rather middle-of-the-road and far less ‘out there’ that the band and their fans would have you believe.
Their rendition of The Troggs ‘66-5-4-3-2-1’ is a case in point – a knockabout catchy b-side is presented as some sort of vaguely sleazy, industrial tinged dancefloor number which just seems daft (as opposed to daring).
Eventually, as the sixteen tracks waltz past, the exercise becomes wearisome with the songs melding into one long stew of harmonized vocals and twangy guitars. Put simply, it outstays its welcome.
So yes, ‘Childhood’s End’ is obviously quite good – you’d expect no less from artists of this calibre and experience – but there really is nothing here that genuinely excites, that invigorates the senses with the sheer electric thrill that comes from listening to the very best music.
An admirable exercise and reasonably enjoyable listen but really, this is little more than a bit of fun for the creators – and a curiosity for their devotees.
3.2 / 5 – Frank Allain ::: 22/07/12