Ulver - Sic Transit Gloria Mundi EP [House of Mythology - 2018]This is an expanded rerelease of a three track EP put out by Ulver at the end of 2017, functioning as something of an addendum to their very enjoyable album of messianic synth rock, The Assassination of Julius Caesar. The title - Thus passes the glory of the world - continues the themes of fallen empires and millenarian portent found throughout that album. Appropriately, given that the phrase was transmitted to modernity as part of the Papal coronation ritual, the EP is adorned with one of Francis Bacon's most well known Pope paintings based partly on Diego Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. What we have is the original three studio tracks (one of which is a cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's The Power of Love) and four live recordings of songs off the Julius Caesar record. The extra live tracks bring the record to over forty minutes in length.
The two original studio recordings Echo Chamber (Room of Tears) and Bring Out Your Dead both continue down the road of bass and drums heavy synth rock which the band have been pursuing of late. You can see why they decided to leave these songs off the album as neither have quite the consistency or standout moments of the material that made the cut. Of the two tracks the former is perhaps the weakest, having a similar swinging tempo to Southern Gothic but without its bombastic bass and complex harmonies. It's also let down by a completely out of place spoken word intervention by Rygg, portentously citing the dates of the great fire of London in the 17th century and the suicide bombings in the same city in 2005. Appended to a middling synth rock tune this just comes across as naff, unlike I might say the juxtaposition of Princess Diana and the Emperor Nero from the Caesar record which was quite amusing from the perspective on an English republican.
Bring Out Your Dead is a faster, more upbeat number with driving percussion, squealing synth leads and plucked guitar to give it that authentic 80s kick. Good chorus too and more mad lyrics from Rygg; this time about Bowie, Cohen and the Mormon church. The cover of The Power of Love is really a showcase for Kristoffer Rygg's vocal talents and boy does he give it some welly! The band do a good job of taking the rather sparse arrangements of the original and bringing it up to a suitably layered and epic size, with strings and swarming synth bass building to crescendo after heart bursting crescendo. But it's really the vocals that make this worthwhile and Rygg soars above resplendent, using every inch of his range. When you have a singer this good why would you waste time trying to do spoken word?
Of the four extra live tracks it's the versions of Southern Gothic and Transverberation - both recorded in Parma in June 2017 - that are most memorable. Southern Gothic in particular really benefits from an extended mix with additional melodic elements adding the already fascinating communion between Wham's Club Tropicana and Madonna's La Isla Bonita. It was an album highlight in its shorter version and here it rises to another level again.
This recent phase in the band's history displays a continuity with their musical alma mater in Black Metal, insofar as Roman Catholicism acts as a store house for much of the lyrical and imagistic content. Transverberation is a case in point and must be the only synth rock anthem about Carmelite nuns ever recorded. Like the Frankie Goes to Hollywood cover it's a great vehicle for Rygg's voice, drawing out every ounce of pathos from the names of the two Carmelite Saints. The other two live versions, Nemoralia and Rolling Stone equally add something new to their studio versions, even if it's just a more 'rock' guitar sound on the latter or an extended intro and gospel outro on the former. One criticism may be that the quality of the live recording on Rolling Stone doesn't quite match the other three tracks. But it's a minor gripe.
Finally, Just a note on the predominant use of Catholic imagery in the history of black metal.
This has always struck me as odd given Catholics make up such a tiny minority of Norway's practicing Christians, just as they do throughout Scandinavia. The majority denomination in Norway is by far the Lutheran church and yet you'd struggle to find any references to Lutheranism in the images and lyrics of black metal records, or Ulver's subsequent output. Now, on the one hand this isn't surprising since Lutheranism eschews so many of the most visceral images and rituals of the Roman church and Lutherans both reject the authority of the Pope and the virtue of the monastic life. All things which black metal artists have traditionally liked to lampoon. Nevertheless it is still interesting, particularly during the height of the black metal associated violence in Norway in the early to mid 1990s, that the language and images of this avowed anti-Christian movement took the form of an inverted Catholicism, something which continues largely unchanged to the present day. When one notes that black metal had its origins and greatest success in traditionally Protestant countries it might be contended that rather being anti-Christian, these movements act out a strange form of sectarian counter Reformation, assaulting their local Protestant faith with brutally parodied images drawn from their traditional Roman adversary. This may be worth considering given the amount of Roman (Ancient and Catholic) ideas and imagery Ulver have been drawing on lately.
I was initially sceptical about a rerelease of this EP for the sake of a few live tracks and adding to the backlog at Europe's pressing plants with a vinyl edition. But in truth these versions do add something new to the studio originals and showcase a band clearly having fun. This style suits the band through and through, plays to their strengths and seems to be something they enjoy doing. Let's hope they don't decide to mutate too soon. Now come on guys lets have some clever lyrics about sola scriptura and Philip Melanchthon.Duncan Simpson