It’s funny how a band that is known for repeatedly throwing stylistic curveballs can fall into the trap of being “expectedly unexpected” when it comes to their sonic turns. I was sort of starting to feel this way about Ulver, the infamous Norweigian black metallers turned experimental music collective. Even then, I was not expecting what we they’ve given us with The Assassination of Julius Caesar. I intentionally tuned out of any press for this album because I wanted to be surprised, but the extent to which I was blindsided by what I have just listened to is pretty crazy. You see, the problem with my thinking when trying to predict Ulver’s next move was to assume that they were going to do something in the realm of out-there experimentalism like they usually do. What I did not expect was for them to make a (somewhat) accessible gothic synthpop record. And it’s really damn good.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this album isn’t a fluffy, poppy selection of singles; the music and lyrics are still incredibly dark and there are still the occasional excursions into the domain of the weird (especially on the ten minute opus “Rolling Stone”). But their approach to everything is very different here than it has been in the past. Remember, there is a difference between songs and compositions, and, for the most part, Ulver deal exclusively in songs on this record, which is pretty new territory for them.
Lyrically, the album doesn’t seem to revolve exclusively around the concept of its title, although it is referenced often, but there’s an inherent contradiction in the stately antiquity of the title and album artwork and the cold, synthetic nature of the music present. A press statement for the release of the record makes reference to the death of Princess Diana a thematic inspiration for The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Also referenced is the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 and the Manson murders. Perhaps they’re trying to draw a comparison between the deaths of famous ancient figures and modern ones and how the world reacts. Until I get my hands on an actual lyrics sheet, I couldn’t really say.
Aside from the overarching lyrical themes, the thing that stuck out to me most on the first listen was the prominence of vocals. Every song on this record has a strong vocal hook laid very prominently in the mix, and I think that’s where Ulver break new ground artistically with this album. Vocals have never really been the focus of Uver records, at least not their albums of original material, but surprisingly, the melodies here are really strong for a band that never seemed to have much of a pop sensibility, per say.
Even though I love the approach the band take on this album, my favorite moments are still the extended jams that often ride out the endings of songs. The most exceptional of these is the build that takes place in the final minutes of the aforementioned “Rolling Stone”, the longest song here, and probably the best as well. This is one hell of a crescendo, everything culminating in a massive blob of synth, ambient pads, strings, distorted percussive noise, and topped off with some beautifully skronky free jazz saxophony courtesy of Hawkwind’s Nik Turner. Another highlight is the noir-inflected “So Falls the World”, a moody jam which I swear should be the theme for the next James Bond movie. This track also takes the scenic route to the end, upping the tempo from the slow dirge of the first half of the song to a more upbeat, funky outro.
This was a really pleasant surprise for me. In my opinion, Ulver’s experiments seem to fall flat just as often as they succeed, so for them pull to together such a cohesive project, even after releasing two albums the year before, is awesome to see. More importantly, this is an Ulver album that I will most definitely return to. Many of their albums are great on first listen, but sort of lose their novelty on subsequent listens. The Assassination of Julius Caesar, however, is a great album regardless of whether or not you’re into Ulver’s experimental antics.