Wars of the Roses

It is in fact failure, and not its rarer though far more popular cousin’s success, which is the most easily identifiable symptom of effort, and Norse explorers Ulver have been long overdue for a good old-fashioned Donner Party after years of casually strolling up and down Everest. Granted, I am not making an argument that they had consistently achieved some unquestionable god-like perfection on each and every moment of each and every recording to date, indeed they have had more than their share of slip-ups, but the fact is these slip-ups, and I’ll leave it up to each listener to identify them for themselves, were always in the service of something greater, something a step or three beyond where the group and the music were before tape started rolling. In an era of too little innovation, much less craftsmanship and more than enough artists willing to genre-fy themselves into whichever ghetto gives them the most props, Ulver has tried everything, tried hard in the process of doing so and have been steadfast in their refusal to allow themselves or their audience to grow to comfortable.

If there was has always been one element of predictability with respect to the group’s output, it was that their material tended to run either hot or cold on alternating releases. Any given album would focus either on restrained and ethereal sound and song-craft (the folk album, the “Singing” EPs, the soundtracks and their most recent release) or obtuse, bombastic everything but the kitchen sink megalomania (the black metal years, Blake, Perdition City & Blood Inside). The infectious energy of opener “February MMX” is thus a false flag, smoothly pumping up the crowd with some gloomy dance-floor flair before percussive delirium sets in, coolly claustrophobic and clearly indicative of the latter of the two categories proposed above. This momentum is promptly killed by “Norwegian Gothic”, never to return throughout the duration of the album. Rather the band continues variation on the themes presented therein – meandering tone poetry interspersed between swells of tentative ambience, accentuated by occasional flourishes of rich beauty. Each repetition of what is essentially the same song adds a little something more, whether it’s the mix of female vocals on “Providence” lending an air of late period In the Woods, or the slow motion anthemic qualities of “September IV”, the album’s shining moment, hearkening back to the best parts of Shadows of the Sun. Unfortunately the best moments fail to sustain, and can neither prop-up songs that are just not working nor compensate for extended stretches of mind-numbing navel-gazing atmosphere. Silence may have taught Rygg to sing but experience should be teaching him to broaden his range, or bring in more guests, to help further distinguish these songs from each other.

Just when the culmination of the best moments of the album, which sound even better when absorbed at the proper time of day (definitely an early morning or late night record), might have me feeling a tad repentant with regard for some of my harsher critiques of the album as a whole; closer “Stone Angels” almost perfectly justifies my frustration with this effort, interminably and portentously dragging on and on and dragging The Wars of the Roses back down from what meek heights it sporadically aspires to. For the first time in a long time, Ulver is basically maintaining a holding pattern over the stretch of two albums, but is either lacking the ideas or passion to produce a worthy companion to Shadows of the Sun. At best, one can take this first significant misstep as symptomatic, as referred to above, of the band’s experimental spirit, and its failure does, in stark contrast, serve to spotlight the group’s previous track-record of craft consistently triumphing over the ambivalence that the best experimental music should provoke in its audience. I will revisit this record now and again, because it is Ulver and even their dodgier moments have demanded and deserved reexamination from time to time, but at this point, after numerous listens over the past few weeks, the ambivalence, despite the craftsmanship, keeps slipping into indifference or worse, open hostility towards whatever it was they were trying to do here. Oh well.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by John Gnesin
May 30th, 2011


  1. Commented by: Elvis P. Resley

    The album sucks. Plain as that. Same for the new Morbid Angel, ewwwww!!

  2. Commented by: shaden

    definitely not worth reviewing on a site like this.however it is another understated masterpiece.

  3. Commented by: SRK

    I’m not entirely sure I buy the bigger picture of Ulver’s discography, but I think this review gives a very fair account of this album.

    Ulver are often elusive – but not in a bad way. WotR, on the other hand, has revealed not much more to me than well-produced indulgence. I don’t know what they were thinking with “Stone Angels”. Extremely frustrating and disappointing.

  4. Commented by: DK777

    “Failure is a symptom of effort”? WHAT?!? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that some sort of misguided effort is a “symptom of failure”?

    “I am not making an argument that they had consistently achieved some unquestionable god-like perfection”??? Shit, that’s a lot of words about what you’re NOT saying…

    And whose ambivalence and indifference: theirs or yours?

    Sorry, brother, but the questions raised by your lukewarm review make me MORE curious about the album; I’m eager now to hear it so I can sort out something clearer than this review!

  5. Commented by: Clauricaune

    I disagree with just about everything this review says. Sorry dude, but it seems to me you tried too hard to put it down with a bunch of elaborate and pretentious blabber. WotR is a damn good album, very easy to enjoy.

  6. Commented by: shane

    I’ve seen multiple bad reviews for this.

  7. Commented by: Cynicgods

    I disagree. This is beautiful/uncompromising in equal measure. And it’s NOT a companion piece to Shadows Of The Sun. You should review albums on their own merits, John. Just a suggestion.

  8. Commented by: Blackwater Park

    I like the new album and have been following the band since Nattens madrigal. All the changes they have made over the years have been initially hard to swallow, but ultimately really rewarding and I feel the same way about War of the Roses.

  9. Commented by: legumbrera

    I loved this album. Ulver are one of the best bands in the world. Too avantgarde.

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