The question of relation is an important one in the world of mathematics, ethics, physics and metaphysics, among other scholarly corners. In the matter of relation, one has to substantiate whether things happen according to something or are individually floating entities. Whether there are absolutes and essences to which everything can be compared—or not. All aspects of relation are frequently infinite and undecided in their nature; Einstein’s theory of relativity dabbles with ideas about as fathomable as absolute ethic universality. When we look at a unit such as Ulver, relation is conceptually vital in more ways than one. First of all, the common links between the group’s releases are often slim if not severed altogether. They are doing that, pulling out products that have little to do with each other, in an age that craves for swift musical identification and stylistic permanence. This is one interesting field of relation. Another opens via the philosophical phenomenon of relativism. Y’see, Mr. Kristoffer Trickster G. Garm Rygg is one fine relativist.
What does this entail? Well, for one, an abundant use of irony and elusive, ever-transforming perspectives. A bunch of empty words as well, similar to Pessoa’s ‘God’. A great amount of grey ambivalence concerning ideologies. It feels as though Ulver, and Rygg with it, believes in nothing.
“I’m not going to be specific about what we believe in,” the singer retorts, chuckling, “but you’re quite right about that it may seem extremely nihilistic and tongue-in-cheek. At the same time I think we do believe in some or the other thing. But it changes. It’s too big a question, mister.”
A sort of frontier-setting individualism is a theme that, from an outsider’s perspective, has always seemed to revolve around Ulver and Kris Rygg as a person. At least within the tight envelope of black metal, that is. They have refused to adhere to ideas and practices created and structured by someone else. It has seemed altogether difficult for the group to signify themselves through any direct meanings at all, instead wallowing in a Derrida-like state of signification done by noting what you are not. Distancing yourself from elements that you feel are alien to yourself, hence producing meaning through différance and a sense of otherness.
Rygg cuts in, “Yes, to conclude that with a punch line, one thing we do believe in is that we are utterly and completely fucking lost. To answer this question and the previous question, it’s just something we believe that we’re just lost, somehow. We try to, in some sort of way, explain how that feels sometimes and also demonstrate how that feels in terms of making music that really belongs nowhere, in no scene, in no time-limited movement. Stuff like that. So we both demonstrate it and try to describe it. That’s all I can say.”
That would make for a good headline: “Ulver is fucking lost.”
“…Or that we feel lost. That’s one thing: you feel lost. But at the same time you’re lost with an awareness of being lost. A lot of people are lost without being aware of the big black void. So there is an awareness there as well, I think, that enables us to do something about it.”
Rygg still identifies himself with the Faustian spirit, always willing to try to achieve his goals despite the many setbacks and moments of disillusionment the never-ending quest projects.
“I’ve always felt at odds with the—how can I put it—the mighty, powerful hand of society and whatever is kind of the governor of all things that are supposed to be wholesome for you. In that sense I still take a rebellious stance or a somewhat dangerous stance which would be more the Faustian spirit. Just continue this Las Vegas stance to the whole thing. Just lose all your fucking money. Radiohead put it, “If you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough” whereas Trickster G. would say, “You can try the best you can, you’re doomed to get fucked over anyway”.”
Is Ulver about the instigation of rebellion in any forms at present?
“I don’t think as much but I think rebellion comes in different forms as well. I think sometimes the most explicit rebellion is non-substantial rebellion. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s more revolt than rebellion, and I think our current rebellious stance is a different one. It’s not necessarily an external rebellion, it’s just as much an internal kind of rebellion. Somewhat struggling with forces within. I guess you get what I’m talking about.”
You’re not of the James Dean type of rebels without a cause.
“No, I think that’s quite cheap and at some point you have to stop pointing your finger at everything and everyone else and start taking pride in yourself and try to build something yourself, if that’s what you mean. I definitely think that’s what we’re doing. I’m not 18 years old anymore. I guess that’s a force of getting older as well, that you’re not so concerned with tearing things down as you are perhaps taking more intellectual stance, detecting how things work and trying to explain more than saying that this is wrong and tearing down,” the Jim Goad reading family man considers.
A BEAUTIFUL LIMB WITHOUT A BODY
There is Ulver’s music as well, of course. From the dewy ominous sprinklings of the acoustic Kveldssanger to the languid EPs of the early 2000s, from the almost overburdened Blood Inside to the fresh piano and string section splashes of Shadows of the Sun, there is obviously no norm at play when thinking of the amount of groundwork and pre-meditation an Ulver release requires in the creative process. Much is about improvisation and haphazardly trying out different solutions. The combinations and associations of different sounds, if you will.
“It’s usually no preparation, just like a mental image, but a lot of improvisation and playing around,” affirms Rygg. “And it’s a lot of after-thinking. To explain it very easily. It’s a lot of thinking afterwards about what you put to tape and what you’ve put on paper or what kind of ideas you have in general. That’s the process. Sometimes you can have some really, really appealing pieces of music or writing that you just can’t seem to find a way to put into a song or to create a body. It’s like a beautiful limb without a body. That’s sometimes extremely frustrating; that you have some really solid pieces but you just can’t find the fucking way to put it into an album or whatever.”
Questions of a/symmetry, balance, cohesion and inner logic are naturally important in the phase of writing new material, but when something has found its complete, undeniable form, its existence no longer entertains the somewhat cynically-minded Norwegian futurologist. It needs to be put against the context of nouveau horizons, whose arousal is about as inevitable as the monthly arrival of waxing crescent. Disorder!
“I’m recording new music now and that’s always the way with me. I can’t bear the thought of going out and playing this stuff. I just have to get it the fuck away from me and do something else. Cause they’re finished. Okay, then you’ve failed one more time. You know it in your heart that you’ve pulled out something and it might be good in some places but ultimately in a couple of years you’re going to have a new album. What an ordinary musician would do would be the whole new bragging, saying ‘Ah, our last album was full of bad ideas and our new album is much better’. It’s all a part of one big failure. It’s up to guys like you to dissect that body and kind of give us feedback in terms of how successful we were at what we were trying to do. In the end I’m of course sitting at my end of the phone, realising that this is just one step in the stairway. We have things to do and places to go.”
In one of the many tense yet insightful Ulver interviews, Rygg has stated that there are no blueprints for creating music for this band; that it is one constant heaving metamorphosis sporadically culminating in different positions. Surely ambiguity of this kind must also be a notable disadvantage, a perilous hinge of volatility and altogether a stressful test for one’s creative capacity.
“It’s no dance on top of roses. Your feet get stung by thorns doing that dance. It has its disadvantages and its advantages. I’m pissed off by myself being so relative all the time but I guess you understand that I just have to be. It’s not very fun… I kind of give off the impression sometimes that you don’t have any fixed ideas about anything, but… Heh! It’s just the way it’s got to be! It’s a relative world.”
Originally, Ulver were nested in a house painted starkly with the colours of black and white, if you accept such a misplaced metaphor. In spite of this, they were never quite fully-subscribing members to the Norwegian codes of black metal conduct. Unlike Immortal, who were sneered at for not living up to a Satanic ideology, Ulver were willing innovators of that curious and thankfully seldom-used genre tag, ‘grey metal’. Rygg admits to not having a very polarised outlook on the world—as if that was not obvious to begin with. Yet, quite interestingly, it is the strictly regulated OTT aspects of black metal he longs for, and not in an entirely ironic fashion.
“There is one thing about black metal in particular that I like and that’s the extremity of it. The theatricality. It’s very self-convincing. Do you know what I mean? You take these pictures and it’s very in your face. It has to sound like this and it has to be pounding and TUFF! And there’s absolutely no irony in it. It’s just kind of pure heart behind it. It may not be all that pure but in the way that it’s presented as something very, very pure and free from all kinds of relativity and ideas of relativity—this is our world and this is how we’re having it and if you don’t like it, fuck you! That whole attitude is something I like about metal even though in the end it is really fucking ignorant. From a more sentimental perspective, it’s something I really appreciate. Since we weren’t really into rave music in the beginning of the 90s, we were into black metal, it’s kind of still there. We’re very much aware of the fact that certain hipsters think we’re way too pompous or pretentious—which to me by the way is a very positively charged word—and take ourselves very seriously. That’s the thing I like about it. The theatrics. The very aesthetical kind of approach to things. I can like music by average-Joe people who take their press pictures sitting in a chair with every-day outfits and being very down-to-earth about everything, I can like that but it doesn’t really give much to imagination, so the kind of self-mythological take on both oneself and the environment about black metal is something I like even though it’s at certain times extremely ridiculous. It’s also something that’s pretty fucking cool at other times.
“Since I’m somewhat an insider, I know that a lot of the black metal musicians here in Norway have for several years had a more dynamic outlook on the world than what it seems but that’s my point: it’s like, this is how it’s supposed to be—if you don’t like it, then go off. I think the whole tendency you see towards black metal and maybe more so black metal aesthetics being incorporated into some sort of high art movement these days is a result of that. They’re so fed up with all the irony and all the sarcasm and all the relativeness that they want something that’s just a smack into your frontal lobe.
“In the beginning [Norwegian black metal] was pure aesthetics I think. Within a year or something it quickly developed into a very subversive social culture. When you’re a bit younger you’re more prone to being suaved by strong imageries, very strong perspectives on things. Whereas when you get a bit older—you don’t necessarily change so much but you take a more complex point of view, or you get more confused I guess you could say, heh. And of course when you’re younger you haven’t really had the time to put yourself in too many different situations. So it often starts with a certain environment or a certain, specific interest and all those things develop overtime. Still, you retain something of what you were when you were younger. It’s hard to say. I guess that’s different from individual to individual how it all works.
“Some people tend to grow older and they then realise that their social status or whatever depends upon what they’ve established themselves as at some point in time, and then kind of go all regressive. Take Metalion, he’s the ultimate example. He’s obviously someone who felt he had to go back to being an ignorant metal head to keep some sense of self-worth in a scene or whatever. He obviously realised at some point that without all that old school metal stuff nothing was happening to him. Again, it’s not to be mean, it’s just a tendency I see. Not that I’m an avid reader of Slayer magazine anymore but I just noticed that whereas in the mid-90s Slayer was kind of opening up and embracing a lot of different ideas and music, then a couple of issues went by and now it’s all Sadistik Exekution, Bathory and Destruction, and all those stupid avant-garde metal people, fuck them. It’s just so easy to see through all that.”
Is there anything that’s sacred to you about Ulver?
“Nothing. Nothing is sacred.”