Ulver - Themes From William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell
Jester Records
Avant-Garde Metal, Electronic
Disc 1: 13 songs (60:43) Disc 2: 6 songs (46:23)
Release year: 1998
Jester Records
Reviewed by James
Archive review

After comprehensively tearing black metal a new one with Nattens Madrigal, an album that is perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, Ulver decided to neatly side-step the issue by doing something completely unexpected. Of course, we've now reached a point where Ulver have become predictably unpredictable, but back in 1998, when they were still thoroughly considered a black metal band, albeit one that had worked in folk elements and clean vocals in a way never seen before, this must have been something utterly mind-blowing. To this day, this is still Ulver's most ambitious undertaking ever. 2 discs? Check. Massively high-brow lyrical concept? Check. William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell is quoted verbatim as the lyrics for the entire album, as you may have guessed from the title. It's printed in its entirety in the booklet, though I'd still recommend reading it in a book as the tiny font in the booklet seems designed to induce headaches. Odyssey through the realms of industrial, metal, spoken word, and a few nods to your black metal roots? Check. Musically, Themes From William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell is all over the place, going through electronic music in all its various flavours, and taking in various folk and metal excursions. The final track, A Song Of Liberty is the only thing approaching black metal here, with guest vocals from none other than, Ihsahn, Samoth and Fenriz, but even the Nattens Madrigal-esque riffing is backed up by an almost techno beat. The closest I can get this album to is perhaps a less symphonic, more electronic Arcturus (of course, Garm is present on vocals there too). But that doesn't even begin to cover it, and the only way to really get a handle on this album is to hear it for yourself.

Despite being intended to listen to as one continuous piece (here the lyrics are clearly as important as the music, and therefore every Plate is essential for the whole to make sense) Themes... is all over the place musically, the band indulging every experimental urge in their bodies. Yet, despite it essentially being an exercise in self-indulgence, the record is saved from going off into a realm of ambient wank by none other than William Blake himself, despite being long dead, of course. There's only a finite amount of lyrics here, and therefore when a Plate comes to an end, the music has to go in a new direction. Yes, it's still overlong (those ambient intros could have been chopped, no question) but it's by no means the pompous, up-its-own-hole disaster it could have been.

Far from it, in fact. Garm and new addition Tore Ylwzikaer haven't quite perfected the knack for writing catchy beats (they'd improve massively for next outing Perdition City) but they're rarely boring, and so diverse that most listeners will be kept listening just to see where they're headed next. The four musicians that cut Nattens Madrigal are still present, but they're far less important here, guitar, bass and drum parts cut and pasted into the music like some kind of avant-garde metal DJ Shadow. Of course, as the man responsible for communicating Blake's message to the listener, Garm, or “Trickster G” as he likes to be known on this release, takes the lead role. His performance is something of an oddity within the Ulver canon, as here he employs the operatic style he usually saves for Arcturus. As the whole album was written in prose (a technique Garm would employ himself when penning the Perdition City lyrics) he uses very odd, constantly shifting vocal melodies. There's nothing resembling a chorus here of course, yet at times the man still manages to craft some catchy lines, such as on the oddly compelling Proverbs Of Hell. Newcomers may find his vocals here a little too overwrought at times, but fans of the band will find yet another vocal persona within Garm's astounding arsenal.

Themes From William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell may be messy and perhaps a little too ambitious for it's own good, but yet it prevails because it's so damn brave. Ulver could have very easily rejigged Nattens Madrigal five times over and everyone would have gone home happy- hell, they could have done that after Bergtatt, yet they did something that was sure to upset black metal purists the world over. Themes... is Ulver's Year Zero, a complete musical reboot, and as such it has it's flaws. There's an odd dated, cheap quality to the beats, something not seen on later works. Occasionally the rest of the band are something of a nuisance, needlessly cluttering sections merely because, hey, they had a right to be part of this whole thing. If this wasn't the leap of faith it was, admittedly I'd be scoring this a little lower. But because it's so daring, so ambitious, so epic, I simply have to give it respect. As their peers floundered around them, Ulver took flight, and if they hadn't chosen to abandon metal entirely, they may not have even existed today. I'm still discovering something new every time I visit this record, and flaws notwithstanding, there's enough substance here to keep me coming back for years to come. For those put off by Ulver's first excursion into electronica, fear not- it gets so much better on the next one.

Killing Songs :
This is meant to be experienced as a continuous piece.
James quoted 81 / 100
Other albums by Ulver that we have reviewed:
Ulver - The Assassination of Julius Caesar reviewed by Goat and quoted 80 / 100
Ulver - Messe I.X - VI.X reviewed by Goat and quoted 75 / 100
Ulver - Wars Of The Roses reviewed by Goat and quoted 90 / 100
Ulver - Perdition City reviewed by James and quoted 95 / 100
Ulver - Bergtatt reviewed by James and quoted CLASSIC
To see all 10 reviews click here
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