OUT OF THE BLACK
Kristoffer Rygg and his band were once proponents of extreme metal rock. Now they’re teaming up with an Australian symphony orchestra, writes Iain Shedden
Kristoffer Rygg is fretting at the prospect of coming to Hobart for the first time. It’s not because of the long journey he and his band Ulver will have to make from their native Oslo for their Australian debut next month, or about any sense of foreboding concerning the Tasmanian capital. The singer and composer’s chief concern is about locking in with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra when they get here.
Ulver, a band that in its 25 years has evolved from black metal into a semiclassical, electronic pop collective, is coming to Australia for the first time in two guises: the first to perform material from its eclectic back catalogue, including from overtly poppy album The Assassination of Julius Caesar, released last month; the second to join the TSO in a performance of the band’s much lauded 2012 orchestral work, Messe I.X-VI.X.
Rygg’s apprehension around Messe (Mass), a largely instrumental and ambient piece of work inspired in part by Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is understandable. Ulver has performed the piece live only four times and the last performance was in Italy almost four years ago.
“It’s a big thing,” says Rygg. “Very few people can put on such a production.”
Messe was commissioned by the Norwegian House of Culture in 2012 and performed live in Norway that year. Ulver worked with composer Martin Romberg to develop the piece for orchestra. “We could write it with keyboards,” says Rygg, “but we needed someone to lay it out. We did get help, but we made it with the idea that it would be a drawn out, melancholic piece of music. For us the process wasn’t that different to our album Shadows of the Sun, but it was different when we wanted to play it live.”
Ulver’s arrival in Australia comes on the back of quite an extraordinary career. Formed by Rygg in late 1992, the band established itself at the tail-end of the Norwegian black metal boom, releasing three albums in quick succession — Bergtatt (1995), Kveldssanger (1996) and, its first international release, Nattens Madrigal (1997). By then, however, the metal was beginning to lose its sheen, with the third album displaying more of a layered, electronic bent than its predecessors.
Since then the band, which has undergone many personnel changes and didn’t perform live between 1994 and 2009, has delivered music that has constantly evolved, not just away from its black metal beginnings but with each album taking on new influences, from the hybrid of prog rock and electronic, Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1998) to the more ambient and melancholy Shadows of the Sun (2007).
The latest album is by far the band’s most poppy and accessible work, including Rygg’s vocal melodies on songs such as Nemoralia, the funky Rolling Stone and the haunting electropop anthem, Southern Gothic, although lyrically the album takes influence from, among many things, the death of Princess Diana and the myth of the Greek goddess Artemis. History and literature play a significant part in Rygg’s lyrics. He’s an avid reader.
“Well, I try to be,” he says, “but not so much since I became preoccupied with my kids, but I try. There has always been a literary aspect to everything we do. We appreciate going back to literature for inspiration, such as on the new album. Quite often we end up in old Rome or Greece, maybe through the arts more than anything.”
He says making an album such as Caesar that is overtly commercial pop “was a conscious choice. It’s something we’ve been talking about doing for years. We have had poppy elements of that before. If you listen to the albums War of the Roses (2011) or Blood Inside (2005) they have a pop sensibility to them. We’ve often considered just going for it and making something that is more accessible and immediate. It’s part of the process, just sitting in the studio without too many distractions.”
Rygg, 40, a vocalist with a versatile voice and an open mind concerning composition, switched on to heavy metal as a teenager, finding a direction for his musical ambitions away from the Top 40 radio he had been used to hearing.
“I was a skater,” he explains. “I watched old skater movies and discovered hard core and punk. That was my introduction away from pop music that was playing on the radio in the 1980s. That was my musical awakening, I guess, and the start of my rebellious phase. That didn’t last for too long. This was the era of hair metal, bands like Motley Crue, and that quickly led to thrash metal and bands like Slayer and Metallica and from there to black metal.”
It was Rygg’s continuous pushing of the envelope that led him to black metal and out the
Norwegian band Ulver, above, and performing in 2014, below