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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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