Photo © Ingrid Aas
Last year I had a chat with Director Scott Derrickson about the key role of music in his hit film Sinister, and his search for just the right artists to provide the nightmarish sonic undercurrent for the movie's most chilling scenes. Among those whose music found its way into the film was Norwegian experimental unit Ulver, who began life as as a black metal combo, but over time morphed into a musical form that even more ominous, and also totally unpredictable (case in point: Childhood's End, their collection of '60s psychedelic rock covers with a dark fantasy twist). Their music creeps up on you in subtle, haunting ways, and much like Sinister, Ulver's work lingers long after your first experience – a memory of a frightening but strangely beautiful dream.
Ulver's latest release, Messe I.X-VI.X, is one of the band's most surreal and haunting projects to date, combining their unorthodox soundscapes (which often incorporate elements of electronic music, metal, rock and folk instrumentation, blended through inventive production techniques) with a full symphony orchestra. This particular project began when Norway's Tromsø Kulturhus (House of Culture) commissioned new music from the band for a joint venture with the Arctic Opera and a 21-piece orchestra, resulting in a live multimedia show last September. Messe is a musical document of that performance, and it's one of the spookiest live albums you'll hear this year. Even the trailer is seriously creepy, recalling Sinister in its half-glimpsed images of ghost children...
It's probably no coincidence that there's a stylistic thread connecting Messe with Derrickson's film: much of the experimentation on the album recalls the hypnotic, spectral drones of their track "Silence Teaches You How to Sing" – excerpts of which were played during some of Sinister's terrifying “home movie” segments (including the opening title sequence). Moments like those return in the deep, pulsing organic patterns of tracks like “Noche Oscura Del Alma,” which sometimes seems dangerous to play with all the lights out (although I did it anyway... I consider it an occupational risk).
Other memorable pieces include “Glamour Box (ostinati)” and “Shri Schneider,” which recall the '80s film music of Tangerine Dream woven into the symphonic cycles of minimalist composers like Philip Glass. While not as impressive as the instrumental pieces, lead vocals do make some dramatic appearances, mainly on the track “Son of Man” – where they begin as a hypnotic mantra, then build up harmonies toward an intense emotional climax – and “Mother of Mercy,” adding a more somber, funereal vibe before finally giving way to a cluster chorus of otherworldly ghost chants.
Photo © Ingrid Aas
It's pretty much a given that the music of Ulver is an acquired taste; fans of the dark ambient genre and offbeat, experimental horror soundtracks will no doubt fall under their creeping, mesmerizing spell, as the band cites influences as far-reaching as the film scores of John Carpenter to classical works by Gustav Mahler. Needless to say, those who prefer more conventional tunes will probably be completely baffled by the unconventional arrangements and long, minimalist drones (most of these tracks clock in at over five minutes, and the opening piece is nearly twelve). As you can probably tell by now, I consider myself part of the first group, and consider Messe prime horror mood music for a dark October night – especially if it's raining outside, or a distant wind is stroking the windows.