One of the many things I am learning to appreciate about Metal and its varying isotopes is that in the great bands, they are willing to go there. Costumes? No problem, in fact in some factions like Black Metal, its well nigh mandatory. Subject matter? Wide open, from particle physics to partisan politics to God to disemboweling virgins. Sound? it can go from outer space stillness to speeds unclockable and change velocity at will. Image? Look at those guys - let's just say Us magazine is not commenting on the state of anyone in Mastadon's abs. In fact the only tie that seems to bind the modern state of metal from this neophyte's vantage is that it should be willing and able to go there. There is no room for ironic whiners and weak musicianship on this field of battle (except with some parts of Black Metal, which I understand to be rooted more in theatrics, and sometimes purposefully sloppy performances are implemented to underscore the theatrics.) Whatever, Metal sees the top and is willing to go over it every time. And even when some of it yet holds appeal to these ears, I can totally respect that dedication.
A recent thunderclap from the icy Norwegian wastes, arguably this planet's geographical epicenter of metal, descended up on the earth in the form of Ulver, a wizard deity that has summoned the various strengths from the reaches of metal to provide this progressive feast, the likes of which you used to have to die on the field of battle and ascend to Valhalla to enjoy. Ulver is somewhat of a sensation in his homeland, being nominated for the Norwegian Grammys a number of times and is an in-demand soundtrack provider - like Danny Elfman in Viking form.
The nine tracks that make up Blood Inside cover an awful lot of ground from Queen-grade harmonies, to jackhammer runs, to solar flares of synth summoning up demons from the belching core. To describe this as "over the top" is to underestimate, It soars high above the top, scrying it with a weary eye. The opening salvo "Dressed in Black" is a textbook case of intensity with grace, from the gamma-wave warning bell at its commencement, to the calm before the storm when the wizard first appears from his cave to the raging floods and earthquakes he calls forth to wipe the planet clean of us talking monkeys. In fact, with its decided no reliance on guitars to relegate its power, I'm starting to wonder if this is even metal, but I think the level of sonic and emotional intensity saves this from being labeled metal's less-fun cousin - progressive rock. The closest analogy I can make is Tool, but some of Tool's organic aspects are shaved away to highlight the epic-ness of this music.
The vocals on Blood Inside, while intricate in harmony and melody, as distorted just enough that I don't know if the heavy bell-toller "For the Love of God" and its twinkling horn-filled twin star "Christmas" are heartfelt paeans to the faith or ironic in nature, but they are lovely nonetheless, and will make for an excellent soundtrack for when you set the tree on fire come this December. The jazzier horn elements of "Christmas" and "In The Red" did put another theory into the origins of metal. It is generally agreed that either William Burroughs or Lester bangs came up with the term, and that the crown for first metal act has been placed upon the head of the Kinks, Bowie and Deep Purple, but I'd like to add a possible other dark horse to the mix: noted cartoon composer Raymond Scott, in particular, his famed piece "Powerhouse" - the one they always play when the dog accidentally starts the conveyor belt in the House of the Future and industrious mayhem ensues. It has a similar sense of buildup and high speed ramble, and if anyone has an appreciation of cartoon violence and the dynamics thereof, its a metal act.
There is a startlingly wide stylistic range on this album like the hushed calm of "Blinded By Blood" that could almost be a Radiohead outtake, or the rapid pastiches of "It is not Sound" and "The Truth" where the Ulver wagon careens between pastoral placid frozen lakes of synthesizer to paint-can-shaker percussion. There are even traces of reggae for Odin's sake in the throb of "In The Red." The oddest brace of songcraft here is the string laden "Your Call" and the plate smashing exuberance of "Operator" that refactor some of the phone call dynamics Pink Floyd exercised into a strange but satisfying tone poem about, I think, receiving a call form the dead. The way "Operator" chugs to the close of this dictionary reference for "over the top" is like an extra layer of frosting on this filigreed cake - dueling synth and guitar runs dart to avoid icebergs of electronics and drum eruptions, while a string section shrieks and moans as the whole goddamn boat sinks. Subtle, it is not. It prefers to trod in full armor down the fables Road of Excess to lay waste to the Palace of Wisdom. Honestly, I took this on as a joke at first, with my indie rock tongue firmly ensconced in my cheek, but upon my 10th listen now, I must humbly bow to its glory.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com