Ulver – The Norwegian National Opera
Release: 2011Oct24 (US)/2012Jan23 (EU)
Label: Kscope Records
Most concert films are rarely interesting for anyone besides fans of the bands in question, hampered by uninspired versions of the songs, weak camera work, and shoddy atmosphere. Some break the mold—such as Deep Purple‘s Made In Japan, Iron Maiden‘s Live After Death and Opeth‘s anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Ulver now joins those ranks with their first live video, The Norwegian National Opera.
Live performance is rare for Ulver. When they finally hit the stage in 2009 at the Lillehammer Literary Festival after a 15-year hiatus from touring, it proved to be a magnificent rock extravaganza, and was only a matter of time before a similar spectacle would be committed to tape. This beautiful blue-and-black hardcover package includes the entire 2010 concert on both DVD and Blu-Ray discs, with extensive liner notes written by themselves and Stig Sæterbakken (Artistic Director of the Lillehammer Literary Festival), plus several pages of still shots from the concert.
What makes it possible for a concert film to become a masterpiece in itself, rather than a rerun of their greatest hits? Besides the obvious argument of a inspired band finding the essence of their best songs, you need a crowd in a good mood. Since Ulver were a rarely-seen live act at the time, the audience was in awe, and eager to see what the band would make of themselves on stage. The film crew also made a huge difference, filming the band and audience from several angles and fusing this film with the band’s own screened films. This works so well, it almost feels like it can stand on its own, rather than only being a live document of the band’s previous output.
The band enlisted the help of performance artist Ian Johnstone (who bookends the evening) and laptop guitarist virtuoso Christian Fennesz, but the end result is a proper collaborative effort. It’s difficult to separate each member’s contribution to the sound, due to samples, the ever-shifting camera angles, and the continued focus on the films projected on the back screen and the darkened stage. Daniel O’Sullivan’s guitars, Tore Ylvizakers keyboards, and the contributions of Jørn Sværen mesh masterfully, but nothing could ever hide Kristoffer Rygg’s menacing vocals, every bit as recognizable as contemporary crooners like Mark Lanegan or David Sylvian.
The atmosphere is immediately set with the piano-driven melancholy of “Moon Piece” and a single light, revealing Ian Johnstone as a clownlike creature hanging from the gallows above the stage with blackened blood running from his mouth. It’s a poetic and horrifying spactacle and sets the stage for one of the band’s finest moments: “Eos” from the epic Shadows of the Sun.
The carnage continues as they montage slow-mo clips of lionesses hunting their prey, black-and-white footage from pre- and post-WW2 Germany, pornography, nuclear explosions, children praying, swarming flies—a stark and ugly anarchic assemblage. The band is in spooky synchronization with these films. Watch this poignant, grueling hypnotic exercise in “Rock Massif” where Rygg’s voice emerges from the darkness to conclude by asking “Gjør det vondt?” (“Does it hurt?”).
At the same time, songs like the up-tempo “Operator” feel strangely positive, despite the short film being about a suicidal man in a bathtub. In the end, both the man and the audience are left with the final choice; ourselves and no one else. Perhaps that’s why I really love this film—its focus on humanity and each person’s opportunity to fulfill one’s own destiny in a harsh and unforgiving world. It’s a perfect fusion of my two favorite quotes in pop culture: the bloody and darkly realistic Al Swearengen from Deadwood (“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.”) and the more optimistic but still earthbound Bruce Springsteen (“Still at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.“).
3. Let the Children Go
4. Little Blue Bird
5. Rock Massif
6. For the Love of God
7. In the Red
10. Excerpts of Silence
11. A Memorable Fancy
12. Hallways of Always
14. A Cold Kiss
15. Like Music
16. Not Saved
17. The Leg Cutting Piece