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Ulver - Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell CD (album) cover




Post Rock/Math rock

3.84 | 129 ratings

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5 stars Having codified the form of folk/black metal fusions with Bergtatt and recorded what is in all likelihood that most savage black metal album to come out of the '90s this side of Marduk with Nattens madrigal, Ulver seem to have felt they had pushed the form of black metal as far as they could push it. For their fourth album, they underwent a massive lineup change and shifted directions radically. They also went about as far from the typical subject matter of black metal as possible by adopting as the libretto for their album the prose poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, a Christian religious text.

Blake's Christianity, though, is far from typical; it is heavily rooted in Gnosticism, a heretical sect that was historically outlawed by the Catholic Church, and he has been cited as one of the major forerunners of political anarchism. While later anarchists (e.g., Leo Tolstoy) have attempted to reconcile the teachings of Christianity with anarchism, and earlier religious texts (e.g., the Tao te Ching) have become closely associated with anarchism, Blake nonetheless stands out as an unusually early example of an anarchist, and his criticisms of the oppressiveness of traditional organised religion and other aspects of society are all over the text.

Blake states, "No virtue can exist without breaking these Ten Commandments; Jesus was all virtue and acted from impulse, not from rules", and as one might infer from the title, a central thesis of Blake's work is that much of what is frequently considered to be sinful should not in fact be considered sinful, and that much of what society has taboos against is in fact beneficial for humanity. In addition to his anarchism and Gnosticism, Blake was an early advocate of free love, the abolition of slavery, and feminism, all concerns which are reflected, if obliquely in some cases, in his writings here. It is no coincidence that Aldous Huxley took the title of his essay The Doors of Perception from the text of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, nor that Huxley's essay later inspired the name of prog rock forerunners the Doors.

Blake is also particularly critical of the traditional religious dichotomy between body and soul, in which the poor body tends to be maligned; he feels that separating them is unhealthy, and this concern is reflected throughout his text. (This is actually reflected in the modern idea that the body and mind frequently affect each other, as in the case of psychosomatic illnesses, so in a way Blake's thinking has once again been vindicated by history). Blake's concerns in this writing so angered the more conservative C.S. Lewis that he wrote a rebuttal called The Great Divorce, which has become more famous in some circles than Blake's text.

Musically, Ulver's piece shifts with the moods of the text. For this album they have adopted a fusion of industrial metal, progressive rock, and the avant-garde that would prove to be the time they would record in a metal idiom. However, it's hardly typical metal territory, and shifts from style to style as the band see fit. Lush female vocals over lilting guitars precede uneasy spoken-word passages over tense backing music; densely orchestrated harmonies over a mixture of electronic and electric instrumentation give way to pounding metallic segments. Ulver stretch out at length when it suits them; "A Memorable Fancy, Plates 17-20" stretches upwards of eleven minutes, while "Proverbs of Hell, Plates 7-10" stretches upwards of nine. (The seemingly long "A Song of Liberty, Plates 25-27" actually has most of its length taken up by silence before a brief hidden track; the actual song is just over five and a half minutes). Many of the other compositions are quite brief, with "Plate 3, following" being the shortest at just over a minute and a half.

The only remnant of black metal anywhere on the album is the tremolo-picked guitar on the last song, but this is overlaid with clean vocals and electronics that still make it a far cry from your usual black metal fare (although Emperor's Ihsahn and Samoth do guest on the track to provide the only harsh vocals found anywhere on the album at the song's conclusion; the track also features drums from Darkthrone's Fenriz).

Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a difficult listen but a rewarding one, and is like little else in the canon of recorded music. Ulver would not revisit this territory again, and while plenty of other bands since the album was recorded have offered the same kind of musical diversity, none of them have covered a similar range of territory as is found on this album. My only complaint with this album is its mastering, which is a bit louder than I'd have liked (though not as loud as the original releases of Nattens madrigal). Other than that, there's little here that I would consider a demerit, and it comes strongly recommended for fans of adventuresome metal. One might consider it unfortunate that Ulver seem to have abandoned metal permanently after this album, but what they've done since has been interesting enough that there's little reason to be displeased.

CassandraLeo | 5/5 |


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