Let’s get this out of the way – Ulver’s Perdition City is a trip-hop album, perhaps in the vein of Massive Attack or Portishead or one of the many other well known names in the genre. I’m told there was a lot of reactionary pants shitting (the kind that turns you into a dictatorship in Victoria II) when this came out due to Ulver’s origins as a black metal band, but it’s not a particularly good idea to dwell on that sort of thing. A better approach leaves me with the musical content of this CD. I’ve made favorable references to Perdition City in the past, but given that this has been in my collection since late 2009, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how to approach this work and its relative merits.
While I would describe the overall sound of this album as “trip-hop”, Perdition City is defined more by the tension between that basic approach (which provides us our song structures) and some level of experimental techno/sound collage aesthetics. Overlaying this is the multi-talented Kristoffer Rygg, who admittedly is not as showy as he was early in his career. The first half is defined more by its ambient aspects, reminding me of something like Mezzanine by Massive Attack. The second half is where the experimental aspects take over (with the exception of the synth rock track “Nowhere – Catastrophe”), and arguably where the album’s songwriting runs into its limits. Arguably one could argue that it’s difficult to arrange a series of ‘glitchy’ noises and other sounds into a coherent form; either way I’m sure something more coherent would’ve been possible, even desirable.
Again, the album shines in its aesthetics; prior to the second half of the album, Ulver had defined a fairly marketable niche – piano for texture, mid paced grooves, electronics as exclamations, etc. The piano is an excellent example of the band’s skill as sound designers; it never plays anything more than basic chords, but the texture is appealing. The first two tracks have fitting vocals, which are emotive if not particularly powerful, too; Ulver clearly studied some of the influential electronic ambient recordings of the ’90s and could’ve expanded in that direction if they felt the need. Either way, most of the less experimental content sticks to one soundset for its duration; on the first half, however, the changes that occur have better transitions. Good sound design always evokes within me an indescribable feeling and a perceptible shift in my cognition that, once the novelty wears off, I seem to long for.
Perhaps that’s why heavily aesthetic-driven albums like Perdition City don’t age very well for me. On the other hand, looking back at it, this album does contain some good ambient material in its first half. Comparatively, the other “modern” Ulver album I’ve listened to (Blood Inside) ratchets up the mastery of sound and texture, but is even more rambling and incoherent than this album becomes. I suppose the lesson here is that sound designers need good composers to work with in order to create particularly memorable music; Mr. Rygg had Arcturus at one point, although he may have played some significant role in that band’s writing. Another interpretation is that limiting your aesthetic choices forces a higher standard of songwriting, which is something I’ve given much thought over the years.
Highlights: The entire first half of the album, up to and possibly including “The Future Sound of Music”. I usually don’t do highlights like this, but I feel it’s justified in this case.