Rarely has album artwork evoked as much appropriate imagery as the wolf-adorned picture accompanying Ulver's Nattens Madrigal does. Alone and presumably howling to the moon that lies in the background, the wolf provides ample insight to the dark and bleak nature of what its album contains in songwriting and lyricism... and indeed this experience is bleak. Vocalist Garm has stated that Nattens Madrigal was intended as a backlash to all of the record labels that tried to bring black metal to a wider audience and polish it, which Ulver perceived as effectively ending the genre in terms of aesthetics and purpose. So, seeing as Ulver were a black metal (and folk) band up to this point, everybody was expecting another album like the intense-yet-accessible Bergtatt. And what did we all get instead? One of the most distorted and raw black metal albums ever recorded and released.
Seriously, let that sink in for a moment. In a genre like black metal, which prides itself on being "kvlt" and having horrible production values in the name of underground metal, THIS is one of the most underproduced and raw albums in the entire genre. Right off the bat, you can imagine that it isn't for the faint of heart and certainly not built for any mainstream appeal... but that's the whole point and the charm of this experience. The guitars rip through the ears like buzz saws, the vocals are uncompromisingly piercing shrieks, the drumming is thin and nimble, and the bass is virtually nonexistent; then we get the songwriting, which is simultaneously repetitive and hypnotic. There's only one real moment that gives listeners room for breathing, which is a gorgeous acoustic folk portion in "Hymn I." Aside from that, save for a few ambient outros, the whole album is a giant onslaught of shrieks and buzzing guitars. So what makes this record so appealing despite these elements? Well, for one, the guitar playing is still very beautiful despite the distortion. You get these very soothing melodies, half of which sound like they could have come from a folk record, and the harmonies Håvard and Torbjørn pull off are both melancholic and mesmerizing. Also, Nattens Madrigal features Garm's harsh vocals at their absolute best. There may not be any clean singing present anywhere, but his shrieks are instrumental in giving this record its chillingly cold atmosphere. It actually reminds me a lot of what Dani Filth's vocals bring to Cradle of Filth's Dusk... and Her Embrace; you can almost touch the depressive and haunting scenery the howling and screeching conjures up.
While it may not seem incredibly apparent at first, there's actually a lot of variety in Nattens Madrigal as well. Despite the overall looming darkness of the album, some songs actually feature the occasional moment of hope and peace. "Hymn VI" begins with a very beautiful guitar melody that highly contrasts many of the other songs by being in a major key for once, while much of "Hymn VII" carries a lighter tone to it. There are also some songs that have a more brutal sound to them despite the thin production, such as thicker and lower tremolo-picked riffing of fan favorite "Hymn III" and the extremely jarring and noisy introduction of "Hymn I," which could prove to be a huge shock to fans of more mainstream metal upon first listen. Also, there's one more thing that adds to this album's atmosphere and sound: the lyrics. It was a pretty wise decision to make the entire album in old Dano-Norwegian language, which only adds to the record's mystique and intrigue. When translated (to the best of people's abilities, at least), the lyrics fit the music perfectly with imagery of wolves, the darker aspects of man, and the overall night-related imagery you'd imagine with an album that sounds like this. From what I can gather, the concept of the record is that of a man who becomes a wolf by succumbing to the evil in and around him. The lyrics really make for some good reading on their own, and are immeasurably effective on Nattens Madrigal.
The whole experience is just sublime. The mixture of brutality, beauty, songwriting quality, lyrical mastery, and everything else is almost enough to make one cry at how perfect it is. But in the end, that's only for the ones who can really handle the rawness of this album and be dedicated enough to delve deeper into what lies beneath the intensity. It's obviously not for everyone and many will be turned off by the vocals and production (even certain black metal fans), but for those who stick with it, Nattens Madrigal provides amazing songwriting and an unmistakable vibe that make it one of the most rewarding metal albums of all time. It's cold, bleak, draining, emotional, hypnotic, and dripping with atmosphere with every song. This is the essence of black metal.
(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)