Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Short Defense of Ulver's 'Nattens Madrigal'

What is really disturbing to me is the fact that people, officially 'recognized' critics of the black metal scene or otherwise, would even feel themselves justified in attacking anything that springs from Norway at this late date in the progression of that scene or that style. I still hear complaints about this album, or attacks on its profundity, so I will endeavor to answer them here.

First of all, the production on this album places it firmly in the tradition begun much earlier by bands such as Beherit, and then crystallized in a perfect state by Darkthrone on their monumental 'Transilvanian Hunger'. What is the nature of this tradition? The triumph of aesthetics over death metal production values - and the rightful place that an album's production assumes in the general aesthetic meaning that a work has. After 'Transilvanian Hunger' I really think that at least in black metal circles, the production quality of an album became a variable to manipulate in the grand scheme of a planned aesthetic impact - the sound quality and the way that it affected the listening of the album or its 'atmospheric' intent, became a widely-recognized factor in the creation of a work, almost as important (or in some cases just as vital) as the music itself. Why is this true?

In black metal, one of the most important factors for a band to control is the perception of their music outside of its straight or most obvious aesthetic value. This ties in with the imagery of the black metal bands, and the atmosphere that those images often try to convey or create. You can see this concentration on the control of all variables in the aesthetic landscape as invidious, or as a natural step in the creation of an art that's sole purpose is the evoking or communication of certain emotions. Black metal is at heart a very conservative style of music, one that speaks a language that has been well-defined over a series of groundbreaking and very influential albums. This 'language' of black metal, its aesthetic reserve and (later) source of flexibility, is coded and transmitted through the medium of imagery, sound, and core production values. I can't think of many other styles of music where the guitar sound, for example, would be so important or so feverishly worried over (consult the latest Terrorizer interview with Satyr for an example).

With the Norwegian bands, for instance, the emphasis on production since Darkthrone's landmark first efforts, has been a concentration on trying to get the 'coldest' or 'harshest' sound imaginable - where the production values of an album mirrored, aesthetically, the political stance of the band in its relation to the rest of society. Or, to put it another way, the art of studio production became the study of the methods in which the production values on an album could reflect the band's view of modern life: the ways in which the very SOUND of an album, extracted from the music that it controlled or brooded over, could gain a propensity for communication all on its own.

I wouldn't hesitate to tie this innovation directly in with industrial music - that is to say, power electronics and industrial noise: where the production on an album consists mainly of the ways in which the tones presented in the music are modulated to bring about a pre-defined aesthetic impact.

So after saying this, and realizing that the production standards on a work are just as important in the final aesthetic formula as the music itself - how can the critics of Ulver complain that the production on 'Nattens Madrigal' 'ruins' the album? Wouldn't it be just as ridiculous to say that the music itself 'ruined' the album? The music is wedded to the production in the end, and can not be separated from its ability to communicate or summon certain emotions in the listener. If the music on this album were separated, for example, from the harsh guitar sound - would it be the same? Would it have the same impact? Why not just play the same notes on a different instrument - a piano, for example? The instrument played, that instrument's sound, and the instrument's place in the music itself in relation to the other instruments or vocals, are all vital components of the aesthetics of the music and can not be changed without piercing the work's ability to evoke the 'right' emotions: i.e., the feelings that the artists want to transmit through their art.

The best defense that Ulver could present for the following of this idealogy is of course the success that this album has found in creating misconceptions of their intent, and its ability to confuse the critics of production values. All these complaints by self-righteous pundits of 'clarity of vision' are of course highly ironic in that they attack a standard that, for me, shows above all a very well-defined clarity of intent, and an aesthetic stance that can not be misunderstood except by people who are not perceptive enough (it has to be said) to trust their most immediate aesthetic judgements. But of course on this album, as on all the works of Ulver, irony is never absent.

U. Amtey
November 24, 1999.