Groundbreakers: Ulver — Bergtatt
Some say Bergtatt means “spellbound” or “spirited into the mountains” or “taken by mountain trolls”. I say it means “No one will ever make a better folkened black metal record.” Tomato, potato.
This is Groundbreakers, the series in which we dig up old albums, dust off their bones and parade them around for a big ol’ nostalgia-wank. We do it because these albums were amazing. We do it because these albums were influential. We do it because we have nothing better to write about. And today, we’re doing it for Ulver‘s debut album Bergtatt (whose full title contains the rarely used subtitle Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler). Bergtatt is not the only album from Ulver’s colorful discography which qualifies as a groundbreaker, but a riff from it popped into my head the other day to remind me that it rules, and our pal Link already published an extensive exploration of Kveldssanger, so here we are. At Bergtatt. A black metal album that does not give two shits about black metal. A breaking-off point from the genre’s reverence for all that is grim, cold and evil. A work of daring and vision which basically spawned an entire sub-genre of atmospheric, folk-infused black metal. Today it is possible to hear echoes of Bergtatt in other albums from all over the world. But way back in 1995, there just was no precedence for this kind of thing.
Look no further than the album’s booklet for evidence that we are dealing with a beast of an entirely different–and vastly more mature–order. What you’ll find inside are images of the band-members surrounded by nature: drummer AiwarikiaR sitting on a rock, silhouetted against a dramatic Norwegian sky; vocalist Garm sulking behind a bush in someone’s water-color painting; guitarist Havaard fondling a lichen-covered rock (and dressed like he just came from an audition for Interview with the Vampire for some reason); shirtless bassist Skoll crawling on the ground, maybe in a cave; guitarist Aismal pondering clouds shaped like the underbelly of Tiamat. No corpse paint. No exaggerated battle-poses. No medieval weaponry. No costumes (except the one). No inverted crosses. And while the booklet does contain the image of an inverted pentagram, the symbol is arguably more of a tribute to paganism than a “fuck you” to Christianity. What all of this amounts to is a striking signal that Ulver are not a typical black metal band. In a young scene already replete with rigid dogma, Ulver broke the mold and cracked the sky in the process.
With only five tracks, Bergtatt contains no filler. Each song is a revelation in and of itself. Opener “I Troldskog faren vild” bursts into existence with a drum solo of all things. This, followed by a majestic and entirely un-grim chord progression carried by guitar. Underneath, the double-bass drum rolls on and on like the hills surrounding some fjord, accompanied by a shockingly audible and melodic bass-line with a gorgeous tone. Twenty-two seconds in, the vocals arise. Gosh, those vocals. Was anybody expecting that? This here is the world’s introduction to Garm’s addictive chanting vocal style. Countless black metal vocalists have attempted to mimic that hauntingly emotive sound; few have ever come close. Oh, and before we move on, did I mention that “I Troldskog” contains no harsh vocals? Nope, not a one.
You’ll have to wait until track two, “Soelen gaaer bag Aase need”, for harsh vocals–but first you’ll have to sit through a long intro composed of dueling acoustic guitar and flute of all things. I can’t think of anything more unfashionable for the time than prefacing a savage blast-beaten verse with a duet led by flute. If Ulver hadn’t thought to do it, would anyone else have dared to try? Would anyone have thought to break up the grimmest, most orthodoxically black metal song on the album (“Graablick blev hun vaer”) with a long passage of faint piano tinkling and the sounds of a lost girl’s footsteps crunching erratically on the forest floor? Would anyone have dared include a song composed entirely of chiming acoustic guitar and droning vocal chants (“Een Stemme locker”)? Yeah, probably–but Ulver did it all first, so here we are again.
If no one had ever tried to duplicate Bergtatt‘s fusion of raw black metal and Norwegian folk music, the album might have languished in obscurity. Happily, it did not, in part because the fusion was a very good idea, and in part because Ulver executed it flawlessly. Some of today’s most celebrated black metal acts owe a direct debt to the niche Ulver carved out on this album. Agalloch‘s own debut was a laughable blunder of an attempt to mimic Bergtatt‘s delicate dance between frailty and aggression, and while Agalloch would go on to improve drastically over time, they never really stopped chasing Ulver’s tail. People like to make a lot of noise about how Wolves in the Throne Room is essentially a Weakling decoy, but when I listen to their albums I hear straight passed the alleged Weakling worship to the source of all things woodsy and blackened: Bergtatt. Ludicra has repeatedly acknowledged in interviews that the more melodic, expansive side of their sound was greatly inspired by Bergtatt. And whether contemporary acts like Fauna, Falls of Rauros and Sun of the Sleepless have acknowledged it or not, they are all toiling in the shadow of that album, all slaves to its eternal thrall.
I’d even go out on a limb and say that the DNA of the whole post-black/blackgaze craze can be traced back to Bergtatt. Before you cry foul, just think of atmospheric, hazy riffs and those reverb-drenched chants and those sprawling song-structures. Think of them and then tell me it’s impossible that Neige of Alcest first picked up a guitar with strains of Bergtatt reverberating through the dungeons of his mind.
As I write this, I feel like I’m actively engaged in an argument with someone. Perhaps I’m just preparing for someone to argue. But who would do such a thing? Only someone with a nest of vipers for a soul would bother to decry the massive, genre-birthing power of Bergtatt‘s fertile loins. For any young musician who found themselves ensorcelled by the sounds of Norwegian black metal and yet unsettled by its Satanic imagery and conformist mentality, Bergtatt was evidence that another path was possible, an eerie yet enticing light glinting over the putrid waters of a stagnant swamp.
Most of the musicians who made this album went on to lead obscure lives away from the metal spotlight. It’s pretty strange how such a powerful young group of artists just sort of vanished one by one. No matter. Bergtatt will live on for years to come. (Can we get a petition going to shoot it into Space so that it will survive the eventual explosion of our Sun?)
Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.
Neurosis – Souls at Zero
Death – Symbolic
Fear Factory – Demanufacture
Voivod – Killing Technology
Today is the Day – Temple of the Morning Star
Avenged Sevenfold – City of Evil
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed
Acid Bath – When the Kite String Pops
Ministry – The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
Vulcano – Bloody Vengeance
Sleep – Holy Mountain
Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
Kayo Dot – Choirs of the eye
Thin Lizzy – Thunder and Lightning
Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses
Bathory – Hammerheart
Blind Guardian – Imaginations from the Other Side
Black Flag – My War
Brujería – Matando Güeros
Guns N’ Roses — Appetite for Destruction