Review: UlvikCascades

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From the woods of British Columbia, Ulvik delivers their latest, Cascades. True to its name, the record rushes down from pinnacles of blast-powered black metal into more melodic, atmospheric territory before wending through rocks and brambles on its way to an expansive end. Plucked bouzoukis and scraps of violin float along the album’s current. Cascades is a tour of wilderness swallowing up human rot and rust, treading where the Weakling thicket meets the midden heaps of early Altar of Plagues. In an awesome move, Ulvik will donate 50% of the proceeds of this record’s purchase to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, which, given Canada’s present reckoning with its genocidal past, is timely.

And, hey, if that wasn’t enough for you skeptical trve types, Metal Archives says that, based on this record, Ulvik is now actually metal!

(Sidebar: this sort of gatekeeping sucks. It almost always seems to hinge on a) instruments that are not guitars and/or b) musicians that are seen as “soft.” My first encounter with an MA refusal was with Yakuza, who apparently have too much sax or are too “rock” to be metal. Svalbard apparently also aren’t metal despite releasing one of 2020’s best metal records, and on and on. Apparently Ulvik’s postier history disqualified them before. But I digress.)

Cascades feels like the culmination of a journey for the two-piece. From their earlier, rock-tinged releases to Volumes One & Two, a double-length suite of voluminous post-metal threaded with a braided river of chamber music, the band has evolved into something aspirational. Along the way, Ulvik members George Allen and Jade Fadel teamed up with Kris Vetz as Lucia and released 2019’s fantastic Monuments Adrift. The duo made the most of the pandemic’s worst months, recording and releasing Isolation Motifs in 2020, which is as much Clogs as it is Panopticon. Like snow gathering on a mountain, these soundscapes thawed into the aggressive rush of Cascades, which opens with the harrowing “Baaltis.”

“Nokhur” follows. It is the record’s most “metal” track, if you care to make those distinctions, overflowing with second-wave shrieks and a chilly undercurrent of tremolo-picked guitar. Compared to their previous work, tracks like “Nokhur” also showcase the band’s vocals more clearly, where on previous records they sounded as if they came from the next canyon over. “Huis Clos” sits fittingly at the record’s middle, offering dolorous shrieks and guitar over an anxious patter of drums. It ends with pummeling toms and blasts, a last cataract before “Almächtiger Gott! Lössch’ Aus” (“Almighty God! Wash It Away”).

This track reveals the band at their strongest. “Allmächtiger Gott” is the confluence of Cascades’ unstoppable power and the sensibilities of Ulvik’s previous efforts, the strings and bouzoukis combining with a Latin invocation of saints to produce the record’s most overwhelming ambience before “Salt of the Earth” brings us at last to the wide sea and the end of the river.

Even if my pursuit of this metaphor is a bit corny, this record is not. It is exhilarating. It has peaks and valleys, allowing you to bathe for a time in its moods. It is above all metal, a record well suited to both headphones or room-filling amps. Ulvik are meticulous craftspeople, tinkering with multimedia art as well as music, and Cascades is clearly a record that was painstakingly assembled and carefully honed without sounding like it is either. While I’m sure Ulvik gets a lot of “FFO: WitTR,” this is for my ears a more seamless blend of metal and ambience. The album succeeds in being almost a soundtrack to itself.

Whatever your feelings about atmoblack and what is or isn’t “metal,” records like Cascades succeed at being emotive and engaging without getting bogged down in performance. Perhaps that is why the edgelords of the world write acts like this off—if the songs can make the hair on your arms stand on end without any makeup to cover it up, is it really trve?? For this grumpy listener, at least, Cascades manages to escape the un-self-aware feedback loop of second-wave worship without sacrificing the keen edge of black metal. It feels organic, a reminder that the great engines of the world first came to light as pebbles in mountain streams. Perhaps some would do well to remember that the weapons of our undoing ultimately sprang from the belly of the earth itself.

4.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Cascades was released July 30 on Bandcamp.

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