"I want to tell you something/About the grace of faded things...." This line from the song "Southern Gothic," delivered by Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg near the end of The Assassination of Julius Caesar, eventually becomes a manifesto for the single-minded aesthetic pursued on the group's first self-described "pop album." There is no irony in that statement. Ulver have quite literally changed with every recording; they're impossible to pigeonhole. Here they circle back to the decade before their own musical emergence, delivering a deliciously dark, utterly seductive set drenched in moody '80s synth pop. As they do, they lyrically examine and juxtapose elements of history, philosophy, spirituality, and the quark strangeness of popular culture.
Rygg, Jørn H. Sværen, and Tore Ylwizaker form Ulver's 2010s lineup. The Assassination of Julius Caesar hosts contributions from former member Ole Alexander Halstensgård and associate members Anders Møller and Daniel O'Sullivan. Ex-Hawkwind saxophonist Nik Turner appears, as does improvisational guitarist Stian Westerhus. Produced by the band, the album was mixed, appropriately enough, by Martin Glover (aka Youth). "1969" may reference the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but also looks squarely at the address of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey's infamous San Francisco house. The sound, however, recalls early Talk Talk, with crooning female backing vocalists adding textural and emotional contrast amid the synths and faux string sounds. First single and opening track "Nemoralia" recalls -- deliberately -- Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode. A martial bass drum loop holds massive synth washes in check as stacked, impeccably layered harmony vocals offer its tender melody, which offsets bleak lyrical content about the death of Princess Diana, referenced alongside the Homeric myth of the so-named goddess. (Rygg has obviously read Georges Bataille's Alleluia [The Catechism of Dianus] as well.) That said, his delivery is also an homage to the David Bowie of Scary Monsters.
The musical references are nearly endless; they're also wonderfully crafted to fit Ulver's uncompromising aesthetic persona. Check the subtle homage to Oil & Gold-era Shriekback (à la "Faded Flowers"). Closer "Coming Home" nods at Front Line Assembly as well as Coil's Dark Age of Love. On "Rolling Stone," the set's longest and arguably most engrossing cut, the electro-industrial attack of Front 242 is tempered by the bittersweet pop of Erasure, as Rygg and the backing singers recount a tragic narrative. Human League, Gary Numan, and OMD and Depeche Mode are all touched on in "Southern Gothic," a song whose themes of loss and grief are tantamount to witnessing the end of the world.
The beauty in The Assassination of Julius Caesar emerges from the fact that Ulver utilize these many sources so deliberately. The music is slick, smooth, and haunted with melancholy, but this record could only have come from them. They embrace synth pop's production sheen to confront critical prejudices and misperceptions. They offer not mere nostalgia, but the abundant creative possibilities synth pop still has on offer.