Justify Your Shitty Taste: Ulver’s “Perdition City”

As music fans, we’re often tested to justify our taste in various bands and genres. And we all have guilty pleasures, if music, in any shape of form, can be considered such. I mean, Ohio death metallers Gutted are as much a guilty pleasure as is Britney Spears’ “Toxic”.

Imagine my surprise when EIC Albert Mudrian rolled Ulver’s Perdition City across the Justify Your Shitty Taste table like a pair of unwanted, perpetually unlucky dice. It hadn’t dawned on me—not in 2000; not now—that Ulver’s signature millennial work was, in any way shape or form, maligned. In fact, when I wrote the review for Perdition City on DigitalMetal.com in 2000, I stated, “Ulver is unquestionably at a high note in its post-metal career with his its newest work. Sure, there are still soundscapes to iron out, beats to manipulate and songs to sample, but, in the end, Perdition City is a mammoth work of electronic genius.” The review was celebrated across Norway’s inner circles, prompting then-Trickster G. to email me unsolicited to commend my observations.

How has Perdition City fared after 16 years on the vine? Incredibly well, actually. Though Ulver never did a proper follow-up—my perspective—to their fifth full-length, there’s nothing very zeitgeist about it. Like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. or Massive Attack’s Mezzanine or Portishead’s Dummy, the music—made at specific times under specific musical, cultural, and societal conditions—Ulver’s picturesque Perdition City feels like a night-time stroll through Oslo’s dimly lit streets. In fact, to prove the point, when in Oslo on a press junket in the mid-2000s, I did just that. Walk through the city with Perdition City on blast. From Sentrum to Tjulvholmen to Slottsparken to the Operahuset to Grønland, I felt like I was a living part of Trickster G., Tore Ylwizaker, and company’s vision noir.

Tracks like “Porn Piece or The Scars of Cold Kisses”, “We Are the Dead”, “The Future Sound of Tomorrow”, “Dead City Centres”, and the album’s pièce de résistance, “Hallways of Always” triggered an emotional range as the brisk Nordic air raced across my face. It was February in the capital. I felt cold detachment, warm nostalgia, sadness, connected to something I couldn’t easily identify, that strange feeling of being in an unknown place, and darkness. From shades of light gray to absolute blackness. Admittedly, I looked over my shoulder several times as “Catalept” lumbered through my headphones, wondering if I was being followed by beasts of my own imagination or a very real monster come down from the surrounding hillsides to terrorize insomniacs or devour after-dark junkies who huddle and murmur like pacified zombies outside Sentralstasjon.

To enjoy Perdition City doesn’t require a witching hour constitutional around Oslo, however. Any city, with a reasonably low crime rate, will do just fine. Cities are both dead and alive, hulking structures we’ve built with our own ingenuity and reckless abandon. They make for perfect physical backdrops to Ulver’s profound musical observations. Under a good pair of headphones, Perdition City really comes to life. The sound spectrum is perfectly captured, from classically-inspired pianissimo sections to ultra-deep cut beats, it’s a piece of art that only gets cooler the louder it becomes. It’s the kind of template Pertubator, et al. have unwittingly (or not) built on. Anyway, check out the coda to “Tomorrow Never Knows” or the entirety of ice lounge-meets-plunderphonics “Lost in Moments” or live through the haunting strings ‘n’ beats urban processional of “Porn Piece or The Scars of Cold Kisses”, a track, personally speaking, I’ve always felt this was tribute to DJ Shadow’s “Midnight” with Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VII soundtrack in mind. Ulver never sounded this intricate, this deep, or this profound before. Sure, Bergtatt, Kveldssanger, and Nattens Madrigal were informed by the opposite—forests, nationalism, and black metal’s stranger things—and as much as I love those albums, I feel Perdition City is superior.

I’m pretty confident Perdition City isn’t “shitty” as my Decibel brethren would like to think. In fact, in 2000, when it was released, metaldom was already opening its long-closed mind. I can only imagine 16 years later—almost two fucking decades—Ulver’s first cogent non-metal work would speak volumes to kids in retrowave, slasherwave, and all the metal-directed electronic genres without the word “wave” in them. Like I said in my DigitalMetal.com review, “Perdition City, comparatively, is just as pertinent in Ulver’s body of work, for it opens up new vistas of sound for adventurous listeners to explore, experience and traverse. That is if you ­- the recipient -­ are ready to listen to Perdition City as a different Ulver, one that’s far more savvy in sound and vision. This isn’t a metal album nor is it meant to be heard as such.”

Perdition City couldn’t be stopped in the early aughts. Certainly, it can’t be stopped—really, go listen to “Hallways of Always” on The Norwegian National Opera full-length—now.