Ulver - Bergtatt: Et eeventyr i 5 capitler (1995)Release ID: 285
A dark fairy tale narrated through captivating folk inspired black metal. An amazing, essential release!
Ulver’s Vargnatt demo had revealed a band willing to break the rules and while it had some production issues and a few too many ideas thrown into the pot, it was clear that these Norwegians had a lot of potential. There were however significant changes to personnel prior to entering the studio to record a debut full length album, so it wasn’t entirely clear what the resulting sound would be like. Garm still held vocal duties, which might have seemed doubtful after his overly theatrical and at times embarrassing effort on Vargnatt. Two out of the three guitarists present on the demo had left the band, with Håvard Jørgensen thankfully remaining after his gorgeous acoustic work had been the highlight of the demo. The bassist (with the very black metal name Robyn) had also disappeared, and most tellingly, Carl-Michael Eide was no longer the drummer either. Considering how much influence Carl-Michael seems to have had on Vargnatt, with the overall sound recalling his future Ved Buens Ende work, you’d think this mass exodus would make an indelible mark on the development of the band. Not to be defeated, Garm and Håvard recruited Torbjorn Pedersen (aka Aismal) as a second guitarist, Hugh Stephen James Mingay (aka Skoll) and Erik Olivier Lancelot (aka AiwarikiaR) and the almost entirely new Ulver got down to business.
Ulver recorded Bergtatt – Et eeventyr i 5 capitler in Endless Lydstudio, Christiania, Norway, at the end of 1994. The title translates as Taken Into the Mountain – A Fairy Tale in 5 Chapters and is the first part of a trilogy of albums known simply as The Trilogie. The themes of these albums are taken from Scandinavian folklore with Bergtatt focusing on an ancient tale of mythical creatures that live in the mountains. Folklore suggests that these trolls are big, hairy and stupid, and easily defeated by any man with courage, but that they also have a penchant for capturing maidens (preferably princesses) that wander into the mountains alone. Once captured, these unfortunate females are forced to spin all day and scratch the trolls head at night, and I can only assume that these tales are used to scare little girls into not running off alone or speaking to strangers, the way Little Red Riding Hood is used in many parts of the world. As the title of the album suggests, Ulver tell this story over five tracks, with the lyrics primarily in archaic Danish with smatterings of Norwegian. It might all seem a bit silly to base a black metal album around a story like this one, but Ulver are no ordinary black metal band. The new line-up had let go of many of the elements that made Vargnatt so mixed and decided to focus on the stronger black and folk components. Could folk infused black metal be narrating a dark, folk inspired tale from an ancient time work?
The answer is categorically yes! Bergtatt is a stunning album that’s so atmospheric and enchanting, you just can’t help being swept off into shadowy forests where strange creatures dwell, just as the protagonist is in the story it recounts. It’s rare that bands attempt to create such a vivid environment while utilizing the tone and intensity of the music in combination with the lyrics to lead the listener in such a defined way (Edge of Sanity’s Crimson comes to mind). The harsh black metal sections are used sparingly and only when necessary to communicate the darker phases of emotion running through the story and the same can be said for the more melodic periods and the gentle folk passages. Yet not only does this varied structure express the shifting nature of the narrative, Ulver have created smoothly flowing compositions that function magnificently regardless of their aim. Chapter I is called I Troldskog Faren Vild (Lost in a Forest of Trolls), where a young maiden finds herself lost in a forest after falling snow hides her path. There is no semblance of black metal in the opening track and Garm’s clean vocals are gorgeous, having a kind of innocence to them that works well in the context. The improvement in his performance between Vargnatt and Bergtatt is astounding and makes me wonder whether he just needed some time to find his strengths. The simplistic folk inspired riffs are accompanied by some beautiful leads and nice acoustic work, making this a calming and almost hypnotic start to the album.
Soelen Gaaer Bag Aase Ned (The Sun Goes Down Behind the Hills) is the title of Chapter II and it starts off with a similar vibe, with around a minute of nice acoustic guitar and flute (performed by session musician Lill Kathrine Stensrud) giving the impression that all is calm and well for our lost maiden. At this stage, first time listeners might be wondering how Bergtatt is associated with black metal at all, perhaps checking to make sure they’re listening to the right album and not a purely folk metal release. However, as the sun goes down on our poor maiden and the trolls come out to hunt, things also take a much darker turn for the listener, with the track abruptly breaking out into blistering black metal. AiwarikiaR launches into more than competent blast beats, the guitarists crank out venomous tremolo-based riffs and Garm unleashes some seriously violent black metal snarls. But it’s really at the two-minute mark that the brilliance of Bergtatt becomes apparent. The track seamlessly changes tact again, bringing the folk elements back into play, harmoniously combining the two distinct styles and demonstrating just how brilliantly Ulver blended everything into a wondrous black folk hybrid. The Sun Goes Down Behind the Hills finishes on a softer note with night having fallen and our maiden, alone and scared, manages to drift off the sleep on a bed of moss.
Chapter III is titled Graablick Blev Hun Vaer (She Noticed She Was Being Watched) and is where Bergtatt takes its most vicious turn. With our maiden waking in the night to realise she is being watched from afar and subsequently panicking, the band produces the most ferocious black metal sections on the album. Relentless drumming and sharp, cold riffs clearly present the dangerous situation unfolding, and Skoll’s slow precise bass gives the phase a weird tone that no doubt inspired bands like Shining down the track. As is the shifting nature of the album, the track fades out around halfway through, to be replaced by eerie distant piano (performed by session musician Steinar Sverd Johnsen, known for his work with Arcturus and Covenant) and the sound of running footsteps through the forest. I initially found this section to be off-putting, but now that I understand its relevance to the fairy tale being told, I can’t help but picture our maiden running for her life while trolls insistently pursue her. It’s evocative and vivid and acts as a sort of mid album prompt to convey a visual environment before Ulver remind you of the urgency by shifting back to black metal for the remainder. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful Garm’s vocals are through all these transformations. He gives so much weight and conviction to every word he shrieks while his moody choir-like chanting gives each scene an epic and mysterious quality.
After such a torrid outburst of fear and aggression, both Bergtatt and our maiden find a much-needed moment of serenity. She wakes to find she is unharmed and seemingly safe on the bed of moss. Was it all a bad dream? The fourth chapter Een Stemme Locker (A Voice is Calling) seems to suggest that the trolls have ceased the physical chase and commenced the use of trickery to capture our maiden. While A Voice is Calling is an entirely folk based track, it is one filled with a sense of melancholy and apprehension. Håvard’s (I can only assume it’s him given that he performed all acoustic guitars on Vargnatt and Kveldssanger) simple strummed rhythm and gorgeous acoustic leads take centre stage with a seemingly distant and organic sounding metronome creating the image of softly dripping water. Yet Garm’s low mutterings and whispers give proceedings an element of uncertainty, which is beautifully built on with the addition of Lill Kathrine Stensrud’s angelic yet mournful background vocals. It flawlessly portrays the situation unfolding with the trolls enchanting the maiden with visions of beauty and soft beckoning words. “Girl, what do you expect to find here? Follow me into the mountains. Where else can you find the memory of happiness, of home?” This divine piece of music finishes with our maiden questioning her senses “I don’t understand! I feel so weird! Tell me...do I have to go?”
Which brings us to the final track and chapter, which is forebodingly named Bergtatt - Ind I Fjeldkamrene (Into the Chambers of the Mountain). The dark atmospheric riff that opens this track leaves us with no doubt that our maiden has succumbed to the deceitful summoning of the trolls and is being whisked away into their kingdom deep within the mountain. Rather than close off this story with a purely black metal maelstrom as might seem appropriate, Ulver blend Bergtatt’s elements in one final eight-minute epic that gloriously captures the themes of its entirety in a fitting finale. It’s amazing how varied tracks like this one are, without ever seeming contrived or forced in the slightest. Everything is positioned so purposefully, and any repetition is given character and identity through the introduction of additional layers and instruments. The melody at around the five-minute mark is immensely moving and when combined with Garm’s fierce vocals make for an album highlight in its dying moments. Into the Chambers of the Mountain closes with the sounds of running water and pleasant acoustics, suggesting the ordeal is now over for our unfortunate maiden, and that the forest now returns to its romantic and lush state, inviting further unsuspecting wanderers into its shadowy depths where the trolls await patiently.
I’m sure it’s clear by now that I think Bergtatt – Et eeventyr i 5 capitler is an utterly incredible album. Its only flaw is that the whole thing is over in under 35 minutes when I’d rather it continues indefinitely. I’ve owned it for fifteen years now and I doubt I’d go a month without experiencing it at least once. From the fairy tale themes right through to Tanya Stene’s (she produced the covers for the whole trilogy) ever-so appropriate artwork, Bergtatt is just about the perfect album for my tastes, which is why I can’t help but be disappointed that Ulver would never again explore this territory. Sure, they would complete their trilogy with another black metal album, but Nattens Madrigal is a very different beast to this one, stripped of the folk altogether and more akin to early Darkthrone. Ulver have never failed to create beautiful music no matter what style they take on, but I don’t think I will ever enjoy anything they produce as much as this debut masterpiece. Albums like this one make me wish I hadn’t been so generous with my five-star ratings in the past, as I place it at the very echelon of music in any form. “She screams with her last breath, an epic we will never forget, a body turned to stone. The moon is gone, the stars have gone out. It rains and blows hard far in the north, in the mountain under the ground...there they play!”
The Intriguing Precursor
Amidst the deafening evil wails of classic, mid-1990’s Black Metal exists a slightly more peaceful, calming clearing that Ulver initially made its home. While Atmospheric Black Metal was in full swing thanks to Burzum and Blut Aus Nord, the uneasy and bitter coldness those albums relished in is all but gone in Ulver’s take on a more acoustic and folky laced rendition of the 2nd wave Black Metal craze. There’s still plenty of Black Metal blast beats to appease the classic fans, but Bergtatt: Et eeventyr i 5 capitler offers much more in the form of abrupt transitions into extended acoustic and piano sections as well as chanting, choir-like vocals that overtake the amount of raw, Black Metal vocals. Although this album is held in high regard for being so groundbreaking and unique, I personally view it more as a precursor of great things to come rather than a genuine classic.
For as inaccessible as Black Metal attempted to be, Ulver turns that notion on its head with really warm, even welcoming guitar tones and melodies despite the furious Black Metal drumming that’s present in the background. “Capitel I” and “Capitel IV” hardly even resemble the cold and grinding qualities that Black Metal is known for, even though they do eventually up the aggression on the rest of the tracks. The aggression is still numbed a bit thanks to how the tremolo riffing is pushed all the way back in the mix to make room for some slow but sultry bass lines and the occasional folky chord progression. Even though Bergtatt is only 34 minutes long it covers a ton of ground with its jagged song structure and ample variety of different folk versus Black Metal influences. It even manages to fit in a full atmospheric section filled with the crunching of leaves and a distant but concerning piano, making this a very interesting album to try and classify.
What holds Ulver’s debut back for me is the overall lack of transitions and cohesive songwriting, even though the layered melodies they are able to create are undeniably beautiful. The way all of the acoustic and choir elements build on top of the Black Metal background riffing and melodic bass lines reminds me of some of the thing I enjoy most about Metal, but the abrupt shifts throughout the album really put a damper on the whole experience. I just can’t manage to get sucked into the atmosphere that others praise this album for, even though “Capitel V” gets incredibly close thanks to the amazing bass production and prevailing folky melodies.
I think that Bergtatt is a tough listen for me because even though I enjoy so many things about it, it’s so rough around the edges that it just serves as the initial taste of what is to come for this style of Black Metal. Even though it’s not the first recorded Pagan Black Metal album, this style of songwriting with acoustic elements just makes me think that this is the prototype and foundation for all of the other more warm and natural sounding Black Metal bands to come. Even though it’s great in its own right, it’s missing something that I can’t quite place. While some of remaining the old school grime makes this album incredibly unique, it’s just an important stepping stone towards a more cohesive and fleshed out sound for the genre in my opinion.
With this righteous album, Ulver smashed the standards and barriers set by the black metal bands before them and created their own playbook.
One that none have managed to entirely recapture since (perhaps The Mantle came closest in spirit). Bergtatt is simultaneously raw and celestially atmospheric, seamlessly integrating the grim Norwegian Black Metal template with lush acoustic and sparse Scandinavian folk sounds. There is wonderful contrast in that. For example, between Garm's angelic chants and his otherworldy shrieks. The clean vocals are a surprisingly perfect fit for the music, with "I Troldskog Faren Vild" being the best showcase of this - an absolute classic. With the repeating outro guitar melody, you will be ascending, spinning towards the stars.
"Soelen Gaaer Bag Aase Need" and "Graablick Blev Hun Vaer" are equally good. The soundscapes captured here make one feel like a wayward soul wandering across a mountainous landscape under a full moon. This music is truly serene yet sinister and enchanting. The interludes of Nordic folk music that Garm adds, like the beginning of Capitel III, most of Capitel IV and the end of Capitel V, augment the already splendid and innovative black metal fare in a way no one had done before in the genre. This creates some deliciously abrupt yet purposeful dynamic shifts, completing the spiritually transcendental experience that is Bergtatt.
Oh gosh, I'm going on and on like a fanboy. Oops. I'll just let you go listen to it in the mountains for yourself and stop spoiling everything. One of my favorite and most spiritual pieces of music of all-time.