GIG REVIEW: Ulver & Stian Westerhaus Live At La Machine Du Moulin Rouge, Paris
If there ever is a band that is difficult to box into a genre, it’s Ulver. The Norwegian band has its origins in folk and black metal before taking a complete U-turn and producing the avant-garde Perdition City, an Evangelis-inspired and noir-themed ambient album, subtitled appropriately, “music to an interior film”. The most recent album, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, is Ulver’s entry into dark synth-pop territory and it’s an extremely fresh take, adding Kristoffer Rygg’s gorgeous vocals to ambitious electronic elements. All this didn’t stop me though from thinking twice about attending the concert. For starters, being a prog-head, I am not the biggest synth-pop fan; and on top of that the price of a ticket was high (33€ here). I finally took the leap and bought one when I heard that most of the songs would be from the previous album and, as it was a Sunday, I didn’t have too much to do. I can now say it was one of the best decisions I’ve taken all year.
Stian Westerhaus kicked things off with a guitar and a mike up-close to his face. The lighting on the stage was very minimalistic so I could only catch his silhouette during the performance. I hadn’t heard of him or his music before the concert, so didn’t know what to expect, but was impressed by his experimental style. The music ranged from raw vocals coupled with a simple guitar riff to screeching, post-rock-ish pieces.
What I also didn’t know was that he was part of collaboration with Ulver in the previous album, and his final song almost instantaneously transitioned into the first track of “Nemoralia”. I was awestruck as the hall was brightened by psychedelic visuals and the air boomed with extremely crisp beats. Kristoffer was at the forefront, with a mike as well as a percussion box. His ensemble included Stian of course, who didn’t hesitate to divert from the studio track with some of his guitar pieces, memorably in “Southern Gothic”; two drummers, one in charge of the bass thuds while the other stuck to the traditional drum elements; a keys / synth player who stood right behind Kristoffer; and finally, one real-time sound mixer. In a couple of live songs that I caught on YouTube, Kristoffer seemed to struggle with some of the higher notes, but he was almost always on-point on the night, rocking to the beats under his hoodie.
The entirety of The Assassination of Julius Caesar as well as all the tracks from the new EP, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi were on the setlist and were accompanied by vivid imagery on the screen behind. Some notable moments were the display of the lyrics in flashing red for “So Falls the World”, notably the chorus of
As Colossus stands
So shall Rome
When Colossus falls
Rome shall fall
When Rome falls
So falls the world
The tracks from the EP would please fans of Stranger Things or, more broadly, of 80s synth, especially “Bring Out of Dead”, whose intro sounds just like the credit sequence of the show. The section before the encore featured an extended version of “Coming Home”. Perhaps the only possible section of the performance that irked me slightly was that the version was too long and tended to get repetitive, but that’s coming from someone with not a lot of patience. After the encore, Kristoffer said something along the lines of “I decide to award the audience sometimes when I’m feeling good with a special track” before turning in a cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s“The Power of Love”. His vocals offered a refreshing take on the wonderful original track and the sparse electronic elements weren’t too intrusive. I also noticed that he was hardly vocal on the night outside of the music, just thanking the audience a couple of times, and the tracks seamlessly flowed into each other with a pause of a few seconds. The crowd too was in a calm mood, a welcome change perhaps from the hopped-up crowd of the Igorrr concert a few days back.
In conclusion, this was an extremely memorable night as Ulver put in a performance worth every single buck, and a few more. The venue, La Machine du Moulin Rouge (Was my first time here), had an important part to play – the lighting and sound were extraordinary and complemented the music perfectly. I highly recommend anyone in doubt to not think twice and catch Ulver during this European tour or anytime in the future. I, on the other hand, will wait patiently for the next surprise that Kristoffer has to offer.