“The most hunted/Body of the modern age/Flowers crown her head/Ancient goddess of the moon”
So purrs lead vocalist Kristoffer Rygg on “Nemoralia”, the opening track of The Assassination of Julius Caesar. The track is named after the Roman festival celebrating the goddess Diana, syncretized here with Diana, Princess of Wales. The contrast of Princess Di’s famously untimely demise with the ancient immortality of the gods creates a troubling contradiction – if celebrities are our new deities, what does it mean that those we have imbued with godhood also die?
Ulver, a Norwegian experimental band whose genre-defying catalog has ranged from black metal to electronica and even opera, has declared their latest to be their “pop album.” Indeed the eight tracks which compose The Assassination of Julius Caesar have an immediate appeal akin to pop, a pulsating, polished immediacy given menacing depth, a more baroque version of the glamorous anguish found in the music of popular artists such as, say, Rihanna or Drake. The Assassination is as immersive and intense, each song a perfectly realized expression rich in aural detail.
Throughout The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the grandiose imagery we associate with Rome and its decline(s) mingles with the rot and wonder of pop culture. The shoegaze track “1969” melds pleasant retro imagery with evocations of the Manson murders, Rosemary’s Baby and satanism, while “Southern Gothic” mourns the emotional tragedy of trying to speak to someone “in a dead language.” Decay and doom seem to constantly threaten, yet apocalyptic visions are never realised, muted by foggy memory and ethereal synth hooks. With this schizophrenic, elliptical evocation of history and the dark nostalgia of electronic music, Ulver creates a space where events recur and collapse into each other, an infinity of loss.
The real assassination of Julius Caesar was far from the end of Rome – indeed, the city’s dominion over the classical world would not even reach its peak for over a hundred years (depending on your metric), let alone fall. Following a long and grueling period of civil war, the triumphant Augustus declared Caesar a deity, just as Ulver now declare Princess Di to be Diana. Historical recursions are sinister, but as pop music they become transcendent, the suffering state of humanity given harmony. Many secrets remain tucked away in The Assassination’s forty-odd minutes, but as we poke around the album’s dark recesses we may just find catharsis.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com