It’s very obvious that Ulver haven’t wanted to play black metal for many years (having not played anything approaching it after this album, and having dropped it and Bergtatt from their live shows altogether), but honestly this album has me firmly believing that the band didn’t really want to play black metal even when they were playing it. It’s already telling that of the two metal albums they have, Bergtatt stands out more for its less aggressive and softer moments, but it’s even more telling that this, the purest example of black metal in their catalogue, still stands as an album so fundamentally flawed that it listens almost like a parody of what was going on at the time. It’s also quite possibly the worst album of their entire career, even after more than 20 years since its release.
On this album, Ulver go for a very minimal and raw take on Norwegian black metal. It’s clear that Transilvanian Hunger was a point of reference; I’m aware this is a common comparison but it is common for a reason. The music is primarily built upon the basic repetition of just a few melodic black metal riffs (though this album is less droning and hypnotic than the Darkthrone album) atop an endless stream of blast beats and with an unchanging and serviceable (if unremarkable) black metal rasp. The riffs here are consistently good or even great: they are aggressive and memorable, and keep the energy of the music up as the band flow from one riff to the next – ‘I’ in particular has some truly stellar guitarwork throughout it. There are also some brief, tranquil acoustic breaks in a few of the tracks; Ulver had already proven themselves with this style on the previous two albums so they are the standout moments on the album. The drumming does get rather monotonous after a while (even Transilvanian Hunger had more going on in this department) and Garm sticking to harsh vocals when his singing is what made him stand out is a shame, but aside from this the substance of this album is up to scratch; these aren’t especially major flaws. However, where this falls down is that this is clearly music that requires atmosphere to be effective, and the sound of this album pretty much wrecks any chance of one being built.
Much has been made of this album’s production and with good reason – it is its most crippling flaw. For those who haven’t heard what it sounds like, it is under-produced to the point of ruining the listening experience. Every note of the music is buried under a layer of static and all but the treble frequencies have been removed entirely. Now, it’s clear that raw production would benefit the material but the way it’s been carried out here completely ruins the music. The material does not benefit from this sound; it doesn’t come across as primal or distant or cold due to the production, rather it goes against everything the band wanted to achieve here. It’s hard to tell if this is actually is a high-fidelity recording that was made raw after the fact but it listens like it; the rawness stands out as being incredibly forced and artificial as for all the implied hostility and darkness of the sound it does not make the music feel that way at all. Instead, the music sounds sterile and utterly passionless due to being so under-produced, which totally wrecks the atmosphere. As this is an album that is reliant on said atmosphere it pretty much kneecaps the music and renders it largely ineffective. Another problem is that the sound is so piercing that even after several years I still cannot listen to this at a reasonable volume with my headphones in, and frankly it’s still a grating chore to listen to even on my PC speakers. It is a uniquely horrible and unbearable listening experience as it is an unending stream of trebly riffing – not even power electronics, harsh noise or notably trebly metal albums like …and Justice for All prove to be this grating at a reasonable volume – the sound only furthers the disconnect I have with the music.
It’s no use warning people off this, any black metal fan has heard it at least once and they know if they like it or not, but Nattens Madrigal is truly one of the biggest ‘the emperor has no clothes’ metal albums for me. It’s the sound of a band throwing out what they’ve proven themselves to be good at (folk music and laid back melodic black metal) and instead forcing a sound they clearly did not have that much interest in to begin with, judging by the quality of this and how quickly they jumped ship from metal altogether. It has its redeeming qualities for sure but overall it is simply not good, and a colossal disappointment from a band that had delivered and would continue to deliver a lot of great material.