Floors covered in ash. A cold night. The wind takes your breath away. Furious wolves are coming. Those are the first images coming to mind at the first sounds of any jam by four-piece Ultralyd –sowing the seed of evil in Norway since 2004. If the downfall of Valhalla, the heaven of the Nordic gods, had a tetric and catastrophic soundtrack, it might have been this one: there’s a feeling of danger in the way these musicians play and the sound runs down your spine like a chill. The sound could be summarised in one word: jazz-metal. That’s what Ultralyd do: they improvise and hit out violently. Years ago, the founder of the group, sax player Frode Gjerstad, thought the (then) trio lacked energy and found a bassist who played like someone ripping muscles with his teeth, Kjetil D Brandsal, at the time a member of experimental free-rock band Noxagt. Over time, Ultralyd have gone through changes that have had their impact on the composition of the band –Gjerstad left, a new sax player entered (Kjetil Moster), Morten J. Olsen and Anders Hana stayed–, but there’s something that hasn’t changed, and that’s the band’s distinctive, fibrous sound, with explosions of noise between the improvisations, chaos and darkness. That’s what makes “Inertiadrome”, if not their best LP –I prefer “Conditions For A Piece Of Music” (2007), which activates all my pain and pleasure centres–, a solid piece of work, one of those that build a career, not destroy them.
Depending on the moment, Ultralyd sound like a light version of John Zorn’s jazz group or like an improvisation on the more ethereal pieces of Metallica. They go through phases and change attacking tactics. They know that the final objective is to blast your brain, but they don’t go straight for the kill, at least not always. They’re somewhat imprecise because they sound like various things at the same time without specifying any of them –they prefer to improvise and to leave all the effects of pain to coincidence rather than directly going for the listener’s throat–, but that’s not necessarily a mistake. For example, listening to “Contaminated Man” one doesn’t know where they’re going: there are furious thrash metal attacks towards the middle of the song that reach their full demolishing effect when they’re inserted in two ambient phases, and after listening, one’s gasping for air. But they don’t construct a powerful wall of sound, either, they don’t steal one’s breath, they don’t strangle one completely. They rather seem to torture the listener slowly, like those interrogations –as seen on TV– where the victim is held under water until he breaks down.
“Geodesic Portico” would be that forced dip: without calmer parts, the sax, drum, bass and keyboards go in the same direction and they run you over. “Street Sex”, on the other hand, is structured more melodically, and there is even room for all instruments to have their own seconds without the others interrupting (but hold on, there are no solos here; what there is a drum blowing of some dust or a bass flexing while the other take a break for a couple of seconds). During the eleven minutes of “Cessathlon”, Ultralyd’s strategy changes again. It once again becomes confusing and coherent at the same time. The bass is genuinely metal, but the sax is free jazz. The drum on the other hand is post-rock, and there’s even a bit of hard-funk nerve. They never sound like Sunn O))), therefore, nor do they have the spatial direction of hard-rock we find in Barn Owl. The complexity of Zorn isn’t there, either, nor the one of Battles, but they do have a lot of things in common with the label mates MoHa! –in fact, Hana and Olsen are the two components of MoHa!– and some less with Supersilent. In the end, on “Inertiadrome”, Ultralyd sound like a furious version of early Red Snapper more than ever: jazz musicians trapped at a conjuncture –in the case of the Britons it was drum’n’bass and techno; for the Norwegians it’s doom-metal and jazz-noise– in which the move from one side to the other, a bit disoriented but cautiously, exploring their limits. Sometimes the result is a migraine, but they’re also capable of sowing seeds of terror.
Ultralyd - Lahtuma