Nattens Madrigal is a cult album and a one-of-a-kind Black Metal classic.
While there was a lot of artistic audaciousness and unique creative impulses at play amongst the albums produced in the Norwegian metal scene in the 90s, Nattens Madrigal stands out as an offering that is somehow more important than being simply an album that was unique within the genre. The inspiration and conceptual reach on display here is bigger than merely expanding the sum-total of what metal could do – and bigger than metal itself.
The Madrigal of Night – Eight Hymns To The Wolf In Man is a concept album whose atmosphere and themes are perfectly described by its rather copious title. As the title suggests, the album is a tale of a man’s transformation into a werewolf as he roams the untouched vast forests and dark mountainous fjelds of Norway. To underscore the gothic nature of the album’s artistic theme, the lyrics are in archaic Norwegian and the production is purposefully lo-fi – to the point of turning many listeners away from the album altogether.
Now, if you’re already familiar with lo-fi Black Metal productions, you might be thinking to yourself that you’re never going to give the album a chance. But this album is different. Whether by genius or by chance, far from taking anything away from the expression and atmosphere of the music, the intentionally poor production employed underscores the message, heightens it, and – believe it or not – serves to bring out its delicate beauty that is sensitively contained beneath the hissing aural facade. It is not at all certain that this album would work had it been recorded with more commonplace production values.
Beauty – yes, I did say beauty. As others have pointed out, beneath the harsh and hostile duelling guitar riffs that battle throughout the album the receptive listener eventually comes to find great beauty and solace amidst the screeching and relentlessly hostile torrent that was initially all that greeted him. This supplanting of opposites, where succour and solace are manifestly present amidst a surging whirlwind of tense antagonism and resentment, is perhaps the highest aesthetic expression that Black Metal can hope to realize. It is certainly obvious how later metal works have been inspired by this unique achievement, so nonchalantly on display in Nattens Madrigal. Yet to my knowledge, no other metal offering has superseded Ulver’s third album, or even come close to doing so.
Haunting and violent, yet morbid and alluring in all its gothic beauty, the proper judgment of this album is nothing less than that of an unforgiving masterpiece. Deliberately punishing and harsh, and sporting an insouciance and brutality unmatched by any other album I can think of, the album succeeds on both the musical and lyrical fronts. The vocals, though typical black metal screams, come off as incredibly thin-sounding due to paucity of the production, haunting the listener as being present in one’s own skull, yet at the same time emanating from another supernatural force altogether. One truly feels the alien force of lycanthropy at play as an ancient power within oneself, which one’s humanity battles to keep in check.
And that, in the end, is how the album should be understood – as an album of dichotomies, which nevertheless manages to fuse all of its themes into a single unbroken expression. In fact, while much art and philosophy start from the dichotomies and then attempts to fuse them in various ways, giving a highly angular and academic flavor to the work, Nattens Madrigal is the opposite: It greets the listener as a monolithic seamless vision and it is only upon successive explorations that one discovers the dichotomous elements that are all encompassed by a single unified expression. It stands as a symphonic barrage of hatred, power, strength, melancholy, majesty, and absolution at the hands of that ur-force which has taken your agency away, while leaving you conscious to reflect on it. It is a metaphor for nature’s solace and beauty on the one hand, yet its relentless harshness and ability to dictate our constitution to even the most civilized of us at one time or another. It is an album that is not just a one-of-a-kind, but also a truly unique shade of black.