Ultrviolence (yes, the “a” is missing on purpose) was formed on the outskirts of Calgary, Alberta about 10 years ago. While there’s been various lineup changes since, the one constant has been singer/songwriter Nate Jespersen. For the band’s latest EP Forty Knives, Jespersen joined with three members of Vancouver’s darkwave band ACTORS (Jason Corbett, Jahmeel Russell, Adam Fink), resulting in six captivating new songs.
If you’ve been following Ultrviolence, the through line from the band’s earliest releases to the songs on Forty Knives will be clear; it’s post-punk with great hooks and moody lyrics. The production (from Corbett) is outstanding and gives Ultrviolence’s music the dark gloss that it deserves. Jespersen’s voice ranges from an almost chewy baritone to a gorgeous falsetto. At times, it feels dangerously close to something he doesn’t quite know how to reign in, but if anything, this gives the music the kind of imperfect charm sorely lacking in a landscape dominated by Auto-Tune.
The first track, “Dead Bedrooms,” draws you in immediately with its danceable melody, creepy instrumental bridge and the ghostly presence of Bauhaus. It also introduces the lyrical themes of death and self-destruction that continue throughout the EP’s six tracks: “A black lamp at the crime scene / And everything is so obscene.” It’s not so much a description of a Criminal Minds episode as it is a metaphor for the end of a relationship.
Goth and darkwave influences permeate all of the music on Forty Knives. For example, there is a definite The Cure/Disintegration-era vibe to “Guillotine,” with its jangling guitars, syncopated drums and bleating keyboards. Jespersen offsets his startlingly deep vocals with some unexpected falsetto and the result is entrancing. “Why did you have to lead me to the platform?” he sings with literal gallows humor, “I’m losing my head.”
The best track on Forty Knives is “Shadows of the Thief,” which boasts a guitar melody with an exceptionally subtle chord change that gets under one’s skin in the best possible way. It also sounds strangely akin to a waterlogged cassette tape, something absolutely appropriate in a song that feels like a lost college radio track from 1983. When the first chorus ends, a subterranean bass line takes the foreground while Jespersen’s sparse background vocalizations are layered on the top. This shift allows the song just enough room to catch its breath before it dives back down again. The haunting outro, with the repeated lyric “dance monkey dance” and subtle piano notes, ensures this is a song listeners won’t be able to shake off anytime soon.
Musically and lyrically, “Life Is Such a Mess” is almost Smiths-like, if The Smiths were influenced by Clan of Xymox and Moz wasn’t averse to using the F-word. Grating guitar riffs are balanced by panned drums, while Jespersen’s lyrics offer intrigue: “It’s a fine line between the mind’s eye / And the shadows on the street.” True to its title, “Let You Down Slow” is a slower, more somber track, while “Waiting for the Storm” displays a distinctly retro vibe through a forlorn bass melody and reverbed guitar.
Throughout Forty Knives, Jespersen’s voice betrays his emotions and listening to him sing often feels like sneaking peeks at his diary. This isn’t surprising; in a recent interview with The Big Takeover, he admits, “My flaw is that I can’t get away singing something I don’t believe in, which makes it hard to write lyrics. I end up really mining myself to the core, and what it is that’s really on my mind.” Ultrviolence’s melancholy music and confessional lyrics are a potent combination certainly worth hearing.
Forty Knives was released on May 12 through Northern Light Records.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.