Liturgy - The Ark Work

by Rob Scott

Experimental black metal band, Liturgy, get an unfortunately bad rep, arguably because their frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, is the epitome of pretentious douche. In interviews he spiels off phrases about “affirming the void and the flux of chaos” like some teenage musical Deepak Chopra, looking as impressed with himself as a 5 year old who’s just learnt how to ride a bike. He’s written a manifesto called Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism which outlines the (pseudo)philosophy of his unique spin on black metal. It reads like a regurgitated thesaurus of invented words, and boldly claims to hold the key to “a new relationship between art, politics, ethics, and religion.”

Unlike many black metal bands, Liturgy don’t wear corpse paint or have lyrics with nationalistic or satanic themes. Although they retain many of its musical characteristics – wretched vocals, tremolo guitar picking, blast beat drumming – their music sounds notably redemptive, almost joyful. They are consequently despised in the black metal community, a notoriously purist music scene which scorns any band that experiments with the genre. But they are also broadly disliked by most, not in the black metal community because, well, they’re black metal. Maybe Hunt-Hendrix’s comically contrived persona is a carefully constructed satire to highlight the equally contrived nature of black metal, with its strictly enforced boundaries and themes. Or maybe he is just a douche.

However, philosophy and niche metal genre politics aside, I believe that Liturgy’s 2011 LP, Aesthethica, is an overlooked classic of experimental rock music. It combines the intense technicality of math rock with the emotiveness of black metal to incredible effect. Their musicianship is incredible. They speed up and slow down with immaculate precision, teasing the listener towards emotional climaxes of chaotic yet genuinely beautiful music. The complex chord progressions and dense harmonies even allude to classical or orchestral music. Seriously, it’s great. If you like metal or experimental rock of any variety then give it a listen.

Given my love of this record I was, needless to say, excited for their new one, The Ark Work. Albeit, I was a little bemused by the press release describing it, pretentiously of course, as “cross-fertilizing hardstyle beats, occult-oriented rap, and the glitched re-sampling of IDM.” While I don’t really know what that means, it is surprisingly apt. It’s a really weird album. Xylophones, MIDI-keyboard fanfares, rock organ interludes, electro dance drum beats, even bagpipes. Tracks such as Quetzalcoatl, and especially Vitriol, with their mid-paced glitchy electro beats and deep fuzzy synths, can only remind me of Yeezus-era Kanye West. If Kanye were to produce a metal album, it’d probably sound a lot like this. Perhaps the biggest change from Liturgy’s previous albums is the vocals. Hunt-Hendrix no longer does the hallmark black metal wretched / screamed / wailed vocals, but sings – sort of. It’s like a cross between rapping and Gregorian chanting, often layered into a weird choir of Hunt-Hendrixes. It’s weird.

Yet it is still noticeably Liturgy. Tracks like Follow and Follow II contain the trademark black metal tremolo guitars and breakneck speed drumming, and the band still boast great musicianship. Hunt-Hendrix and guitarist, Bernard Gann, are professionally trained in composition and it shows. Follow II starts with a simple keyboard melody, followed by the introduction of distant tremolos and xylophones. The instrumentation slowly builds to a climatic height with typically virtuosic drumming from Greg Fox, who is something of an underground music shaman hero. (A little aside: Greg Fox claims that he was visited by a space alien, who turned out to be God, who gave him the music for his psychedelic band, Guardian Alien’s, debut album. Uh huh.)

But with the introduction of electronica to the mix, the music comes with an inevitable degree of artificiality, which sometimes gives the album a compelling alien-like aura, yet on other tracks makes it overly sterile. The thing that made Aesthethica so great was the hypnotic fluctuating speeds held together so masterfully by Greg, and its ecstatic heights of emotion, both of which are not as prevalent on The Ark Work. For example, the track Kel Valhaal: the main riff is shared between a synth-orchestra, the bass, and the drums - it sounds like it was written by a malfunctioning computer, with occasional electronic belches of what sounds like the dial-up Internet tone. It’s inanely repetitive, completely irritating, but I still like it, I think, sometimes. I can’t really decide.

After listening to this album through four or five times, I still don’t know whether I love it or not. While its lavish experimentation doesn’t always work, while some of it is just bizarre, while there are moments which are positively annoying, these factors somehow lend to the album’s appeal, or at least intrigue. Liturgy should certainly be lauded for what they are doing, which is whatever they want, regardless of expectations.