If you pay any attention to internet forums or social media venues concerning Black Metal, strap yourself in and get ready for the waterworks. Liturgy’s 2011 album Aesthetica (Thrill Jockey) practically set those parts of the internet where panda-paint and studded armbands are still the law on fire with howling and recriminations – they were hipsters who didn’t understand Metal; they were disrespecting or even betraying Metal; anyone who liked them was a poser and personally responsible for the death of Cliff Burton.
The internet being what it is, of course, the other side were as bad, gleefully throwing around hyperbole about “transcending” Metal’s limitations and the death of the caveman headbanger. Four years later, the follow-up to this divisive album has been released, and in terms of honouring Black Metal’s traditions and aesthetics, it makes Aesthetica look like A Blaze In The Northern Sky (Peaceville). There will be tears.
Liturgy, of course, are entirely aware of this reputation. Setting out their stall from the very beginning, The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey Records) opens with that most Black Metal of clichés – the portentous synth intro – and turns it on its head. Fanfare opens with the parpiest keyboards we’ve heard since Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk (Candlelight), but uses repetitions, discord and glitches to turn it into something resembling Bal-Sagoth having a stroke – both triumphant and broken, familiar yet challenging. Aesthetically, the rest of the album takes its cues from this, blending glitchy electronics, parpy synths, jingly bells and programmed drums in with Liturgy’s usual guitars and… ahem… “burst beats” to create a dense, shifting wall of sound. It’s the vocals, however, which are likely be the biggest sticking point – the more traditional screams of Aesthetica making way for a withdrawn, chant-like mumble, clean yet muddied, and unusually passive and withdrawn for a Metal band of any kind. The internet has already had a massive coronary over ‘Vitriol’, in which vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendricks “raps” – though in truth it’s more like Middle-Class Spoken Word than anything you’d find on a Hip-Hop album.
Musically, this is a much more varied collection than we’d normally expect from a “Black Metal” band – ranging from triumphant fanfares and surprisingly ferocious blasts through to languid, contemplative passages and shuffling, trance-like electronica – but Liturgy succeed in retaining a feeling of identity and purpose throughout. Even on the afore-mentioned ‘Vitriol’, it never feels like they’re throwing all their cool new influences against a wall to see what sticks – there’s a sense of purpose and intent here that separates them from the aimless hipsterish mess they’ve been accused of being. This is an ALBUM, not just a collection of point-scoring references, and it unfolds with an arrogance and forcefulness that is entirely Metal
That’s the most surprising thing about The Ark Work, as much as both fans and detractors alike would argue otherwise – it is absolutely Metal As Fuck. TheArk Work doesn’t always sound like Heavy Metal, let alone Black Metal, but it couldn’t have come from any other genre. Whereas their equally-controversial peers Deafheaven take fairly conservative Black Metal music and play it with a completely different attitude and aesthetic, Liturgy do almost the opposite, drawing on musical elements quite far from genre traditions, but always investing it with the arrogance, power and sense of sheer unashamed ludicrousness that has always marked the best Metal. Even the vocals make sense once you realise how utterly un-self-conscious they are, and what a massive middle finger to genre conventions they represent. You spluttered in disbelief when you first heard Hunter droning away on Quetzlcoatl? How do you think 80’s Trad Metal fans felt when they first heard Tom G Warrior?
Despite what you may have heard, The Ark Work is neither the ultimate transformation of stupid music into art nor the final betrayal of Metal’s values by the poser hordes. It is, however, one of the boldest, most distinctive and utterly unflinching Metal albums you’ll hear all year, and the perfect example of a band with a strong vision and a determination to walk their own path until the end.