You know those last thirty seconds or so of a rock concert, when the guitarists start grinding tremolo on the final note while the drummer pummels out a solo? Then the instruments all coalesce and everyone hits two triplets together, declaring “the end” triumphant into your ears? Yeah, then you have a basic idea of what Liturgy sounded like four years ago. Aesthethica reveled defiant on the brink of collapse, a Dionysian exploration of adrenaline that twitched and sputtered in vibrant light. We may still be a long ways from “black metal” conjuring to mind anything but corpse paint and Satan to the average music fan, but the gales of a paradigm shift have tossed this genre into such a frenzy that even the novelties of 2011 can seem ancient today.
(Liturgy’s record label, Thrill Jockey, has rather bizarrely opted to remove all but two tracks from Youtube, as if silence sells an album. You can still listen to The Ark Work on NPR at this link, thankfully, and I recommend checking out the first three tracks/13 minutes–Fanfare, Follow, and Kel Valhaal–followed by Reign Array to get a good feel of the album.)
An assessment of this album could go off on a hundred tangents, and I don’t think that the band would be averse to discussing any one of them. The most standard response seems to be instant revulsion. A lot of big name critics have given it abysmal ratings of 2 or 3 out of 10–slightly lower than Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus–following a brief write-off of the album as an attempt to troll us. A few others will point out how the band’s music has managed to ruffle a lot of feathers, and then leave it to the listener to hash out. Both are valid cop-outs that don’t really provide the slightest bit of context for the oddity before your ears.
In a review a few years ago, I wrote off L’Ordure à l’état Pur by Peste Noire as a “troll” album. With its chicken clucks, farts, belch beats, and sound samples of scat pornography, I was not completely off the mark. But I missed the context: a critique of modern-day France that was at once scathing and brimming over with nationalism, embracing and mocking the same things from subtly different angles. The music was actually quite excellent, as Famine’s compositions always are, and it took a special sort of intelligence to bring together revolting sounds into an appealing musical narrative. But the quality was not spoon fed to you. You had to want to find it.
There is nothing quite so blunt in The Ark Work, but the album definitely produces sounds that your ear will not initially be prepared to assimilate. “Fanfare” leads up to “Follow” in a development similar to the introduction to “High Gold” on Aesthethica, but here the sound of a guitar pick scratching above the fretboard has been replaced by an unorthodox merger of MIDI and real trumpets. Visions of Godspeed You! Black Emperor lifting skinny fists like antennas to heaven break to bells, and an electronic power surge suddenly propels you into a brainfuck of noise that seems to streak through your head in a ball of flame, the tremolo guitar and blast beat drums pulsating at light speed as the bells and glitch tones dissolve into nonsense all around you. The drum machine hangs in space above the dashing guitar, accelerating to drive itself back into Greg Fox’s real drums to a roar like a Roman coliseum. The cavalcade of sound is, for better or worse, something you have never heard the likes of before. And as the spectators cull blood into “Kel Valhaal”, the album moves from its raucous birth to the trance of combat. Arguably my favorite song on the album, “Kel Valhaal” is cryptic in its brutality. The perpetually repeating drum and trumpet beat crush you on every note without the slightest sign of distortion, while entrancing you in a wash of bells and glitches and folk instrumentation that I can’t put a finger on–surely that I am not supposed to be able to put a finger on. When Hunter’s vocals come in, trading off “Follow”‘s croons for rap, the album reaches a height of command you won’t hear again until “Reign Array” towards the end. I don’t understand half of what he’s saying, but my brain tricks me into thinking it is surely paramount–some threshold of enlightenment I must reach for with all of my might.
Or you might just hear noise. I did, the first time I listened to it. Jaded is the listener who can take all of The Ark Work in on first encounter. But I wanted to hear it again, and mull it over. What I had that I think a lot of reviewers lacked was proper context. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix earned a world of derision following Aesthethica when he proceeded to discuss his ideas behind the album. The guy appeared to most of the world as a sort of fascinating clown–a feminine child so high on his own farts that he would presume to declare his music its own unique style worthy of genrefication: “transcendental black metal”. He published a brief philosophical treatise on how transcendental black metal offered a higher state of music than its predecessors, and well, you get the idea. Did I mention he looks kind of like a girl? The alternative label of “trap metal” has been thrown around, and his previous band’s name was Birthday Boyz. Liturgy is a metal band, mind you. Their default audience has never been particularly noted for tolerance.
So most people reviewing The Ark Work probably either never heard Liturgy previously or thought of Hunter as an accident waiting to happen. Or maybe a troll. His pre-existing image was pretty hard to swallow. The Ark Work, moreover, claims to enhance “transcendental black metal” with “cross-fertilized hardstyle beats, glitched re-sampling of IDM, and occult-orientated rap”. …yeah… You can imagine why people have struggled on many levels to take The Ark Work seriously. People who aren’t familiar with the band turn to reviews for an explanation of what their ears fail at first to compute, and they’re told “troll” at best, given some metal meathead’s rant about insults to manliness just as likely.
But Aesthethica was not inaccessible in the sense of The Ark Work, and no amount of self-mockery negated the fact that tracks like “Harmonia”, “Sun of Light”, and “High Gold” were delightful on first listen. If you actually bother to read what Hunter wrote about “transcendental” black metal, moreover, you can see a clear connection to the music. It roughly paralleled a lot of thoughts that had been floating around in my own head since at least Alcest’s Le Secret in 2005, and the fact that Hunter Hunt-Hendrix was willing to discuss metal’s new frontier while actually pioneering its exploration told me, if anything, that he had a lot more potential than even Aesthethica let on. That album was a sort of burst of passion. I would wager that the band did not devote particularly excruciating time to its finer details, and the result was still one of my favorite albums of 2011. Through separate mediums, Hunter showed the raw capacity for great song writing and the level of reflection necessary for fine-tuning an album to perfection. Merge the two, and you have, well, The Ark Work.
Within the first few seconds of “Follow”, I was pretty convinced that The Ark Work had the potential to be breathtaking. My context for this album placed Liturgy near the top of a wealth of new bands committed to employing black metal towards post-rock ends. I expected that Hunter had crafted every last second of it with painstaking care to achieve his visions. When you listen to something in that light, it’s a totally different experience. Take the vocals. Hunter delved very little into clean vocals on Aesthethica, and where he did–“Glass Earth” for instance–the results were weak. His voice, like his appearance, came off a bit childish, and I think he just ignored that fact rather than putting it to work for him. In the spirit of that album, I can picture a rebellious attitude of affirmation: “This is what I sound like.” On The Ark Work, there’s a more intelligent design. Hunter commits to not screaming once from start to finish, and the voice he’s left to work with is in not at all appealing in any conventional sort of way. But if a central idea behind the album is to barely yet perpetually hold cohesive on the cusp of nonsense, his voice naturally caters to it. He seems to intentionally integrate that notion, controlling in each instance the extent to which we hear his voice exposed. He employs a lot of rap, and the rhythmic flow of his lyrics provide the glue around which his marshmallow mouth forms another tipping point into that abyss of absurdity. On “Kel Valhaal” he manages to project the rhythm with such force that he sounds downright commanding. On “Reign Array” he starts out reminiscent of Thom Yorke (many elements of that song inexplicably remind me of Radiohead), while as the vocal style changes in the triumphal conclusion he remains careful to continue to layer his voice just enough to avoid spoiling the exhilaration.
On “Vitriol”, easily the most divisive track on the album, Hunter exposes everything. The song merges the Aesthethica style of “Glass Earth” with a chanting rap and a fascinating combination of minimalistic percussion and sub-bass. You can understand every word he says, and a lot of the lines are so awkwardly groomed to feed the trolls that you can’t help but think he’s doing it intentionally. “Soon the ADHD kids will quiet down respectfully,” “All the girls will get into art school,” a reference to “primordial gender”… In a way, the song is a caricature of everything critics have accused Hunter of being, followed by the refrain “I turn your ashes to gold, you repay me with vitriol,” as if to say “look how much I’ve entertained you, and you have the nerve to criticize me. Psssh.” I would really like to think the idea crossed Hunter’s mind with a bit of a devilish grin while he wrote it. Yet that, if intended at all, is only a bit of an Easter egg in a song that has nothing to do with it. “Vitriol” is actually pretty cryptic and compelling. I can’t piece it together into a cohesive whole, yet each individual line seems to find a fitting notch in the puzzle. A part of me wants to believe that that is the extent of it, and the accomplishment is to leave you with this unstable understanding that feels like a cohesive message yet contradicts itself. For me at least, “Vitriol” accomplishes lyrically what the rest of the album does musically.
The attention to detail extends beyond vocals and lyrics, of course. The instrumentation is vast, delving into dozens of different sources effectively. Hunter’s electronic repertoire both destabilizes and enhances the real instruments that it frequently parallels. Greg Fox, one of the greatest drummers of this era, returns to the band to offer his brilliance, and the drum machine ties together with him nicely. I wish Thrill Jockey had not made it so difficult to share tracks, but suffice to say I highly recommend this album. It is easily the most intelligent and compelling collection of songs I have heard since Peste Noire’s 2013 self-titled, and most of the reviewers shitting all over it fully intended to before they ever heard it. Its apparent madness only strengthened their resolve. But if ever you begin to have doubts, switch to “Reign Array” and ask yourself whether a song like this can arise by accident. On The Ark Work, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix proves himself to be the musical genius that Aesthethica hinted at. And like Jimmy Chamberlin to Billy Corgan, Greg Fox completes him. So long as those two stick together, Liturgy will remain among the most elite bands in metal for a long time to come.