ALBUM REVIEW: Liturgy – The Ark Work | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Thrill Jockey

Released: 24.03.15

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For real: a curious concept perhaps when applied to the mythos-heavy, sometimes violently reactive world of black metal. Any readers who have ventured beyond the corpse-paint and other clichés will be aware though of black metal as the playground for some of the most serious, dedicated and inquisitive musicians operating in any sphere today – and of the sparks that inevitably fly when these more outré artists find their work clashing with the hard-line kvlt tendency.

Suffice to say that when Liturgy first emerged – four Brooklyn hipsters offering an art-rock take on black metal, with frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix penning an equal parts fascinating and laughable essay on ‘Transcendental Black Metal’ – the purists were far from amused. Despite this, on previous albums like 2011’s Aesthetica, the background controversies faded in the face of the music that emerged. Alongside acts like Agalloch, Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room, they proved pivotal in the ongoing transformation of the distinctly Scandinavian art of classic black metal into a form equally evocative of the American experience.

If they previously sought to challenge and change the form, The Ark Work instead displays at least a partial severing of the ties with black metal. The high-pitched wails of old are largely replaced with chanting and rhythmic sing-speak: alongside another formidable performance from drummer Greg Fox is an array of hip-hop beats and electronic thuds. On a melodic level, this remains distinctly informed by black metal – again, the rolling repetition here evolves the black metal style into a musical analogue of the Whitman-esque long line (and yes, it is essentially impossible to write about this band without accepting at least a little bit of pretention, in case you were wondering), and the record does not lack in dramatic, heavy climaxes.

The context however, is something else. The new singing style certainly removes one possible barrier to wider public acceptance, yet just as many people will be shaken off the defiantly false MIDI horns and strings that usher in Kel Velhall (and, be warned, appear across the whole record), baffled by the organ drone of Haelegen and quite possibly reduced to laughter by Vitriol. The latter track, a lo-fi attempt to split the difference between Death Grips and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, is an honourable gamble that certainly makes this reviewer grin. Whether I’m grinning out of actual enjoyment of the track or just at the total absurdity of the amateurish production that ensues is one that, having lived the album for a fair while however, I’m still no closer to working out.

By and large, The Ark Work succeeds best when they merge their experiments with electronics and hip-hop rhythms with their black metal influences, as on the thrilling Quetzalcoatl, which uses the most absurdly artificial kick drum sound imaginable as a launch-pad for a flurry of man-v-machine rhythmic interplays and crushing, perpetually crescendo-ing riffs, or the epic Reign Away, whose black metal flow is littered with ringing bells and curious production quirks. On moments like these, The Ark Work feels alive and vital in a truly visceral way.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a work as expansive and ambitious as this is somewhat flawed in the final execution: to the extent with which Liturgy now feel as much some kind of meta-modern art park as actual band, perhaps it makes more sense to think of them as the rock world’s response to the gauntlet laid down by Death Grips. This is a frequently baffling, sometimes misfiring record, but one whose moments of real greatness and brilliant, bull-headed refusal to play along with genre demarcations or fanboy wailing demand serious attention. If previous Liturgy albums went out to confuse black metal fans, The Ark Work is out to confuse just about everyone.

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