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Liturgy – The Ark Work

Liturgy

Metal has a funny relationship with bad taste. Certainly the culture’s decades-long commitment to dark and transgressive subject matter has been part of what’s kept metal on its slow lurch toward respectability, but there’s also the gleeful and bull-headed love of outright cheesiness, turned way up, that both unites fans and scandalizes detractors. Glass-cracking falsetto, laughable cover art, onanistic soloing, death metal English and more are all crucial aspects of the heavy metal canon. It’s all absurd, and most metalheads eat it up.

The flipside to all this is that if you express bad taste that doesn’t scan as by-the-book “metal” — and I learned this the hard way by wearing a tie-dyed Star Wars shirt to a Cannibal Corpse/Exhumed show when I was 19 — you can usually expect a broad segment of the community to respond poorly. Enter New York’s Liturgy, whose last record, 2011’s Aesthethica ended up being largely overshadowed by the countless tirades and thinkpieces that enveloped it like a smog. The kerfuffle mostly revolved around a treatise of sorts penned by vocalist, guitarist and guy in your MFA Hunter Hunt Hendrix about the need for a movement of American “transcendental” black metal bands to reject the nihilistic tropes of their Scandinavian counterparts. Never mind that USBM has typically skewed more Agalloch than Judas Iscariot, the band still ignited a firestorm of heated replies. And, as is bound to happen on the internet, any hope of a fecund discussion was quickly consumed by the two extremes of the argument. If you liked Aesthethica, you stood for the hipster-fication of metal; if you didn’t, you were a “hater.”

After a brief breakup, Liturgy drop their latest album, The Ark Work, in a post-Sunbather climate that’s never been more amenable to novel approaches to playing heavy metal. But if the music on Aesthethica was mostly an adequate blend of traditional black metal, progressive textures and Rodan-styled math rock, The Ark Work is a stymieing cacophony of oppositional sounds and concepts. When the album kicks off with a peppy salvo of MIDI horns that sounds like it was composed in Mario Paint, it’s almost like Liturgy have stormed back into the metal world on a teal moped with They See Me Rollin’ printed in Comic Sans on the side.

It gets worse. The next track, “Follow,” comes mooshed with so many glockenspiels, flimsy glitch beats and clogged-nose chants that it feels like Hendrix was anxious to fill the track with as many of his the new sonic ideas as he could before the listener just turned the album off. In interviews, Hendrix has claimed The Ark Work is the first time the band has come close to capturing the sound that’s always been in his hand, which gives the impression that Liturgy’s past successes were accidental.

It’s become mostly impossible to evaluate the music apart from the philosophy, mostly because Hendrix’s abstruse and personal visions are pressing harder than ever on the material, so much so that the music now feels just as confusing as Hendrix’s Instagram. The clashing of organic instrumentation and cheap, digital sounds may well be a part of the album’s conceptual framework, but nearly all of the album’s new tricks fall flat in execution. If you’re going to be thirsty enough to unironically label your own music as being transcendental, you better deliver the goods. Farty, fake horns, treacly percussion and undeveloped gestures toward electronica and hip-hop won’t do it. Neither will the utterly detached clean (I use this term loosely) vocal performance that Hendrix uses throughout the album. On “Vitriol,” he layers nasal chants against “rapped” vocals that, I’m told, are meant to evoke the triplet flow of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Triple 6 Mafia. It sounds more like Animal Collective with bronchitis. There are lyrics about how “soon money will be paper, and success will be a crime.” It’s a noble daydream, but here it rings as hollow as the utopic babble printed on Chipotle bags.

The most frustrating thing about all these bad stylistic choices is how they mask the performances of the pretty great band beneath them. (Here’s the obligatory sentence in a negative Liturgy review where it is pointed out that Greg Fox is a fantastic drummer.) The Ark Work’s midsection has evidence that Liturgy has the ability to spin some of Hendrix’s philosophical musings into musical gold. “Father Vorizen” locks into an inspired, off-timed strut reminiscent of Aesthethica highlight “Generation.” The 11-minute “Reign Array” gets the best returns out of the band’s new sonic accoutrements. Hendrix’s ecstatic tremolo picking resembles a classic rock god bringing a set-ending song to a fiery close, while the sound of bagpipes provides an unexpected but gratifying complement. More moments like these, and maybe I’d be quicker to forgive Liturgy’s bad taste. But The Ark Work is largely a stumble backward, if not a total ass-over-teakettle fall.

—Jason Bailey

The Ark Work is available now via Thrill Jockey. Follow Liturgy on Facebook.

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