Album Review: Liturgy - 'The Ark Work'

Empty Lighthouse is a reader-supported site. This article may contain affiliate links to Amazon and other sites. We earn a commission on purchases made through these links.

Liturgy returns from their longest break with their most experimental and ambitious record to date but, unfortunately, also their weakest.

Let's just get this out of the way: This album is bad. Like, very bad. I was actually angry by the time it was over, anger derived from the badness of the music I had just heard, and an anger that returns whenever I think about or try to write about this album.

I'm writing this as a first-person opener not because I want to slag the album (I don't; that's rude and boring), not because I want to rant (again, self-indulgent and boring) and not because I want to write the album off (I don't, actually). This album, for all my personal feelings regarding it, does actually carry out a number of interesting experiments and absolutely deserves a real and sincerely engaged review to discuss them, for better or worse.

Oh, and the drumming is absolutely remarkable. So: a somewhat indulgent prelude to keep me on track.

(Perhaps I'll turn my personal feelings into a much-lengthier creative nonfiction piece; but that's not what I do here, at this site.) Anyway: on with the show.

Liturgy is an experimental black metal band from Brooklyn. Their debut record, 2009's Renihilation, was, to me, a decent record; equal parts black metal and noise rock, the album justified its experimentalism and toying with the genre forms of black metal by merging them with sounds and performative palettes that enriched the music.

They were not the first nominally black metal band to mix in elements of 80s noise rock and the freer playing of jazz into their music, but they were heavily derided for it.

This was due in no small part to frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix releasing a lengthy manifesto regarding the philosophical underpinning of the band.

If it sounds farcical, that's because it was and still is. But that doesn't make it necessarily "not black metal"; black metal, after all, is no stranger to these kinds of actions before, what with beloved band Deathspell Omega featuring densely cited liner notes and interviews with black metal groups since its foundation having similarly impassioned, dense, and self-referential philosophies underpinning the work. It was part of what was pursued, deliberately, to separate it from death metal, which is older by a handful of years.

While death metal was in many ways a more guttural and primitive form of thrash metal, leaning heavier into speed, brutality, and evil often to cartoonish horror movie-style effect, black metal intended to touch on the frightening and almost supernaturally ghoulish aspects of thrash borrowed from punk, relying on dissonance and angularity as much as speed and metal toughness.

This led to a natural comfort using the same kinds of self-important theorizing punk and jazz musicians had used for ages.

Toss in some self-serious Satanic posturing (and eventually full-fledged occult and pagan belief) into the mix, and the notion of a manifesto coming out of a black metal band is not only unsurprising, but almost stereotypical.

The issue with the manifesto, however, wasn't the fact that it existed.

If you read it (and you shouldn't, really), you find yourself swimming in one-dollar words and freshly-minted concatenations; sentences tumble on and on, with increasingly baroque, near-Kantian labyrinths of phrases; charts and graphs emerge, strange geometries that seem connected to the purpose of the paper less by necessity and more by fevered over-thinking.

Even more than the oddness of the manifesto itself was its tone and, more, its message; Hunt-Hendrix positioned his newly coined micro-genre of "transcendental black metal" as being intended to wipe away an outmoded and outdated early form of music, replacing it with something more vibrant, more capable of evolution.

This obviously pissed a lot of people off. I've no interest in derailing an already-difficult review with a definition and discussion of hipsterism, but it's something that we're all aware of culturally. What's particularly offensive about the hipster is the idea of the know-it-all from outside of your culture presuming not only to have a full understanding without really getting involved, but also a series of pointed critiques on how to immediately make it better.

It's equal parts appropriation and condescension and almost always comes across as inauthentic social posturing.

This is part of why, at the terms height, we chafed so much at the notion of being called one.

And, unfortunately, there are geographical ties to hipsterism as well, with most metropoles but especially New York City and even more especially Brooklyn among them.

So, what happens when you combine a perfectly fine but not mind-blowing experimental black metal record with a self-important farcical manifesto coming from a bunch of young 20-somethings from Brooklyn who've never played in the extreme metal scene before? A lot of pissed off people, and a lot more ill-will towards the record than it actually deserved.

Likewise, their second album, 2011's Aesthethica wasn't as terrible as its critics painted it. Again, I'd hesitate to offer strong praise of the record, but it was far from being the traitor to true black metal (as close to crying wolf as that area of the metal community gets) as it was painted.

It featured cleaner production, relying less on washes of noise and more on the riffs and playing themselves to carry the tunes, and in the case of their drummer Greg Fox, this resulted in the reveal of some truly staggering playing.

However, these production choices laid bare what is simply Liturgy's biggest fault: They can't really write great songs.

It's the bane of almost every band that uses distortion and feedback and sheer noise as part of their sound. It's a big reason why any music teacher worth their salt tells their students to practice clean, or on an acoustic instrument, or completely unplugged.

Noise and feedback and distortion are great, but they also quickly become crutches to bad playing and bad writing.

Liturgy demonstrated interesting ideas in regards to play styles that can be merged with black metal, referencing minimalist composers, repetitive motifs and riffs, odd syncopated rhythms, and more fluid and dynamic playing that would sit closer to jazz than most metal, but with the wall of fuzz that dominated a lot of the tracks on Renihilation stripped away, they revealed that they didn't really have the songwriting chops to make these ideas shine through in a deeply compelling way.

Given their position in regards to the manifesto, revealing weakness in this way was a deathknell for the band. They did some tours, and the record got some good press from certain corners of the web, but the weight of such a grandiose and self-important mission statement regarding not only their music but their music in comparison with everyone else in the scene versus what was actually delivered left the band in a bad spot.

There was no way to talk about just their playing, or just their songs, or just their records; like it or not, writing and then releasing a manifesto of that intensity and directly tying it to your music acts effectively as another official release, only a text instead of a record, and carries a weight that never really goes away.

And while Aesthethica was by no means the worst record of all time like some treated it, it couldn't live up to the hyperbolic standards they had set themselves up for.

And now, after four years, what could be considered a kind of break-up, and a reunion with the drummer and bassist, we have their fourth record. Liturgy follows through on The Ark Work with the ideas of the manifesto; the black metal here does not feel nihilistic but triumphant, not despairing but courageous, rejoicing in the sun and not stalking in the moonlight.

Liturgy incorporates electronic textures and glitch-inspired electronic manipulation, on top of clearly synthesized horns, bells, and bagpipes.

Overall, its a remarkably bright sonic palette with rhythmic ideas sitting closer to minimal composers, electronic producers and jazz than black metal.

For all their previous talk of transcending the limitations of black metal, here they actually seem to be doing it.

The problem is it just doesn't sound good.

The production on the guitars is even cleaner this time around, leaving them a shrill strummy mess. This might have lo-fi punky appeal in some production palettes, but here it strips the guitars of strength almost completely.

Likewise, while the synthesized brass and strings are bright and actually sound really good, the chimes and bells are mixed to a point of becoming shrill and grating.

The bass playing, always a strong point of Liturgy, is buried below the layers of electronics, which wouldn't necessarily be bad if not for the fact that its always so impressively played whenever it swims into view; it leaves you feeling cheated and angry that you are being denied great bass playing and instead being handed some of the worst electronic drum production I've heard in my life.

Greg Fox's playing is absolutely the highlight of the record, sterling from top to bottom, stunningly fluid and produced gorgeously, letting the snare crack, the toms ring, the bass drum thump and pump, and the cymbals sing. But then there is obnoxious and frankly incredibly cheesy electronic drums that feel almost like they are mocking their clearly gifted drummer.

The rhythms are nominally thickened by their playing with increasingly dense minimalist ideas and jarring syncopation, but they miss almost entirely what makes that kind of compositional style so compelling in works of Glenn Branca or Terry Riley, instead building to a cacophonous mess.

This undercuts the sense of triumph they nominally are working toward even as it increases the glitchy, digitalized textures.

And to top it all off, these are the worst vocals I've heard in my life.

They are delivered, top to bottom, in a whiny monotone, nominally going for a hypnotic effect but instead, again due to horrible mixing, bleating out like a dying sheep again and again, jarring their own rhythms out of the transcendental repetitive structures they seem to be gesturing toward.

None of these ideas are bad on paper. The issue is execution, which is faulty almost all the way through. Instruments are too shrill, too needlessly syncopated, too effected for no real purpose, mixed too loud or too quiet, and all layered on top of each other in a complete ear-fatiguing mess.

They don't seem to point to anything in particular, evoke anything in particular.

This sounds, frankly, like some of the worst prog imaginable.

I imagine that this sounds to me what prog rock sounds like to people that don't like it; if this is what they hear when they listen to Yes and Genesis and Gentle Giant, I don't blame them for not pursuing it.

This is made frustrating by the fact that the ideas are good. Black metal has played with jazz and major keys and electronica and prog rock and minimalism before. Further, it has succeeded with these ideas.

And, aside from Hunt-Hendrix (who is clearly the weakest link of the band, both in terms of playing and composing), none of these players are bad by any stretch of the imagination. It just doesn't come together.

At all. And the way it doesn't come together, combined with the absurd self-importance the group affects at time and defenders of the band cite, makes the album not just bad but insufferable and infuriating.

I hold out hope that Liturgy will release a great record someday. They're great players and their ideas are good ones. And, regardless of how I feel about the fruits, they are taking a great deal of risks and playing around quite a bit with a set of genres that I love.

They deserve to be talked about. They deserve to be engaged with.

This record deserves to be engaged with.

But just because it deserves to be discussed and looked at doesn't mean we should say its great, because it isn't; it's a set of necessary and interesting experiments that are executed poorly, and if we want to learn from them and help incorporate the fruits of these experiments in a healthy way, we need to be critical of them.

Image taken from Liturgy's Bandcamp page.