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Review: Liturgy Won’t Be Your Thinkpiece Anymore on ‘The Ark Work’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 27, 2015
Label: Thrill Jockey

The one word you can’t escape when reading about Liturgy is “polarizing.” On one side there are the experimentalists willing to embrace a metal album, 2011’s Aesthethica, that could leave a patient listener feeling exuberant rather than empty. But then there are the black-metal purists who find guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s penchant for philosophical prose and embrace of warm textures between the standard-tuned tremolos to be, at best, an affront to metal and, at worst, a threat to its very livelihood as the impending Hipster Appropriation apocalypse approaches. While certainly polarizing, The Ark Work is Liturgy’s first album that refuses to conform to either of the painfully simplistic narratives above, daring listeners to engage with the band’s instrumental abilities, not its leader’s ideologies.

The Ark Work is the band’s third album and first after temporarily losing powerhouse drummer Greg Fox (now also of psych-proggers Guardian Alien and Sam Hillmer’s boundary-breaking, avant-experimental Zs) and bassist Tyler Dusenbury to the inevitable tension that arose from Liturgy being thought of as merely the soundtrack to Hunt-Hendrix’s black-metal manifesto. It is also their first album that sounds like the work of four humans from diverse musical backgrounds playing together, letting Hunt-Hendrix’s complex, holistic philosophy shape the album’s progression without imposing limitations. This shift in approach is clearest in terms of instrumentation and production, where the album’s main theme is introduced on comically muted MIDI horns, only to be extended and juggled expertly by Fox throughout the next hour. The interplay between the electronic and analog shines on single and centerpiece “Quetzalcoatl,” turning up the tension between an homage to high-end guitar neurosis and a jarring, seemingly out-of-place electronic kick — until Fox and Dusenbury crush through, re-texturing the song into the album’s most vibrant moment.

This album also serves as something of a victory lap for Fox, who left Liturgy after perfecting the band’s speedy, explosive, on-a-dime rhythmic technique. First, he turned it into a DMT-tripping street performer’s fantasy on Guardian Alien’s latest album, Spiritual Emergency, then remixed and reinterpreted his instrument on Grain and Xe in his time with Zs; now he’s managed to somehow retain all of these elements on even the most predictable passages herein.

As a whole, The Ark Work will further alienate the purists with its time-tearing post-production effects, IDM counterpoints to Fox’s drumming, an oddly Pallbearer-inspired funeral doom riff on “Father Vorizen,” and, on “Vitriol,” syncopated, triplet-oriented vocal patterns more reminiscent of Migos than Mayhem, over a Ghettotech-approved sub bass. But we’ll see how progressive proponents of the band’s earlier works react to the intro of abrasive brass and strings, a saxophone riff on “Kel Valhaal” electronically suspended in time and torn to shreds with Otomo Yoshihide-like zeal, and a glockenspiel hovering over most of the album. Most noticeably, Hunt-Hendrix’s evocative, vulnerable vocal shrieks have been replaced by a low-pitched snarl that will be even more unpopular to listeners who didn’t appreciate the microtonal, Pandit Pran Nath-informed chanting that peppered the interludes and intros of earlier albums.

Any listener who insists on evaluating Liturgy only on a scale from brutal-to-exuberant will be disappointed with this album’s refusal to yield to simplistic future-of-metal narratives. The burst-oriented metal sections of “Follow” and “Follow II” feel more like intermissions, and the most vintage guitar-terror moments on “Reign Array” and “Total War” could use some of the emotional release we took for granted on Aesthethica; The Ark Work is best at its most explorative rather than its most punishing. For a band previously hailed and reviled for its supposedly sacrilege approach, this is the real radical departure worthy of admiration.