Whenever anyone proposes that an artist, album, or condiment is something I’ll “love or hate,” I feel an intense compulsion to remain ambivalent about whatever art, music, or Marmite they’re talking about. “You don’t know me!” my brain spits, “your artificial dichotomy is patently absurd, and I’ll prove it by maintaining a neutral and balanced view!” Then I feel silly because, even though I haven’t fallen for the tribalism, my opinion has still been manipulated, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid in the first place.
Back in 2011, Liturgy were very much a love ‘em or hate ‘em band. Their 2009 debut Renihilation had brought them relatively little attention, but 2011’s Aesthethica – and perhaps more importantly, the promotion that accompanied it – thrust Liturgy into the metal limelight. Frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (henceforth H3) managed to rub many in the metal scene the wrong way with his disdain for black metal’s traditionally nihilistic outlook and his arrogant manifesto for the continuation of the genre. Naturally, Liturgy earned a reputation as a polarizing band, and naturally I attempted to remain ambivalent towards their music.
But this is, of course, ridiculous behaviour. Aesthethica, while perhaps overly indebted to Krallice, was an exciting record with a unique range of interesting influences. The frequently positive and celebratory nature of the music was distinct from other black metal (or black metal influenced) bands, and no doubt contributed to many people’s annoyance at the black metal tag being used at all. Four years on, and those that complained about Liturgy’s black metal credentials will likely have a fit over their new album (if they’re not too busy still being angry about Deafheaven).
Whether you’ve heard Liturgy’s previous records or not, you won’t be expecting what they present on The Ark Work. Though the Krallicey black metal base remains, Liturgy have incorporated a whole slew of new influences and ideas. Strings, bagpipes, horns, organ, and glockenspiel all make an appearance, all contributing to the grandiose aesthetic. The electronic influences, though, are particularly well done. They inject new life into traditional black metal beats, contributing both subtle background textures and driving rhythmic forces to each song – recent single “Quetzalcoatl” being an obvious example. These additional instruments enhance Liturgy’s mixture of jubilant themes and tragic romanticism, each being used to heighten a particular mood rather than for the sake of novelty.
After a two-minute introductory “Fanfare” of synth horns, “Follow” bursts into life with Liturgy’s signature variable-speed blastbeats and high-pitched trem-picking. The new sounds are immediately apparent: a glockenspiel introduces the track and continues to dance above the guitar lines, creating an otherworldly shimmering effect that is further enhanced by subtle, ascending electronic noises. These first four tracks are linked by common melodies and rhythmic motifs that appear in different guises at various points, almost blending into a single twenty-minute long track. The build and release of emotional energy is expertly managed, though some of the repetition goes too far, particularly on “Kel Valhaal.”
The second half of the record feels more like a set of individual songs, though the theme introduced by organ interlude “Haelegen” crops up in several places. The centrepiece of this half is the eleven plus minute “Reign Array,” which brings together the ideas explored over the whole album into a single, epic piece. Despite its length, repetition isn’t a problem; it’s the shorter “Father Vorizen” and “Vitriol” that are more wearing in this respect. “Vitriol” also brings to the fore what will probably the most divisive aspect of the record: H3’s vocals.
Whereas H3 used a standard black-metal scream on previous Liturgy albums, here we are treated to his distinctive singing. This ranges from a moaned chant to rhythmic sing-rapping – the oft-employed triplet pattern is apparently inspired by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. All of it is nasal and whiny, much of it monotonous, and the frequent slurring up to notes is grating. The rap-singing is always over a single note, and H3’s delivery of these parts sounds forced and uncomfortable. The terrible “Vitriol,” which is effectively a rap track, accentuates this problem due to its minimal arrangement. The total lack of emotion in the delivery doesn’t make sense against the rousing musical backing; no doubt this was a contrast H3 fully intended, but rather than sounding interestingly incongruent, the singing is irritating and distracting.
And yet I keep returning to this album. The vocals are horrible, the songs occasionally repetitive, “Vitriol” makes me cringe, and the production is dodgy (the sound is certainly unique, but very muffled, and there’s little variation in volume so many of the fantastic builds and transitions are robbed of their impact – also, why with the MIDI wind instruments?!), but I’m inevitably dragged back by the inventiveness of the compositions and sheer beauty of the music. Having now listened to this album dozens of times, I’m beginning to love it in spite of its clear and serious flaws. My advice is to take my score with a grain of Marmite and listen for yourself. You’ll either adore or abhor it.