Hunter Hunt-Hendrix cannot catch a break. With his work as Liturgy, he has crafted some of the most vivacious, jarring metal records we’ve heard in recent years. Take 2011’s Aesthetica as an example. The record operates between quiet and loud like little else on the market. Its use of black metal techniques (blast beat, tremolo guitar, banshee screaming) is juxtaposed with equal force by classical cadences of ritual chants and rounds. It’s pretty jarring, heady stuff that falls right in line with Hunt-Hendrix’s love of philosophy, particularly with respect to the black metal tradition. But Hunt-Hendrix isn’t popular in the black metal community for his efforts. Why? He refuses the play the game by the rules. And, for a genre that takes so much of the sacred and profane into question already, choosing to dance a different dance on sacred ground is a bold move. Yet, for all this, when Hunt-Hendrix decided to break from the genre and create the highly experimental new Liturgy effort, The Ark Work, the only press he gets for it involves his break from more traditional black metal. This is a real crime, because apart from all comparison, even apart from understanding all of the high-minded philosophy behind it, The Ark Work is a nonconventional record that pulls from a completely improbable number of influences to make a maximalist record unlike any other. Found somewhere between black metal, industrial, hip-hop, and classical, Liturgy find a new celestial kingdom worth exploring on The Ark Work, and it baffles and delights in equal parts.
The Ark Work opens with “Fanfare”, a track is exactly what it sounds like: a fanfare of horns that sounds like it’s welcoming royalty into a kind of somber ceremony. But in context of Liturgy’s journey up to this point, “Fanfare” means so much more than the sum of its parts. First, it’s a sample based track, production driven, not recorded, guitar-less, and drumless up until the last pound before “Follow” explodes into full flame. What’s interesting is that the horn fanfare lightly makes use of Hunt-Hendrix’s coined rhythm technique of burst beat, a modification on the traditional black metal blast beat that varies the rhythms. It goes from a straight blast to a split of rhythmical couplet from eight to triplet, and downwards – it kind of sounds like a snare drum soundtracking a building collapse. Here, it’s the horns that do the bursting, like a coin bouncing before it lays dead on the floor. The fanfare welcoming in the new era of Liturgy sounds nothing like what we’ve heard, and yet, it’s familiar.
Akin to the first track, Hunt-Hendrix is much more open to the use of production as a sonic and atmospheric technique throughout the record. The explosive textures of “Follow” are brought to epic, 300 type proportions with a wash that sounds like a screaming crowd and industrial double bass. The use of this production alongside the brutal textures reminds the listener a bit of The Downward Spiral, not as much in terms of cadence or mood, but in production. But as “Follow” spills into “Kel Valhaal”, the glockenspiel is joined by a full horn section and bagpipes. Seriously, when was the last time you heard bagpipes on a metal track and tingles on the back of your neck? “Kel Valhaal” uses the same exploding horn rhythm technique as “Fanfare”, now brought to full apocalypse level with help from the phenomenal drum work of Greg Fox. You wait a full three minutes before the track explodes into a driving march. Over this cacophony of anxiety, Hunt-Hendrix then comes in with a monotone, rhythm drone. It’s almost rapping, but it’s more like a sacred chant, help painstakingly at the same tone for the duration of not just the song but the album. Yes, Hunt-Hendrix’s delightfully blood curdling scream is gone, but it’s been replaced by something all the more haunting and impactful, in a way no one is going to replicate. After four additional minutes of droning raps and unstoppable walls of sonic assault, the song comes to close and you get a chance to finally catch your breath. Then the circular “Follow” theme returns on organ, soon echoed in the form of a round on the guitar, before the whole thing becomes a prog metal plus orchestra exploration of time and space. It’s not really worth trying to spell it out in words. Some things you really just have to hear to believe.
The first four tracks form such a perfect first movement on the record that even the respective five and six minutes of “Quetzalcoatl” and “Father Vorizen” both feel brief. As the eye of the storm, both showcase a very different side of The Ark Work – it’s these sides that we seem to explore in full depth in the opening movement and the closing third. “Quetzalcoatl” is the most cosmic, brutal thing on the record. An industrial drum is topped by equal parts tremolo guitar freakout and synthesizer, and as the two encircle each other, it almost feels minimal compared to the prior twenty minutes. But the track builds with ascending strings, and soon explodes into a heavier than lead battle between heaven and hell. Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals and lyrics both embody an internal struggle between transcendental selves. Taking its name from the Mayan snake god of fertility, the voice balances new creation and unrequited rage into an unending spiritual struggle. The latter track is made up all heavy, powerful fifth chords, echoing the unbearable brightness of some Aesthetica tracks like “High Gold”. But the same somber hesitation that haunted “Fanfare” echoes here, like a perfect knowledge of self somehow doubted. It’s this light and dark that permeate The Ark Work, with or without the listener paying attention. It’s this cosmic battle that gives the album a sensibility that all but swallows you.
After the small, melancholy reprieve of “Haelegen” and before the apocryphal prophecy of the last two tracks, we get to the record’s crown jewel: “Reign Away”. Truly, this is maybe the best Liturgy song to date. The twelve minute monster operates on every emotional level, going from its reserved Ocarina of Time intro to the insurmountable bagpipe ending. The movements of this piece work like a grand opera. First, there is the struggle, described by Hunt-Hendrix over another brilliant glockenspiel and tremolo guitar motif. Then after building to a climax, the center declaration of action is a dark, fiery chorus of a thousand. Then there’s more struggle – insane blast beat drums from Greg Fox (it will make your arms hurt for him) and tremolo on all parts, be it glockenspiel, guitar, bass, there might even be some strings in there. Hunt-Hendrix’s mantras talk of damnation, salvation, and everything in between – the totality of the immortal soul’s cosmic experience. But none of this compares to the final seven minute mark break where the bagpipes slice through the track like seeing the sun break through clouds for the first time ever. The four and a half minutes of brilliant euphoria never feel like enough – the feeling at hand is truly indescribable. You can’t bottle what Liturgy have done on this track. It is without a doubt one of the best tracks we’ll hear this year.
With The Ark Work, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix blew off the critics and made the record he wanted to make. It doesn’t sound like anything else out there, and that’s a good thing for us. The result is a mind-bending, speaker-melting masterpiece, and easily the best Liturgy record we’ve heard to date. The Ark Work is out this week on Thrill Jockey. Grab it at your local record store on CD or limited edition clear vinyl. Liturgy are headed out on tour in support of the new record. On April 28, you can catch them at Neumos co-headlining alongside labelmates and noise gods Lightning Bolt, who are also gearing up for a new record. If that doesn’t sound like a good time to you, I don’t know what does. Grab tickets here.