Album Review: Liturgy—“The Ark Work”

By James Li

You probably know the “Versace” flow because you’ve heard it everywhere. Bone Thugs N Harmony and Three 6 Mafia were the first to start rapping in triple-time, but it’s been co-opted by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Drake, and, of course, Migos. But now you can also hear the Versace flow on the latest Liturgy album. Wait — aren’t these guys supposed to be a black metal band?

If you follow underground metal at all, then you know Liturgy aren’t the only polarizing black metal band out there, but they’re definitely the most divisive. After the Brooklyn band released their breakout album, Aesthetica, in 2011, they’ve enjoyed more crossover appeal than most metal bands, touring with the likes of Death Grips and Sleigh Bells, and earning praise from The New York Times, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and other mainstream outlets.

Album art for The Ark Work

Album art for The Ark Work

But the metal community met Liturgy with backlash and most of that negative feedback was targeted at frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. Hunt-Hendrix, a Columbia philosophy grad with a penchant for purple prose, wrote an essay describing his band as “transcendental black metal,” leading to accusations of being “inauthentic,” “pretentious,” and “hipster.” Chris Grigg, the frontman of Philadelphia black metal band Woe, wrote an open letter in response, accusing Hunt-Hendrix of erasing black metal’s history.

Liturgy broke up and reformed with their original line-up since, and their third and latest album, The Ark Work, might be even more controversial. In a 2011 interview with Pitchfork, Hunt-Hendrix expressed his interest in combining rap and metal, as if black metal wasn’t controversial enough. While it’s important to note that rap and metal have been combined before, it usually has regrettable results. Sure, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys sampled metal bands before, and Rage Against the Machine managed to do it well, but even the words “rap metal” bring up memories of Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach that we wanted to forget a long time ago.

A lot has changed since the dire days of nu metal, though. When Liturgy disbanded in 2012, Death Grips broke out in a big way – a band entirely different in sound and mission, but with the same ability to provoke and polarize, thanks to MC Ride’s scream-rapping, Zach Hill’s volatile live drumming, and Flatlander’s left-field samples of everyone from Björk to Black Flag to Magma. Hunt-Hendrix expressed his admiration for Death Grips before, and The Ark Work takes a page out of their playbook, cross-pollinating metal with elements borrowed from hip-hop, like Versace triplets and MIDI sequencers.

Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals also make a marked change on The Ark Work. He describes the style on The Ark Work as “occult rap.” While that may sound ridiculous, this description isn’t too far off the mark. You could say that Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals sound like rapping on tracks like “Father Vorizen” and “Vitriol,” but his raps are ponderously monotonous, except on “Kel Valhaal.” Hunt-Hendrix raps on a few tracks, but for the most part, he’s chanting rhythmically, sometimes applying loops, overdubs, or pitch shifts, as if invoking a ritual, not too far off from horror-obsessed hip-hop groups like Three 6 Mafia.

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Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s notes

Hip-hop also puts a lot of emphasis on rhythm, and Liturgy have turned their focus to make The Ark Work a rhythmically interesting record. A big part of Hunt-Hendrix’s controversial black metal manifesto was something he called the “burst beat,” which is a fancy way of saying that the drumming accelerates and decelerates. Aesthetica showcased Greg Fox’s drumming chops, but he doesn’t get to shine as much on The Ark Work. The percussion is more eclectic, with Swans-like glockenspiel and programmed drums, most notably on the lead single “Quetzalcoatl,” which features a thumping four-on-the-floor drum pattern.

If the drumming is the least metal part of The Ark Work, then the most metal thing about The Ark Work might be its heavy use of MIDI strings and horns, played on the chintziest synths possible. Cheap Casio synths have been a staple of black metal since bands like Emperor and Summoning started using them to create a symphonic atmosphere. Liturgy continue this tradition — the instrumental interlude “Haelegen” sounds downright medieval, and the album’s centerpiece, “Reign Array,” builds up to an epic bagpipe procession.

I doubt The Ark Work will be the best metal album of the year, if it can even be considered a metal album. But at the very least, it will draw a strong reaction from most listeners, even if that reaction is confusion or repulsion. You don’t have to buy into Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s grandiose plans for black metal, but you can appreciate that he and his band venture out of the boundaries of their genre and their own comfort zones on The Ark Work. And if you don’t appreciate that, then at least you get to hear triple-time rapping on a metal album. (Thrill Jockey)

Listen: “Reign Array”

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