A Dusted Review: The Ark Work by Liturgy (March 19th, 2015)

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Black metal fans can be a prickly bunch. I was once verbally taken to task by a BM-er(can I use that?) for professing an admiration for SUNN O))). This chap, who is otherwise the nicest person you could meet, was almost apoplectic with rage at the mere thought. I don’t quite remember all the details, but the words “fucking posers” were used frequently, which I found odd from someone who admires people who smear their faces with fake-looking “corpse-paint”. But this aesthetic purity is part of BM’s appeal to its purists, and whilst I am more drawn to the way the likes of SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room twist its rather formulaic bedrock in innovative ways, certainly much more than the legion of Mayhem-alikes that make up “real” black metal, well apparently that’s misguided or something. It’s all very intense, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really.

Still, I think I will be siding with the BM-ers when it comes to Liturgy, who surely must have been founded predominantly with the ambition to well and truly rile up people like my SUNN O)))-hating friend. The most common description I found for them from BM circles was “fucking Brooklyn hipsters playing at black metal”, and whilst that’s probably true on some of their earlier output, on The Ark Work feels misleading. The BM-ers are right: The Ark Work is certainly not black metal. The problem is that it’s really not much else, either. Indeed, even after repeated listens, it comes across not so much as an album but as a sort of formless mass, which could be a good thing, in the right hands, but here does little more than baffle and exasperate.

Essentially, what you have here is a band acting being too clever for its own good. From the opening trumpet blares of “Fanfare”, The Ark Work feels overloaded, saturated with a non-stop barrage of sounds, from glockenspiels and bagpipes to chimes and bombastic synthesizer patterns. At a push, it could share with black metal the sonic desire to grab listeners by the throat and provide a truly visceral and atavistic experience. There’s also a lot of blast beating going on, although the results sound more like Pelican than Bathory. But the problem at heart is not actually that Liturgy like to throw some experimentation into their black mass — I’ve already mentioned SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room, but could also point to experimental flourishes in acts like Ulver and Burzum — it’s that the way they do it is bombastic and knowing: there is none of metal’s (of any style) darkness and atavism, both replaced by a smug attempt to outwit and outmanoeuvre both audiences and the bands they claim to share a lineage with.

Then again, maybe the whole black metal thing with Liturgy is a red herring, or a practical joke, despite leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essays that suggest the contrary and much-vaunted philosophy degree. The sheer grandiosity of these tracks, the way the band pile up sounds to a dizzying degree suggests more affinity with the most excessive prog- or post-rock bands (I’ve already mentioned Pelican, but you could even chuck Marillion or Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the there as well), but with any space ripped out altogether. And the vocals, whilst unintelligible in a way that Attila Csihar might appreciate, are so dull and inexpressive that any coherent emotional or intellectual content is rendered unintelligible. All in all, I’m sure there are those who will find something profound behind the morass that is The Ark Work, but just as many might find it nothing more than surreal joke. To be honest, neither situation seems true, it’s more a case that there is nothing much to glean from the album whatsoever. Now where did I put my Leviathan albums?

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A Quietus Review: Freermasonry by Wold (May 7th, 2013)

The claustrophobic sonic realm created by Canadian outfit Wold on Freermasonry -initially released in 2011 on Profound Lore and reissued this year on Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint – is one where black metal, noise and industrial music all collide, in the process sucking out space and time like the air leaving an expiring corpse. The ten tracks all feature massed ranks of guitar, bass and percussion that are so monolithic and dense as to render most details of what is what almost unrecognisable. Unperturbed, vocalist Fortress Crookedjaw sustain this onslaught for well over an hour, the kind of determination that will thrill noise and metal fans and baffle most others.

If I’m making Freermasonry sound like a slog, then I’m doing it a disservice, because, despite how massive and immovable it often seems, hints of a profound musicality seep up through the cracks of each track, usually propelled by the gruesome, wonderful, rasp-cum-hiccup vocals of Crookedjaw. The album kicks off its implacable grind with the playfully-titled two-minute ‘Opening’, and several shorter tracks are dropped around the eight-to-sixteen-minute opuses that form the album’s core, presumably to keep the album’s flow marginally approachable. ‘SOL’ sets the ball rolling properly in this respect, as fractured, disjointed riffs battle with a wall of distortion over minimal beats that sound like they’ve been produced by the world’s most knackered drum machine.

Crookedjaw’s vocals sound lost amid this maelstrom, not so much accompanying the half-formed melody as growling over it, the man sounding like the bastard son of Burzum and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Wold’s momentum on ‘SOL’ (and indeed the rest of the album) is fitful, with none of the driving momentum one associates with black metal, sounding in fact closer to power electronics noise-makers such as Ramleh, or a more compressed Whitehouse circa 1983. Indeed, on two of the longest tracks, the scalding ‘Working Tools For Praxis’ and the more supple title track, the combination of dense clouds of high-pitched drone, fitful drum machine rhythms and loping sub-bass combine at times to sound like a muddy live recording of late-70s Throbbing Gristle, with a consumptive Attila Csihar clone taking the place of Genesis P-Orridge’s manic barks. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Dragon Owl’, Wold come close to matching the unrelenting wall noise of a Vomir or The Cherrypoint.

If there is a drawback to such sonic mayhem, it’s that such airlessness renders Crookedjaw’s lyrics, supposedly based on lofty themes like freemasonry and religion, completely unintelligible. One review I read of the record quoted some of the lines, and they sound fascinating, but I can only surmise that the reviewer had access to a lyric sheet. Either that or he or she has the ears of a basset hound, the lucky blighter. It rarely matters when you can’t hear the words on a noise album, because the best acts (such as the aforementioned Ramleh, or their erstwhile label-mates Skullflower) can conjure up their songs’ sentiment in other ways. With Wold, it feels like a missed opportunity. There’s certainly a lot on Freermasonry that will get noise and industrial heads grinning and head-banging, even if some of the shorter tracks feel a bit like afterthoughts, but metal fans may find it all a bit wearisome.

A Quietus Review: III Doom In Bloom / Allies (October 29th, 2012)

They don’t come more singular than Botanist, a one-man band deliberately shrouded in mystery. Ostensibly, Botanist is Otrebor, although more details of the man are few and far between, to the point that that’s the only name available. But Botanist is also a concept, The Botanist being an “eco-terrorist” living in the wilds of the USA, separate from Otrebor (who “channels” him) and waiting for the time when nature will destroy humanity and retake its rightful place in the world. A weird concept, for sure, but its one that infuses the project and music from start to finish, from the different images of flora and fungi in the artwork, to the track titles (‘Deathcap’, ‘Ganoderma Lucidum’) to the strange way Botanist performs his black metal using only drums and hammer dulcimer (!).

Compared to his 2011 debut, III Doom In Bloom / Allies actually quietly introduces hints of guitar and keyboard, but make no mistake: Botanist is first and foremost a drummer with a love for the hammer dulcimer, and the way he combines the two, building loping, insistent rhythm patterns around chiming, piano-like dulcimer notes, is rather astounding. Any other elements are just details. The album’s key long tracks, ‘Quoth Azalea, The Demon (Rhododendoom II)’, ‘Ocimum Sanctum’ and ‘Panax’ are grim and foreboding sonic behemoths on which Otrebor performs shifting percussive rolls and drives and the dulcimer’s monolithic chords are transmogrified into something approaching the darkest of doom metal guitar riffage. Anyone thinking the hammer dulcimer is too sweet or classical an instrument to fit into the sludgy tropes of metal need to give III: Doom In Bloom / Allies a listen. Like Spanish heathens Orthodox, Botanist rips at the frayed corners of the genre by bloody-mindedly refusing to be hemmed in by convention.

Black metal purists, of course, will scoff at the idea of an album purporting to be of the genre but bereft of guitars (or, for that matter, pace – this is a grindingly slow album). But Otrebor’s vocals should put paid to any such qualms. Mostly delivered in a raspy snarl, the vocals are buried deep in the mix, but represent the cherry on this sinister cake, intensifying the atmosphere of dread and disquiet. If, one day, someone decides to direct yet another remake of Day of the Triffids, he or she should look no further than this album for the soundtrack. It’s hard to make plants seem scary (see M. Night Shyamalan’s goofy stinkbomb The Happening), but Botanist pretty much manages it. The ‘Azalea’ mentioned in the title of the opening track is, according to the Botanist “lore”, a plant demon determined to wreck ruin on humanity. Surrounded by his oppressive drums and a dulcimer rendered into a weapon of war, one could almost believe such malevolent sprites exist. That their mission of vengeance might be justified is all the more troubling. Here’s hoping Botanist isn’t actually on to something (and let’s face it, logic suggests he isn’t).

The second segment of the album, Allies, is a series of collaborations with like-minded black metal artists such as Cult Of Linnaeus and Arborist, and the resultant tracks are all worth listening to, but are more anchored in traditional black metal. They don’t actually distract from the potency of Doom In Bloom, but that’s where the core of this peculiar, sinister and arresting album lies.