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?

A Dusted Review: Fuck Off Get Free (For The Island Of Montreal) (January 23rd, 2014)

In the years since they first emerged in 2000 from beneath the shadow of parent band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra (as they currently call themselves) have undergone a radical evolution, one that I’d argue has been more significant than Godspeed’s, if that band’s tepid recent opus Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend is anything to go by. Fourteen years ago, the entirely instrumental He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… sounded a bit like Godspeed-lite, a delicate, string-focused album of lilting, mournful chamber rock.

But 2008’s 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons was a remarkable volte-face, with de facto bandleader Efrim Menuck ditching post-rock in favour of a more direct, almost post-punk rambunctiousness that gave fresh impetus to the band’s overtly political lyrics. Traditional fans were put off, but Thee Silver Mt Zion have refused to back down, with Fuck Off Get Free their most aggressive and strident record yet.

And the band certainly flies out of the traps. The title track is one of its strongest yet, an epic, angry paean to Thee Silver Mt Zion’s home city of Montreal. Over its 10 minutes, Menuck takes vicious broadsides at the corporate greed that has ripped out the vibrant soul of the communities that live there. Guitars broil and violins swing and soar with the typical overload that characterizes post-13 Blues Silver Mt Zion, whilst a massed choir with Menuck at its core violently declaims lyrics like “While pennies pile the hoarders smile and proclaim / That what we want will never be.” Menuck sounds particularly outraged throughout, while the track ends on an elegiac note as a mass of female voices painfully repeats the words “Hold me under bright water never let us end” in a final gesture of defiance. It’s potent stuff, and it’s swiftly followed by the more rigid and ferocious 14 minutes of “Austerity Blues.” The title speaks for itself in these crappy times, but there are also choice lines, such as “Thieves and liars rule everything we know.”

Fuck Off Get Free, like most Silver Mt Zion albums, wears its heart on its sleeve. Two track titles include the word “blues,” whilst another is emphatically titled “What We Loved Was Not Enough.” The lyrical focus is dark, bordering on the apocalyptic, redolent with imagery of collapsing skies and burning cities.

At more than 50 minutes, it can get quite exhausting, although I can only admire a band that is prepared to stand up and shout “Fuck you!” at the system. Musically, this is as loud and brutal as a so-called post-rock band can get, with an energy that occasionally borders on punk, although a lot of that is offset by the omnipresent strings. As on previous releases, there’s a certain imbalance to Thee Silver Mt Zion’s musical make-up, one that undermines the album’s consistency, straining the listener’s patience and attention span. Equally, Menuck’s voice is an acquired taste to say the least, its earnest lamentation bordering dangerously on the grating. But channelled properly, as on the title track and “Austerity Blues,” the energy and attitude on Fuck Off Get Free is infectious and righteous.

Maybe we need more of that these days, to keep those skies from actually falling in.