Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Album: Liturgy - Aesthethica

Aesthethica (Liturgy)
Album: Aesthethica
Thrill Jockey
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Rating: ******** (8/10)

I always hesitate when reviewing music that's outside of my normal area of expertise. So I've been sitting on the new Liturgy for a while, trying to figure out how to write about it without reviewing the entire history of black metal.

But it occurs to me that this album only ended up in my hands in the first place because of Liturgy's crossover appeal and because of the band's [apparently conscious] efforts to "cross over" to indie rock fans. It matters more to me, and probably to the band, what this album will mean to those outside the genre. After all, black metal (fast post-thrash metal with extreme technical prowess, no melodic lines and song structures more akin to post-rock than pop) is often an insular world, one associated with morbid, angry teenage boys (at best) or church-burning neo-Nazis (at worst).

Liturgy are not of this ilk. Given the strict elitism - near fascism - of the black metal underworld, "crossover" doesn't mean existing in both worlds. You're either in or you're out, and Liturgy have rather courageously elected to alienate those who are most disposed towards their musical stylings in favor of those who are more in line with their artistic vision. Because Liturgy is not your typical black metal band. While their closest kin musically may be the Norwegian teens of yesteryear (1991 to be exact), there's a sensibility to Liturgy that goes far deeper than the pure aggression of those rather juvenile (albeit technically skilled) bands. That's not to say Liturgy aren't brutally aggressive, but they also recognize their music as an artistic statement in dialog with the rest of independent music. For most adherents, black metal is an xtreme culture, but in the hands of Liturgy, it's simply a tool, the artists' chosen medium.

So, what of the actual album? It's dense and dramatic, anguished and violent. I actually feel a little sick to my stomach after listening to it for too long (and this is one of those rare instances where that's a compliment). While the high shrieking vocals are not all that far from traditional black metal, there's something more vulnerable in frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's plaintive, desperate wail. Meanwhile, while all black metal is musically dense, the genealogy of Liturgy's "wall of sound" can be traced to psychedelic rock. Their droning noise has also been rightly compared (by none less than the Village Voice) to the downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 70's - Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and the like.

There's also audible goth influences at moments - not goth in the "goth metal" sense, but in the sheer melodrama of the sound. Hunt-Hendrix's screech could hardly be further from The Cure's Robert Smith, but you can hear the very same mournful desperation behind each. Of course, the goth side of Liturgy is also gothic in their exploration of European religious history. From the synthvox choral that opens "True Will" to the straight-up fugue "Helix Skull," from song titles like "Veins of God" to buried sounds evoking church bells and organs throughout the record, Aesthethica is mired in religious imagery.

The album rarely grooves, which is par for the black metal course. There are moments of syncopation that exist just on the border between jerky math rock and a more traditional rock'n'roll pulse. But by and large, the drums stick to steady eighth notes on snare, bass drum and cymbal or simply chaotic fills. Rarely does the snare even fall back on the usual two-four of most popular music. This is because while most popular music tries to hook the listener in with its beat, this sort of metal tries to beat the listener over the head. Rather than sliding forward on an easy groove, the music's inertia pulls it backwards at every beat, so even as the guitar hurdles forward at high speeds, the listener feels as though they are pushing a stalled train up a steep hill. It's exhausting.

Clocking in at over an hour and brutally dense, Aesthethica is be a lot for those unaccustomed to black metal to digest. Even when broken up by the quieter sound experiments that start, end or occupy entirely numerous tracks on the album, it's still a tough listen. It can also become a bit samey, always with the same shrieking vocals, the same bambambambambam on the drums, the same wall of distorted guitar. Add to that the ruthless repetition of some riffs for five minutes or more. Of course, that's part of the point of music like this, to abuse the listener, to push them to the limits of tolerance. And while that's artistically fascinating and often satisfying, over an hour of it is a lot for the black metal greenhorn.

Of course, this style, this band, this album, aren't about making concessions or going easy on anyone. It's not about winning over listeners and no doubt, a lot of people will shut this album off after only a few minutes. And that's one of the reasons it's so very daring of Liturgy to reach out to the hostile indie audience. Liturgy wants to be the token black metal record in your collection (although they might also like it if you were inspired by their music to broaden your horizons and dig deeper in the genre). Just as sludge metal has Mastadon, black metal has Liturgy, a place where fans of Arcade Fire and Interpol can dip their toes in a foreign genre.

Perhaps more than anything, it bears noting that Aesthethica is not all misery. While its torment is relentless, there are moments of ecstasy buried in the screams, even in the first track. There's a rush, an elation, a surging upwards even as the weight of the music seems to drag us downward. Despite the effort, or maybe because of it, Aesthethica feels triumphant. But you'll need a nap afterward.

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