Some of rock and metal’s greatest bands or moments have occurred against a backdrop of divide and hatred for the results. Hardcore punks hated the fact that Black Flag took Saint Vitus out on the road with them; and then more so when they started playing slower. Napalm Death’s biggest fans in the early days got tetchy if they played anything longer than a minute. And let’s not forget, London Records were mighty pissed when Sleep wasted all the money for ‘Dopesmoker’ on beer and weed, producing a one-song 52-minute effort that would later be regarded as one of the heaviest albums ever.
That said, metal’s biggest Marmite band, right now, surely has to be Liturgy. They don’t play black metal as it has been done traditionally in the past – there’s no nihilism evident; the corpse-paint is out and check shirts and Levi jeans are in; and the production is strikingly clean in contrast with some of the frost-bitten, lo-fi production inherent on many of black metal’s classic records. They ain’t going to get banned from Denmark any time soon though, so they’re here to stay.
That’s the conundrum that faces Liturgy. They’ve quickly garnered a name for themselves, though not entirely for the right reasons. You see, though they probably don’t care, haters hate Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Liturgy’s lead vocalist. Through labelling his band’s music ‘transcendal black metal’, the ideas that they discuss and pursue, and the imagery they employ, he and they have drawn much scorn but additionally to both Liturgy and himself from many vocal fans of the genre. Maybe it’s just that black metal in general is reluctant to move on from its traditional boundaries; indeed, the ongoing shift to different audiences, styles and so on is proving to be a thorny subject. Deal with it.
This brings us neatly onto ‘Aesthetica’, Liturgy’s second album and first for Thrill Jockey, who have more in common with indie rock than ‘transcendal black metal’. On the whole, this is a pretty good album; it triumphantly defies the naysayers and the most part is an electrifying ride through Liturgy’s universe. Continuing pretty much where ‘Renihilation’ left off, many of tracks hit breakneck speed, a series of riffs high up the fretboard, blistering beats and illegible screams and howls from Hendrix on the energetic ‘High Gold’.
It’s easy to write off ‘Aesthetica’ as just the same riff over and over again, but that’s not strictly true. Most of the songs don’t appear to follow a simple formula and some passages last a fair whack. But the joy lies in when the next excellent riff turns up, just as it seems it’s going to get too repetitive. This is best displayed on the tracks ‘Sun of Light’ and ‘Glory Bronze’, where they display seeming extreme subtlety in riff changes. If you’re carefully paying attention, you’ll notice this and will be rewarded in kind.
It seems Liturgy decided to throw in a couple of curveballs with ‘Aesthetica’ too – first of all ‘Generation’, which slows down the pace slightly from hyperspeed to a sprawling 7-minute gallop, which on first reflection is just the same riff over and over and over again. But listen carefully and you’ll notice the subtle changes in the riff. It prevents it from becoming totally stale and is an appropriate breather in proceedings if nothing else. The true masterpiece here though is ‘Veins of God’, which has more in common with sludge rock than anything else, but is a heavy stomper that shows Liturgy have plenty in their locker and hints at further room to evolve their ideology.
‘Veins of God’ is such an awesome song that it would have provided the perfect end to the album, in my honest opinion. I’d have been really happy for the album to finish right there. But it carries on for a few tracks more and winds up outstaying its welcome. ‘Red Crown’ is alright, but the thrill of the album had begun to dissipate by then, and ‘Glass Earth’ is basically three minutes of chanting which probably fits into ‘Aesthetica’s blueprint, but is more comparable to an annoying alarm clock without a snooze button. It kills the album in terms of an enjoyable experience and kills off any impact ‘Harmonia’ may have possessed without the unwelcoming track before it. It only serves to prove how pretentious Liturgy are at times and it does somewhat get in the way of what is otherwise an excellent record.
To summise, ‘Aesthetica’ is indeed a challenge and one not to be undertaken lightly. If you’ve not experienced Liturgy before, it’s certainly not grim and it’s definitely not evil sounding. Digest it in one go – you’ll need plenty to as well, at over 65 minutes long, and it really doesn’t deserve to be chopped up. Liturgy ought to be congratulated than reviled for challenging people’s perceptions of what black metal is in 2011, whether you agree with Hunter’s defiant vision or not.