Liturgy’s Journey Through Aesthetic

The hype surrounding Aesthethica, the second full-length from young Brooklyn black metal outfit Liturgy, has been near-suffocating. The album, released via the chic and diverse Thrill Jockey Records, traces through 12 tracks and varying levels of self-indulgence, concocting a brew of brightly-toned black metal with a post-rock influence, at times feeling like the four-piece took the most memorable aspects of what Wolves in the Throne Room have done over the course of their several records and injected it with a sub-tech progressive edge and youthful vigor. Album opener “High Gold” sets the tone for much of what’s to come with an abrasive intro followed by driving blastbeats, tremolo picking, largely indecipherable screams, and a brightness in the guitars of Bernard Gann and central creative figure/vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, responsible for both the lyrics and music on the album, which was recorded and mixed by Colin Marston at his Thousand Caves of Menegroth studio. Drummer Greg Fox consistently provides technical highlights throughout Aesthethica, and that begins as soon as “High Gold” gets underway and continues well through “True Will” and the more prog-feeling “Returner.”

Those abhorrent of musical pretentiousness can pretty much stop reading this review right now. Liturgy more or less carve their name in a style of black metal that’s more geared on artistic exploration than the sheer anti-accessibility of the genre’s roots, and they know it. They’re young despite having been together as a band for six years now, and there’s a young player’s arrogance about Aesthethica, which mostly serves the album well in achieving its lofty stylistic goals. You can do it if you know you’re already doing it, and so forth. Hunt-Hendrix’s innovation, if it is one, is in adding the relentless prog feel to black metal’s given genre elements, but it’s innovation that comes at the price of meandering and sometimes over-thought songwriting. “High Gold” and “True Will” both start with an intro that has next to nothing to do with the actual song. “High Gold” begins with a kind of ringing click fed through effects, and “True Will” with vocal droning from Hunt-Hendrix that also shows up toward the end of Aesthethica for the full three and a half minutes of “Glass Earth.” Listening, I thought that was going to be the pattern for the whole album, but “Returner” begins almost in medias res with its turning, stopping/starting guitar riff and impressive runs from Fox.

Oddly, the two instrumentals on Aesthethica provide some of the album’s most interesting material. “Generation,” which follows “Returner,” is seven-plus minutes of insistent progressive riffing that, unlike much of what’s come on the three tracks prior, feels like it wants to bring the listener along with it. Not very black metal, but Liturgy seem only concerned with stylistic confines only insomuch as they can toy with them to provoke a reaction. “Generation” chugs, twists and displays a tightness between the four players in the band – bassist Tyler Dusenbury will get his high point performance later – through its repeating riff cycle that feels lost in the morass at other points on Aesthethica, the lack of vocals allowing the instruments to both breathe and make the most of a structure that, were it not so intricate and obviously thought out, one might be tempted to call a jam. Again, it’s Fox making the song. His snare hits have a consistent sound that makes me wonder if they’re triggered or replaced, but even if they are, it’s done remarkably well and doesn’t detract from his actual playing.

“Tragic Laurel” doesn’t offer much that “Returner” didn’t already give, and with “Sun of Light” right after, Aesthethica seems to dip where it really should be hitting its stride, leading to the conclusion that at 12 tracks and 68 minutes, the album is simply too long and that Liturgy, for all their creative will and clearly-expressed drive, are still lacking an editorial voice in terms of realizing the ground they’ve already tread and when pulling back might be the more effective move. If Aesthethica is taken in three-song movements (as the back cover art seems to suggest, splitting the track-listing as though onto the four sides of a double-LP), then that beginning with “Generation,” which seems like it’s going to be the most fascinating and engaging, is ultimately the most redundant. The last minute of the “Sun of Light” is silence, as though to allow the audience time to process what they’re heard, but with “Helix Skull” essentially serving as an intro to the second half of the album, they’d have that time anyway before going into “Glory Bronze,” which instead of capitalizing on any momentum that might have been built previously, has the task of renewing the fascination of the opening few tracks. “Glory Bronze” might be a highlight of Aesthethica for its contemplative yet riotous feel, but again, the album has basically had to reset itself before getting to it, and much of the forward movement has been lost.

The second instrumental – and that on which Dusenbury is both most present in the mix and most at-home sounding – is “Veins of God,” which follows “Glory Bronze” and opens with slow drumming from Fox before moving into Aesthethica’s most riff-driven piece. At 7:55, the tracks follows a different version of the same path as “Generation,” capitalizing on the guitars of Hunt-Hendrix and Gann to affect a disparate atmosphere from the more strictly “black metal” material and more geared on progressive exploration. “Veins of God” has a theatrical element to it that Liturgy largely eschews in their presentation, but to the four-piece’s credit, they pull it off well, and close the third side of the record opening wide into an engagement of audience even more effective than that of the prior instrumental track. I don’t know if it’s right to say they’ve redeemed the momentum they had come out of “Generation” and into the lull of “Tragic Laurel,” “Sun of Light” and “Helix Skull,” but going into the 19 minutes of Aesthethica’s closing movement, I’m more excited for what’s to come than I was going into the third.

And for what it’s worth, “Red Crown” keeps the proceedings moving along, relying on Fox to propel a long lead-in section into more blasting, fast-picking, screams and stops. Again, by now it isn’t anything Liturgy haven’t already shown, but they manage to play the card better here than elsewhere on the album. With “Glass Earth,” however, Hunt-Hendrix’s vocal drones (which he bravely performed live as a solo act opening for Scott Kelly and Scott “Wino” Weinrich in NYC) are basically unlistenable. For three and a half minutes, grunts and “hey” build on each other, affecting a gradual chorus, and it’s simply too much, especially since it was already done earlier, as the intro for “True Will.” Of the several missteps on Aesthethica, this might be the most eye-roll-worthy, and it’s doubly unfortunate that closer “Harmonia” – into which “Glass Earth” literally infracts, bleeding over onto the next CD track – is one of the album’s best songs, drawing together the progressive drama of “Generation” and even more so “Veins of God” and combining it with Hunt-Hendrix’s undeniable if singularly-minded, far-back, echoing screams. It’s a shame that Aesthetihca’s apex had to come after “Glass Earth,” but as the silence that follows the track – mirroring that after “Sun of Light” leads into a kind of toy keyboard secret cut/outro, it serves as one more example of Liturgy’s need for balance if not restraint.

Ultimately, that’s what Aesthethica comes down to. Its hype may or may not be deserved and its genre-purity may be tainted by their tight t-shirts and lack of corpsepaint – I don’t really give a shit. What’s more important is that in listening, Liturgy are too given to these swathes of self-indulgence and that the drive of the record, which is so potent at times, suffers for it. I obviously don’t know and refuse to speculate on the relationships and roles each band member plays in the writing process (apart from the liner notes lyrics/music credit to Hunt-Hendrix and the vague “realized by Liturgy,” there’s no information given in this regard), but one would hope that somewhere along the line, some voice in the band, even if it’s Hunt-Hendrix himself, would speak up in favor of an overall balance between these divergences and the songwriting that’s the core of any successful album. Maybe with time these things will come, and until then there seems to be no shortage of listeners both critical and otherwise willing to praise the band for their achievements thus far, which are considerable by any measure.

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Thrill Jockey Records

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