Blood and Thunder: Turning Ashes to Gold

This week's best metal release finds some musical innovators from Brooklyn up to their philosophical shenanigans once again.

Album of the Week

Liturgy, The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey)

The more the years go by, the more Liturgy’s 2011 marvel Aesthethica stands out as one of the best metal albums of the decade so far. I can practically hear the cries of derision as I type. But it’s an album that so wonderfully turns the ideas of black metal on its ear, subverting, inverting it all so that instead of wallowing in misery and morbidity, it creates something bizarrely uplifting, its musical vision far outside extreme metal yet with its feet firmly planted in extreme metal influences. Typical of the metal scene, though, many were quick to react negatively toward Liturgy, but the more the backlash swelled the more apparent it was that folks were particularly preoccupied with the pretensions of guitarist/vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix than the actual music. Four years have passed, and interviewers for metal publications are still bringing up his dissertation on black metal, unwilling to let that faux-controversy die.

Hunt-Hendrix can definitely be found guilty of having his head up his rectum from time to time — have you read the essay? — but it’s great to see someone at least making an effort to create something bold and new in this stagnating genre. Anything that gets the underground kids’ knickers in a twist is a great thing. The brand new follow-up The Ark Work, however, finds Hunt-Hendrix attempting to take that strange blend of black metal and avant-garde to an even more surreal new level, to the point where even those who express admiration for the guy and his music will be asking themselves if he’s more charlatan than innovator. The approach on the new record is that extreme. Bells, glockenspiels, horns, horn synths, and even bagpipes are all on equal footing with the band’s foundation of guitars, bass, and drums, and the end result is a piece of work that will leave anyone who hears it dumbstruck.

Upon hearing the goofy horn fanfare that kicks off the album, the rap-style vocal inflections, the chants, the mix of the organic and synthetic, the extreme and the mellifluous, you seriously don’t know what to make of it, and more often than not people will be wondering just what kind of bullshit are they listening to. Then again, look back at all those moments in your life of music fandom when you discovered experimental music for the first time. Voivod, Can, Cecil Taylor, Scott Walker, no matter who it is, when you hear something unlike anything else you’ve ever heard before, the “What is this shit?” alarm bells instinctively go off in your head. Goodness knows when I heard The Ark Work for the first time, I was as flabbergasted as I’ve ever been hearing a new piece of music.

But like Tago Mago, War and Pain, and The Drift, once you get to know the music more and let that initial shock dissipate, the more this confounding album starts to make sense. Moments begin to click. The way “Kel Valhaal” richly blends martial beats, horn bursts, drones, and glitchy moments that provide a backdrop for Hunt-Hendrix’s trance-like vocal inflections. How “Follow II” takes atmospheric black metal and transports it into a synthetic realm, throwing open the shades, letting beams of light in on a sound normally reserved for moping and morbidity. The thudding electronic beats and mechanical guitars on the strangely affecting “Quetzalcoatl”. The wry commentary of the thudding “Vitriol” (“I turn your ashes to gold / You repay me with vitriol”). Or best of all, the stunning “Reign Array”, how those glockenspiels match Greg Fox’s tight blastbeats step for step, lifting the music to the high heavens, followed by those damned bagpipes, Hunt-Hendrix chanting away.

The Ark Work is far more eclectic than Aesthethica, but for all the unconventional touches that unmistakable Liturgy sound is always there, Hunt-Hendrix’s marriage of black metal and spectral music constantly forming the core. However, with those black metal roots he and Liturgy have branched out in ways no one has ever attempted before. And because it’s coming from a band led by an artist as ambitious as Hunt-Hendrix, it will, again, be polarizing in the metal scene. Some writers have already eviscerated this album, while others, like yours truly, have come to love the thing greatly over the past two months. Listen. Absorb. If you hate it, that’s fine, but it’s not fair to write it off after one cursory spin. Keeping one’s mind open to new ideas is a huge mental hurdle for any metal fan to get over — this genre will always be staunchly conservative, after all — but what Liturgy has done here is extraordinary, and if you’re patient with it, the rewards will be bountiful.

(Listen on Spotify.)


Also out this week:

Barren Earth, On Lonely Towers (Century Media)

Three years after second album The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth have returned with a new singer and a fresher outlook than the previous record, which lacked the vibrancy of the debut Curse of the Red River. The band is still preoccupied with the extreme metal-meets-prog formula that Opeth ditched years ago, only this time it feels like they’re having a lot more fun with it before. With intricate arrangements that border on playful at times, the doom and death-inspired passages lend the music gravitas, but the key here is new singer Jón Aldará, who steps in and delivers a powerful, versatile performance that injects such arch music with the personality and soul it needs. “Chaos the Songs Within” and “A Shapeless Derelict” are fine examples of this newfound passion, and anyone who yearns for the Opeth and Amorphis of old will find Barren Earth’s return to form very rewarding.

Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire (Thrill Jockey)

When you listen to the sixth album by the anarchic Rhode Island noise rockers, what hits you immediately is just how huge the duo sounds now. Nothing has changed in their approach at all; it’s still the same dense, hyper-intense mix of bass and drums that predated Death From Above 1979 (“Polite-ning Bolt”, to cynics), but there’s a professionalism to the production that makes the music pop out more. The challenge, time and again, is for Brians Gibson and Chippendale to harness that manic energy just enough to keep the music engaging, to not dull listeners’ senses with all the racket, and in the end that’s what this album is so brilliant at doing. The tracks might be experimental to the point of being nonlinear in structure, but songs like “The Metal East”, “Horsepower”, and “Dream Genie” are terrific examples of that combination of power and restraint. (Listen on Spotify.)

Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock, Spirit on a Mission (Allegro)

Few could see this coming, but Michael Schenker’s latest project has turned into an awfully good little band. With former Scorpions bandmates Herman Rarebell and Francis Buccholz, as well as journeyman singer Doogie White and guitarist Wayne Findlay, not only have they been pleasing crowds with a bevy of UFO. MSG, and Scorps classics, but the new music they’ve been making has been surprisingly good, and this latest album is no exception. Fitting neatly between the blues-driven sounds of UFO and the sleeker style of the Scorpions, Spirit on a Mission is at its best when putting a fresh spin those classic sounds. Heavier moments like “Saviour Machine” stumble, but thankfully the majority of the record is devoted to energetic heavy rock, and Schenker himself is in fine form, sounding as flamboyant as ever. “Something of the Night”, “Live and Let Live”, and “Vigilante Man” are all a blast, signs that there’s plenty of good music in these old guys still. (Listen on Spotify.)

Oceano, Ascendants (Earache)

I’m fascinated by the wispy little keyboard touches that keep appearing on this latest album by the Chicago band. It’s as if they’re trying to create a similar delicate-heavy contrast to what Meshuggah so masterfully does time and again. Only here it’s so much more hackneyed, clumsily tacked on to the band’s knuckle-dragging deathcore riffs and barnyard grunts. To their credit, this album is a merciful 28 minutes long, so there’s that at least, but Oceano continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel, with zero creativity whatsoever. (Listen on Spotify.)

Theories, Regression (Metal Blade)

The Seattle band is awfully good at replicating the same hyper-intense grindcore of Nasum on this debut album, creating songs that are visceral and aggressive enough but always mindful of letting the music actually go somewhere. However, what captures your attention amidst all the crusty riffs and blastbeats are the sporadic forays into Discordance Axis territory. You hear it immediately, like on “Shame”, that distinct use of atonal sounds rather than conventional riff patterns. As good as the straightforward grind is, the real excitement is to be had when the band thinks outside the box — the epic “Hell in Her Eyes” is another such moment — and it’s a little unfortunate that side of the band is only teased at. We need more of it. (Listen on Spotify.)

Therapy?, Disquiet (Amazing Record Co.)

It’s incredible to think the Northern Irish faves have put out 14 albums now, but that’s what happens when you’re completely ignored in North America. Ever since the mid-‘90s glory days of Troublegum and Infernal Love Therapy? has been operating under the radar of tastemakers on this continent, so it will be a surprise to many that not only has the band been so consistently creative, but they’re back sounding their best in many years. In fact, Disquiet feels like a concerted effort to go back to the sound of 20 years ago, where metal, rock, punk, and pop coalesced beautifully, making an extraordinary hybrid sound. It’s part hooks, part heaviness, as songs like “Still Hurts”, “Tides”, and “Fall Behind” are contagious little tunes, while “Idiot Cousin” and “Deathstimate” bring out the riffs. While I was a big admirer of Crooked Timber six years ago, this album tops it easily. Not many will be touring it on this side of the Atlantic, but trust me, you need to hear this. (Listen on Spotify.)


Gone Too Soon

It’s so rare in popular music for a hit single to be built around a drum beat, where the first hook you think of when you see the title is a distinct, insanely catchy drum beat. Any rock drummer would kill for such an opportunity, to cement their place in rock/pop history. AJ Pero did just that in 1984 when he provided the quirky, instantly memorable intro to “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, a herky-jerky little beat with cowbell that, unbeknownst to everyone, would help catapult Twisted Sister to global stardom. The youngest member of the band, Pero joined Twisted Sister in 1982, solidifying a lineup that would churn out four best-selling albums, including the classic Under the Blade and the smash Stay Hungry. Pero was as hard-hitting a drummer as you’d ever hear, his heavy beats adding the right amount of power to the band’s music, and in addition to his continued work with Twisted Sister, he also performed most recently as a member of Adrenaline Mob. On March 20 he died in his sleep on Adrenaline Mob’s tour bus, the victim of an apparent heart attack at the far too young age of 55. He will be dearly missed, but his legacy as a drummer will live on thanks to the stellar work he did on record.


Head Above Ground

The heaviest/hardest album to make an impression on the American album chart this past week is Sleeping With Sirens’ Animals, which continues the Florida band’s crazy momentum among its teen audience, debuting at number six with a strong 34,950 sold. Most metal fans will cringe at the way these kids combine post-hardcore and pop music, not to mention Kellin Quinn’s effeminate singing, but anyone over the age of 35 might be reminded of Danger Danger, a late-‘80s band that put a similar, high-gloss spin on glam metal, which has distinct parallels with post-hardcore’s aesthetic. It’s lightweight music, but very smartly done, as “Fly” and “Go Go Go” work shockingly well as pop tunes. Kind of like the cringe-worthy but fun “Bang Bang” did, back in the day. (Thanks again to Metal Insider for the numbers.)


Shameless Nostalgia

KISS’s third album Dressed to Kill turned 40 this past week. Although the band started to headline arenas in America’s Midwest around this time, Dressed to Kill remains charmingly quaint, the last in a trifecta of albums that, despite the band’s garish and bombastic image, were gritty little rock ‘n’ roll records. At a brisk and crisp 30 minutes, not a second is wasted on the album, and although “Rock and Roll All Nite” would go on to be its most famous song — the live version of the song would be outsell the studio version a year later — the rest of the album is actually more rewarding. Gene Simmons’s “She” and “Ladies in Waiting” hearkens back to his Wicked Lester days, Peter Criss’s “Getaway” is an upbeat tune, while Paul Stanley dominates with a series of some of the band’s catchiest songs, including “Room service”, “Rock Bottom”, “Love Her All I Can”, and “C’mon and Love Me”. The band would finally get the best-selling album they deserved a year later with the landmark Alive!, kicking off a period that would yield an insane 11 platinum albums in four years. Dressed to Kill hearkens back to an era that seems alien now, when KISS were mere upstarts and the music and the band were of utmost importance. That energy is a delight to hear four decades later. (Listen on Spotify.)


Track of the Week

When Icelandic youngsters The Vintage Caravan put out their Nuclear Blast debut Voyage last year, it was a mildly enjoyable effort that fit snugly into the whole wave of retro-minded heavy rock that’s been pouring out of Scandinavia these past five years, but it was clear that if they were going to make a bigger impression they’d have to sound a little more assertive. Their new album Arrival, which comes out in June, is a confident step in the right direction, and the first single “Babylon” is a barnstormer, the kind of hard-edged song that will grab people’s attention. Give it a listen, and crank it — and pardon the lyric video.

Blabbermouth Headline of the Week

Horns Up: Henri Sorvali, Twisted Sister, Steve Thompson.

Horns Down: Fretting over “authenticity in metal”, Van Halen’s train wreck of a live album, Otep vs. Terror Universal.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.