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I approached fellow blogger Josh Haun (of That’s How Kids Die infamy) a while back because I knew from conversations on Twitter that he and I would likely have drastically different opinions on the new Liturgy record.  I didn’t really care enough about the record either way to do a full-on review, but I still thought there were a lot of issues circulating throughout the metal scene on which it might be interesting to get a dual perspective.  So, obviously this isn’t quite the case of a real, knock-down, drag-out smackdown.  We haven’t called each other names or made rude suggestions regarding the bovine origins of the other’s parents; we’re just two guys with too many opinions about music.

In case you’re not too clear on what we’re talking about in terms of the widespread accusations of hipsterism that get thrown around with this band, may we kindly suggest you watch as much of this interview with the “band” from Scion Rock Fest as you can stomach:

Now you see what we’re up against, right?

I asked Josh to give the album a listen and pass along his immediate reactions as something of an opening statement.  What follows is therefore Josh’s opening thoughts, followed by my opening thoughts, after which point he and I traded emails back and forth to engage in a rather far-flung conversation that touches on everything from Darkthrone to Deathspell Omega, Moby to Beck, negativity to positivity to doofuses to hipsters to jasmine rice…and beyond.  Thanks for reading, and please do let us know where you come down on any and all of these issues.

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Opening thoughts on Liturgy’s Aesthetica:

Josh Haun:  Listening to Liturgy’s Aesthetica after being woefully turned off by the few tracks I’d already heard prior to “obtaining” a copy.  I recently saw a video interview where the singer could barely string a coherent sentence together (it went something like: “Like… um… like, philosophy 101-level bullshit… like, um, um, bullshit attempt to intellectualize black metal… like, um…) [Ed.: See above], so no surprise then that this appears to be black metal written by someone who doesn’t have the first clue about how to structure a song, much less play their instrument competently.  Liturgy fans seem to have it in their head that the only reason anyone could possibly hate this band is because they’re “hipsters” (whatever the fuck that means), or because of how they look, dress, talk etc.  I hate this band because I think the music is complete garbage and I don’t care whether the band is comprised of hipsters or Al Qaeda operatives.  The manifestos and sorry excuses for interviews are just turd icing on a shit cake.

I’m on track three at the moment, and I’m getting images of preschoolers in corpsepaint banging away on Fisher Price instruments.  Actually, preschool black metal would probably be more entertaining than this has been so far.  Oh hang on a second, track 4 sounds like they’re trying something different. This track sounds like crappy, under-produced Meshuggah or something, which isn’t saying much since I don’t really care for Meshuggah.  At least the obnoxious singer seems to have decided to shut the fuck up for this jam.  This track appears to be two minutes and thirty seconds worth of ideas stretched out over seven minutes.  Liturgy aren’t the only band that has this problem though, a lot of newer bands for some reason think a song has to drag on forever.  This is not trance-inducing, this is boring – you can go ahead and end any time now, track 4… shit there’s still like a minute and thirty left.  Well, at least the singer didn’t open his mouth for that entire time.

Aaaaaand we’re back to a piss poor black metal impression after that weird detour into djent-ville.  Track 5 sounds exactly like tracks 1 through 3.  I know this is my first time listening to the album and everything, but it probably isn’t good that I can’t tell the difference between tracks 1,2,3,5 and 6 so far, except on track 6 they added this effect where it sounds like the band is playing down the hall with the door closed for part of it.  Does this band have a bass player?  Do their guitars only have the 3 high strings on them?  Does their singer have testicles?  Track 6 is another one that goes on forever.

Track 7 seems to be from the soundtrack to the world’s most annoying Atari game.  Do you fucking remember Atari?  Did those games even have music?  If they did, it would sound like this steaming pile of pointlessness.  I guess the band threw in these little “curveballs” to break up the monotony of their utterly faceless treble assault.  Wait, what’s this?  Track 9 is actually piquing my interest.  I’m getting a bit of a sludgy, Sabbathy vibe here.  But alas, they don’t seem to be able to take it anywhere and my iTunes tells me they’re gonna drag it out to just shy of 8 minutes.  This band simply does not understand the fundamentals of compelling songwriting.  I know whoever’s reading this probably thinks I came into it already with a chip on my shoulder, but when Dan approached me about doing a hipster black metal throwdown, I really was willing to give Liturgy the benefit of the doubt, in spite of all the nonsense.  Had they blown me away, I would have readily admitted defeat… people who know me and follow THKD know that I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong about something (see: Kvelertak, Ghost, etc).

Track 11 is a chorus of people saying “hey” over and over again.  WHAT IN THE FUCKING FUCK IS THE POINT OF THIS?!?!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when this record was being finished: “Man, this is awesome!”  Man, this is some pretentious horseshit!  3:30 of people saying “hey”.  This must be what people mean by suicidal black metal, because this track is making me want to hang myself.  What a surprise, they end the album with another track that sounds exactly like tracks 1,2,3,5,6,8 and 10.  Playskool’s My First Black Metal Band.  Thankfully, this is over.

Dan Obstkrieg: In preparing these preliminary notes for squaring off with Mr. Haun, I was trying very purposefully to keep my commentary to the music itself, knowing that our subsequent conversations would likely touch on all the extraneous cultural factors relevant to the debate over Liturgy and the potentially broader accusations of hipsters (or whatever) having infiltrated black metal.

Well, first things first: The album is definitely too long.  That having been said, the pacing and sequencing are very well done, with a mid-album break and the occasional odd intro or outro that gives a breather before diving back into the smash-and-burn.  Also on the negative side, those layered vocal-only sections are intensely annoying – the vocals work much better when restricted to a sort of white-out howl whipping around the outskirts of the instrumental maelstrom.  All of this means, of course, that the Krallice comparisons are inevitable.  In fact, if I didn’t have such an aversion to reading or seeing any interviews done by the band’s insufferable mouthpiece, I’d be interested to see if anyone has asked him point-blank about the undeniable Krallice influence.

The chugging, Meshuggah-lite sections are a nice touch, but they can drag on too long – the prime offender here being “Generation,” which has no business being as long as it is.  This technique adds a lot to “High Gold,” and in general, I dig the abrupt starts and stops of many of the songs.  The band is less effective when they try to do more traditional black metal tremolo riffing that isn’t simultaneously supported by their trademark jittery blast and crash.  See the opening of “Sun Of Light,” for example – those melodies are just plain uneventful.  “Veins Of God,” on the other hand, slows things down nicely, but again, there’s absolutely no reason it should go on for eight minutes.  And yeah, seriously, “Glass Earth” is straight-up obnoxious.  Almost painfully so, especially given that I’m already so favorably disposed to this band by this point in the album.  What could possibly compel them to think that this was a good idea?

All of these criticisms and somewhat backhanded compliments aside, I do actually really like this album.  Even though the ’90s alternative rock (play the start of “Tragic Laurel,” and then play the start of Beck’s “Jack-Ass”…) and new school American black metal influences (or ripoffs, depending on your persuasion) are quite clear, it still feels like Liturgy have found an individual approach, and it’s an approach that I find enjoyable.  “Glory Bronze” is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, full of a legitimately affecting sense of yearning.  Maybe the cardinal sin of Liturgy is that the main dude has tried to actively claim black metal, and therefore in the process repudiated or denigrated what many of us black metal fiends identify as the true, untainted spirit of the form.

Does God hate them all?

The Debate:

Josh Haun:I have absolutely no problem with bands bringing aspects of other genres to black metal.  Just look at bands like Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega.  These bands incorporate tons of outside influences, but they are black metal beyond question and I love them for it.  I guess I just don’t see how this Liturgy is adding anything to black metal, unwanted or otherwise.  The tracks that incorporate other influences, the Meshuggah-esque track and doomy track, for instance, don’t really incorporate any of the black metal influences found throughout the rest of the album.  Relegating them to separate tracks tells me they don’t know how to blend their influences into a cohesive whole, which makes me wonder how they’re two album deep into their career and not still in the demo stage.  Furthermore, the black metal tracks are completely stock, I don’t hear anything even remotely interesting in them, nothing whatsoever that draws you into Liturgy’s world.  Certainly nothing that makes me want to hail them as vanguards or liken them to Bad Brains and David Bowie, as the d-bag that reviewed the album for Pitchfork did.

I don’t understand how anyone with a decent heavy metal knowledge base could find anything of real value in this band.  How is noisy, underproduced black metal innovative in any way whatsoever in 2011?  It’s been done before and done better by the likes of Darkthrone, Ulver, Ildjarn, VON, hell, there’s any number of bands that have made lo-fi black metal more engaging than Liturgy.  You see, the thing about an album like Transilvanian Hunger or Satanic Blood(okay, technically a demo…) is that it creates a world and drags you into it.  It actively engages the listener, pulls you into a world of seething, filthy, brittle distortion and real emotions, real negative energy.  I don’t get that when I hear Liturgy.  I don’t hear someone creating a world.  I hear someone that has studied a particular sound from afar and recreated it without fully immersing themselves in it.  It’s like a bad college thesis on black metal or something, totally dry and academic.Dan, from reading your opening statements, I almost get the feeling you had to convince yourself to like this album.  Was that the case or am I way off base?

Why do you think Liturgy have gotten the level of attention that they have?  Is it all about this ridiculous “hipster” stuff that the media and message board jockeys came up with or does the music really hold that much merit?

Dan Obstkrieg:I can see how you would get the impression that I had to talk myself into enjoying this, but I think that has less to do with the music itself, and more with the self-conscious reflexivity I feel compelled to use when discussing the band due to the intense level of shit-flinging going on all around the Internet.  The fact that I feel compelled to qualify my enjoyment of the music so heavily is frustrating, and I know to some extent that’s just my own issue.  Still, I always get the sense that even when I’m trying to talk with someone about Liturgy’s music, there’s always that nagging irritation of all the non-musical aspects of the band’s existence just lurking unannounced in the background.  Plus, thank God I haven’t read that Pitchfork review – sounds obnoxious as all hell (not that this is surprising, but still…).

So, let me be a bit more straightforward about it: I really like this record, and I really liked the last record, too.  I think this one is more interesting, but will definitely be more polarizing, both because of the heightened profile of the band, and because the band’s sound has become a bit more diversified.  That being said, I definitely don’t think Liturgy are the saviors of metal.  You and I both know metal doesn’t need saving, but more than that, I halfway agree with you that they don’t represent anything paradigmatically new.  Where I disagree with you, though, is in assessing what it is that they are doing.  When I listen to these records, I don’t hear them through the filter of raw, underproduced black metal albums from the likes of Ildjarn, Von, etc.  I hear this album much more through the lens of much more recent developments in U.S. black metal – Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, though obviously Liturgy only really sounds like the last of those three.  Where you seem to hear raw, underproduction, I hear a different approach to noise – the spindly, occasionally indie-esque guitar tone makes for a much brighter, almost white-hot noise, instead of the murky, bleak darkness of what we might call “real” black metal (whatever the fuck that means).  Apart from that, though, the more I listen to these albums, especially Aesthetica, the more I hear it as a real showcase for the drumming, which has such a fantastic, sprightly, almost jazz/fusion freak-out quality to it.

All of this, I think, is why one of the major problems with the band is, as I suggested earlier, that they are trying to actively claim black metal.  If they weren’t saying, “Ah, we’ve listened to all this black metal, and we’ve decided here’s what’s wrong with it, so now we’re producing a completely new kind of black metal, which is just what the world needs,” it would be much easier to just say either, “Yeah, I dig these songs,” or “Nah, this doesn’t do much for me.”  As for why exactly the band has gotten so much attention, man, it fucking beats me.  I like the music a lot, but if I were trying to give the new album a score, I’d probably call it a 7 or so out of 10.  So, I dig it, but right now it’s not doing much to aim for year-end list status.  I honestly think the fact that they’re from New York has a lot to do with it, given how much more intense scrutiny tends to be focused on whatever explosion of sub-sub-sub-genre is currently happening there.  Beyond that, honestly a lot of it is probably down to the relentless self-aggrandizing nonsense constantly spewing out of Mr. Front Dude’s mouth.

What do you think is the reason for all this focus?  Do you think there’s any legitimate connection between this band and any other more recent not-quite-“real”-for-whatever-reason black metal acts, like Deafheaven, Fell Voices, Ash Borer, etc.?

Also, do you think you would feel any differently about this music if it wasn’t presented as “black metal”?

Hey, you damn kids better get off our lawn(?)

Josh Haun: You make a good point about Liturgy being more in line with the likes of WITTR, Krallice and Weakling than with some of the lo-fi black metal practitioners I named.  In fact I think you can pretty easily draw a line from Weakling to Krallice to Liturgy.  I think Weakling and WITTR can be directly traced back to Burzum, but they each sort of took that sound and did their own thing with it, Americanized it, if you will.  I have a similar problem with Krallice as I do with Liturgy though, to be honest.  Sure, they’re obviously gifted musicians, but I don’t find their music particularly engaging.  To me, a Krallice album is like the musical equivalent of an abstract sculpture or piece of art that you just kind of stare at from afar in a museum whilst stroking your chin, and don’t really have any meaningful interaction with.  Mick Barr has made an entire career out of making music like that.  That said, why is Weakling engaging, but not Krallice or Liturgy?  The short answer is: riffs.  Dead as Dreams is chock full of cool ideas that actual warrant the lengthy songs.

Also, some of our differing perspective undoubtedly comes from differing frames of reference.  I don’t listen to much indie rock, with the exception of some occasional Low, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof (do those bands even count?), so I wouldn’t have the first clue about any of those influences on Liturgy’s sound.  I will agree with you that their sound is somehow “brighter”, for lack of a better term, than your typical lo-fi black metal.  Unfortunately I stopped being able to take the drumming seriously when I heard the term “burst beat” being thrown around.  Sometimes you can’t help but let the external bullshit get to you.With that said, this band probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it was presented as anything other than black metal.  I can’t see them being categorized as any other type of metal, and if they had started out on Thrill Jockey and been marketed as indie rock of some sort, I probably never would have heard of Liturgy.  I had never heard of Thrill Jockey until the metal websites lit up with news of this band signing with them.  Obviously, I’m totally ignorant when it comes to that scene. I’ve had some friends/colleagues/etc. who listened to that stuff and tried to turn me on to it, but to me most indie rock sounds like children’s music.  But yeah, the fact that they claim black metal, that the singer wrote a manifesto proclaiming black metal as dead and that his band has created this superior new form of black metal in its wake, it’s just too fucking ridiculous to take.  It’s typical pompous American behavior, though.  Who the fuck is this guy to tell us black metal is dead?  He’s obviously never heard the more recent works of Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord, Inquisition, Aosoth, etc.

I can’t help but feel that Liturgy, Deafheaven, Ash Borer, etc., do have a similar set of influences, namely Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room.  But I think a band like Deafheaven brings a lot more to the table by incorporating a hefty British shoegaze influence  and Ash Borer is a bit darker and more raw.  In fact, Deafheaven is one of the first bands to combine black metal and shoegaze in a way that I find appealing.  It probably just has to do with the fact that they write dynamic, interesting songs and that they manage to keep things pretty visceral in spite of incorporating those outside influences. [Ed.: Check out Josh’s review of Deafheaven’s Roads to Judah here.]

Do you consider Liturgy a black metal band?  Do you have any set parameters as to what black metal is/should be?  I’m only asking because a lot people (myself included at times) have some pretty narrow ideas about black metal and think that is a big part of why Liturgy and some of these other bands are getting the attention that they are.

Dan Obstkrieg: On your first point, I’m a bit split in my opinion.  Part of me wants to say: Who are you to say that admiring something from an intellectual distance doesn’t count as “meaningful interaction”?  I mean, I listen to plenty of stuff that doesn’t force my body into an immediate bout of relentless headbanging.  Shit, my goddamn neck would be wrecked if I listened to nothing but Celtic Frost all day, y’know?  But then, another part of me agrees: I can’t fucking stand listening to Orthrelm.  So, in that case, I guess the point of contention would be where you and I draw the line differently between acceptably and unacceptably intellectualized (or non-visceral-ized, if I can make up such an abominable term) metal.  On that count, I’m definitely on the side of finding both Krallice and Liturgy striking the right note of direct, physical engagement as well as more abstract, “Hey, fuckers, look what we can do” appreciation.

Shit, I had completely forgotten about that “burst beat” gibberish.  See, this is exactly the problem: Why in the hell is there this need to come up with a new name for something that is not appreciably new?  I just got done praising Liturgy’s drummer for some notably frantic (yet still jazz-inflected, at least every now and again) playing, but I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the dude has, like, invented some brand new technique.  That’s just obnoxious.  Let me compliment it in peace, you consistently bothersome mouth-openers…  But as far as the being influenced by indie or not, and what one’s frame of reference is, I don’t think that should matter too much.  I mean, if we’re on the subject of Deafheaven, I couldn’t really give a shit if I hear more My Bloody Valentine or Rites Of Spring in their sound.  Same goes for Liturgy: it doesn’t much matter to me if they sound like they ate up Sonic Youth and Darkthrone at the same time, so long as what they’re doing in the present speaks to me somehow, which it does.  In fact, earlier this week I was listening to the latest Moby album, Destroyed, and thinking that there was something similar going on with Liturgy.  Here’s what I mean: I know that when I listen to Moby, I’m essentially being toyed with.  For whatever reason, the dude just knows the chord progressions, the synth timbres, or whatever else that tug at the heart strings in just the right, desperate, over-earnest (and therefore cloyingly obnoxious to many) way.  I think that Liturgy ends up doing the same thing a lot of the time, so while I can recognize that melodies and progressions are arranged in such a way to lead to these triumphant meta-musical-narratives, I can’t help but be swept along by them.  Maybe that’s an argument against what I was saying earlier, that I can appreciate an intellectualized take on a particular metal sub-genre.

Here’s a thorny issue, though: You and I are both are jumping up this dude’s ass for trying to actively claim black metal, tell us it’s dead, and that he’s single-handedly saving us from ourselves or fucking whatever.  But isn’t that just the kind of oppositional ethos that a lot of what you and I would both call “real” black metal bands have striven for over the years?  What is it that makes us both recoil from this Silverchair-frontman-look-alike-dipstick, but not necessarily (though we haven’t spoken about this, and my own feelings are a bit conflicted on it) Ihsahn or Fenriz?

But as for your trickier question about whether I consider Liturgy a black metal band, or more broadly, how I conceive of the genre as a whole, again I’m of two minds.  I think that most of the stylistic touches that make up Liturgy’s sound can be linked more closely to black metal than any other of metal’s sub-genres, so yeah, I guess if you forced me to pin them in a genre, I’d call them black metal.  The whole thing about genre tags, though, is that they never name anything other than an imagined community (to make a completely pretentious and inappropriate reference to Benedict Anderson – am I becoming what we both hate?).  What I mean is, genres can be a useful shorthand, but to the extent that they take on a dogmatic life of their own beyond that, they are primarily a detriment.  That being said, some of the artists that I enjoy the most are those that are clearly pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.  Thus, without that shorthand that we carry with us (as listeners just as much as critics), departures from a genre’s standards wouldn’t exactly register as unique.

Beyond that, while I can recognize the value of genre standards as much as the limitations, I don’t find that listening to Liturgy does anything to diminish Venom, Hellhammer, Bathory, Darkthrone, Mayhem, and any and every other foundational black metal band.  Do you see a band like Liturgy actively damaging the legacy of black metal?  If so, what makes them any different from a more widely respected band like Ulver, or Arcturus, or anyone else who abandoned a more traditional black metal beginning for wild experimentation?  What about Dødheimsgard, for example, whose 666 InternationalI know is a very important record to the both of us?

What in the hell does this masterpiece have to do with anything, right?

Josh Haun: I think maybe the problem is that when I listen to metal, I want headbanging, fist raising and thoughts of totally destroying my surroundings, or at the very least a head-nod while I’m doing other more constructive things.  I don’t just want to listen to metal and go “Oh, that’s nice!” or “Wow! These guys sure can play!”  I want the music to involve me physically and/or emotionally.  Certainly there are bands that are good at involving the listener on a more cerebral level, such as Gorguts circa Obscura, but they also know how to tap into those more primal feelings.  Even a band like Sunn O))) manages to draw me in: not in a headbanging way, obviously, but they have have that primitive, gut-level thing going on that comes from the drone, which is one of the oldest musical traditions.  I just don’t get any of these things when I listen to Liturgy.  I think Krallice is getting there though, and Diotimais easily the most engaging thing they’ve ever done. For the most part though I think metal should be a kick in teeth, it should elicit some kind of extreme visceral reaction, not chin-stroking or navel-gazing.You bring up Ulver, Arcturus and Dødheimsgard and I agree with you that these are important black metal bands that took wildly adventurous turns into experimental/progressive territory.  However, I don’t hear anything in Liturgy that puts them in the same category as those bands.  I will concede that Liturgy have made alterations to the the traditional black metal sound, but to say that their body of work is as radical as something like 666 International is ludicrous.  I don’t know if those bands displayed the same kind of bravado/pretentiousness that Liturgy’s frontman has when their respective groundbreaking albums were released, but if they did, then they were certainly able to back it up musically, because albums like 666 International and La Masquerade Infernale are undeniable game changers.  Another part of it is that those bands worked to earn some respect and hone their craft prior to making these dramatic stylistic shifts.  Liturgy on the other hand came right out of the gate claiming that what they were doing was the dawn of a new age, but in reality they sound like should still be making demos in a basement somewhere and getting their shit together.  I do think there is something to be said for challenging the status quo, but I don’t think that a demo-level re-imagining of Nattens Madrigal with occasional left turns into other metal subgenres is the way to go about it.  If you’re going to claim to be inventing a new type of black metal, you better have the chops to back it up, and Liturgy just doesn’t have them.

As for the “are they black metal?” question, I felt like it had to be brought up, because I think a big chunk of why Liturgy are so “controversial” (for lack of a better term) is because a lot of people have such a narrow idea of what black metal is.  I don’t think my own ideas about the genre are particularly closed-minded, but there are certain key aspects I look for in black metal, the main one being negativity.  Dødheimsgard, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord are all bands that push the boundaries of the genre, all three bands sound nothing alike, and yet all three are unequivocally black metal.  To me, this is because all three create music that is positively crackling with negative energy.  You might argue that all heavy music harnesses negativity to some degree, but there is something different about the way black metal does so, something that is difficult to put a finger on.  I think it has to do with the level of conviction.  There is almost a religious reverence for negativity in black metal that to me is inherent to the genre.  I’m pretty sure I read something where the Liturgy vocalist said something about rejecting black metal’s negativity (please correct me if I’m wrong [Ed.: I would, except I can’t be bothered to track down every damn fool thing that this guy says…] ), but how can you claim black metal if you’re rejecting the very thing that is at the core/heart of the genre?  Black metal started in opposition to death metal, so there is definitely an “oppositional ethos” to the genre’s beginnings, as you said, but I think that ethos began and ended with the original Scandinavian second wave.  Black metal now is just as much a commodity as any other metal subgenre and the people that still ascribe this imagined preciousness to it are just hopelessly out of touch.  If Liturgy wants to “save” black metal or its fans, I’d say they’re about a decade too late.

Dan Obstkrieg: I don’t know, man, when I crank this new Liturgy record up, I sure as hell feel like I’m getting kicked in the teeth.  But again, I’ve got Aura Noir for when I need to get down-and-dirty thrashed, y’know?  Regardless of which camp we put Liturgy in, I’m perfectly happy with metal that invokes aesthetic appreciation rather than compulsory headbanging.  Ideally, though, it does both.  And you’re absolutely right: Liturgy is nowhere near the brilliance of Ulver, Arcturus, or Dødheimsgard.  I only brought them up to stress the point that experimentation with black metal doesn’t diminish what black metal “is,” if it is anything specific in the first place.

As for black metal being about negativity, I’m again half-sympathetic, half-skeptical.  I guess for the most part I find it difficult to take most any type of metal band’s outward aesthetic presentation seriously.  So, yes, of course much of what characterizes black metal is an aesthetic obsession with negativity and darkness – DarkSatanBlackWolfMoonHate.  And sure, maybe what the music’s creators intend to do is usher in a world of pure darkness and negativism, but for the most part I just don’t buy that.  I don’t believe that most of these musicians, even in such extremely serious and fantastic bands as Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, are honestly lurking around in caves at night thinking constant deep thoughts about the apocalypse and the beast in man.  I think they’re drinking some beers, living in decently-appointed apartments, cooking up a nice shrimp stir-fry with jasmine rice every now and again.  And I’m perfectly fine with that contradiction between the image and the reality, so long as we don’t think that the image imbues the music with some immutable substance that the revelation of a more mundane reality would subsequently destroy.

I’m looking for music that makes me feel empowered, and the very best black metal does that, even though it is, as you say, ruthlessly negative.  Sometimes music does this through the fantastic anthems about metal itself that populated so much of classic 80s metal, sometimes it does so through making me think, “Shit, things may be bad, but at least I don’t feel as bad as Eyehategod sounds like they feel…,” and sometimes it does so by blasting away with minor-keyed melodies and a bunch of skinny white dudes howling about Satan.  If we both agree that black metal is a commodity, then I suppose it’s all down to each of us as consumers to separate the bullshit from the kick-ass, and if we come down on opposite sides of that fence with Liturgy, I’m cool with that.  Plus, I’m pretty sure we can both agree that the dude should just zip his damn mouth and let the music speak for itself.
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If you’re still with us, mazel tov!  Special thanks to Josh for being such a good sport throughout this long-winded back and forth.  If you still haven’t had your fill of Liturgy-related jaw-flapping, my colleagues Jordan Campbell and Jim Brandon did a head-to-head review of Aesthetica over at MetalReview a few weeks ago.  In case you’re in need of a refreshing black punch in the jaw, why don’t we close out the proceedings with what I (not so humbly) determined a while back to be the Greatest Song In All Of Black Metal:

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I’ve been thinking lately about the sheer level of inundation that we followers of music face these days.  In many ways, I think this is a fantastic development, particularly with the healthy state of the underground’s manifold scenes and subcultures.  Maybe, on the other hand, that supposed strength is really just a reflection of the crippling weakness of the traditional music industry.  Important questions, but not exactly what I’m concerned with here.

You see, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that I don’t really know my music all that well.  Sure, I know a whole lot about music, but what I’m thinking is, basically, holy shit, I have got so much different music at my disposal each and every minute of every day that there is no way I can possible distinguish between it all.

To that end, I’m forcing myself to do a blind listening test.  I’ve collected all the metal in my iTunes onto a playlist, and I am going to put it on random, turn off my computer monitor so as to disallow any cheating, and then attempt to identify the first ten songs that come up on the playlist.  Find my running commentary below, with the actual results in brackets below each guess.  See you on the other side.
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1.  So, this is a pretty tasty morsel right here.  When it first played through, I was thinking it was something along the lines of the melodic death metal attack of God Dethroned.  Now that this chorus of ‘Stigma Diabolicum’ kicks in, however, I’m pretty sure that this is Austrian black/death metal horde Belphegor.  Definitely from one of their more recent albums, but I sure as hell couldn’t tell you which one.

I’ll take a stab at it, and say I think it’s from that album whose goddamn name escapes me at the moment, but not the most recent one (Hexenwahn whatever), nor from Bondage Goat Zombie, so their third most recent.

[It was: Belphegor, “Stigma Diabolicum,” but that IS from Bondage Goat ZombiePestapokalypse IV was what I was thinking of, but I was wrong to do so.  Anyway, I’m still counting that one as correct.]

2.  Hmm, I’m at quite a loss on this one.  It starts off with some black noise-ish segments, before kicking into some seriously crypt-kicking production, low echoing death howls, and a generally chaotic riff-and-drum attack.  My best guess is that this is from Weapon’s Drakonian Paradigm album.

[It was: Mitochondrion, “Wraithlike,” from Archaeaeon.  Definitely haven’t spent enough time with that record, but I don’t think that Weapon guess is too far off.]

3.  Son of a bitch this is all going to be embarrassing.  This starts off all jangly and reverb-y, so I’m thinking definitely 90s black metal.  But, shit, those vocals are all death gurgly, plus there’s a total Ihsahn howl in there somewhere.  It’s not Emperor, but it might be one of those classic mid-90s black/death hybrids like Dawn or Sacramentum.  I suppose it’s also possible it’s Naglfar or something like that, but the death influence seems a bit too strong for that.

Fuck, I’ve got tons of wild guesses, but no great ones.  Vocals now sound like Jonas Renske’s on Bloodbath.  Hmm.  Maybe I’m forgetting some old more straight-ahead Katatonia side project?  Anyway, I’m going with my first instinct, which was Dawn, from the Slaughtersun record.

[It was: Aeternus, “Dark Rage,” from Shadows of Old.  So, I was totally on the right track with that ‘classic but underappreciated black/death hybrid from the mid- to late 90s’ jag.  Just turns out that I am no better than all the rest at appreciating Aeternus.  Killer tune, although I prefer their first two records.]

4.  Crazy chamber music intro.  Is this from the new Sigh?  Oh, wow.  Embarrassing.  I’ve just mistaken Serj Tankian’s live, all-orchestral run through of his solo album Elect the Dead for Japan’s finest psychedelic black metal blasters.  Apologies to everyone involved.  Anyway, this, for sure, is Serj Tankian.  Tracks called “Money,” I think.

[It was: Serj Tankian, “Money,” from the Elect the Dead Symphony.  Clearly an unqualified win, there, but I kinda want to shave off some points just for thinking it was Sigh.]

5.  Ah, thankfully an easy one on which I will not embarrass myself.  This is Isis.  Or, at least, this is one of the tracks from the double-disc collection of reinterpretations of songs from Isis’ landmark 2002 (?) album Oceanic.  Couldn’t exactly tell you which track this is, but it’s one of the mellower ones, currently playing around with some nice organ tones, and then throwing Aaron Turner’s hoarse bellows out in the middle of this sparse instrumental expanse.  Very cool to hear this fantastic album broken down into its constituent pieces.

[It was: Isis, “The Other,” as interpreted/remixed by James Plotkin, from the Oceanic: Remixes/Reinterpretations compilation.  Success.]

6.  Whoa, that’s a harsh fucking contrast.  At first I thought this was Ildjarn, such is the hideous level of lo-fi noise emanating from my speakers at the moment.  On further consideration, though, my best guess is that this is very early Emperor, from the self-titled/Wrath of the Tyrant CD reissue.  And yet, and yet…  Damn, I’m second-guessing myself something fierce now.  Nope, sticking with Emperor.  Damned if I know the song, though.  Shameful.

[It was: Belketre, “Demzreyavbtre Belketraya,” from Ambre Zuerkl Vuorhdrevarvtre.  SON OF A BITCH.  Of course there is absolutely no reason for you to believe me now, but up there, when I wrote “I’m second-guessing myself something fierce now,” I absolutely was going to say “This sounds like it could also be some of that LLN stuff, maybe Belketre or Vlad Tepes.”  Fuuuuuuck.  Sorry Ihsahn, sorry Norway, sorry France.]

7.  Man, am I really making a poor showing of this.  At first blush, this track sounds like something tribal-ish and noisecore-y (adjectives are not my strong suit this morning).  Gets a bit more blasting, and then when the vocals kicks in, I’m fairly certain that’s Steve Austin’s coruscating howl, so I think this is Today is the Day.  Now that I think about it, that makes good sense, since I think this is from when TITD had Bill and Brann from Mastodon in the band.  So, again, I’ve got no clue on the track title, but I think this is Today is the Day from In the Eyes of God.  Fingers crossed.

[It was: Converge, “Letterbomb,” from When Forever Comes Crashing.  Wow.  Just, wow.  I totally thought this was Converge at first, but then I gradually convinced myself that those vocals were not, in fact, Jacob Bannon but were, instead, Steve Austin.  Shit.  Still, goes to show that either Converge can pull off some fucking metal sounding production earlier on, or that Today is the Day were never as metal as one thought.]

8.  Extended instrumental intro section makes song identification a bit tricky, folks.  Let’s kick in some fucking metal, eh?  Oh, that was the whole song?  Well, fuck you very much.  I don’t know, man.  I literally have NO CLUE what this is.  I’m also about 100% sure that this is NOT a song by The Ocean, but that’s what I’m going to guess anyway.

[It was: Tombs, “Story of a Room,” from Winter Hours.  Man, that sucks.  I really love that record.  Out of context, I guess it’s a lot trickier to match guitar tone to artist.  Still, I knew it wasn’t The Ocean.  Just had to put any old shit down.]

9.  This is a pretty nimble, black/folk attack.  My first inclination is to go with Borknagar.  Yep, there’s good ol’ Vintersorg.  Pretty unmistakable timbre on that dude.  I suppose this could be Vintersorg (the project) as well as Vintersorg (the man), but I think his solo(ish) stuff never got quite so black as this.  So, I’m going to go with Borknagar.  Let’s see, when did Vintersorg join?  I’m going to hazard a guess that this track is from the Empiricism album.

[It was: Borknagar, “The Genuine Pulse,” from Empiricism.  Awesome.]

10.  This is Mastodon.  For sure.  That vaguely Southern-tinged finger-picked acoustic intro was a pretty fast giveaway.  But, sadness of sadness, I’m wavering as to which album this is from.  At first, I was thinking maybe this was from Crack the Skye, given its quite mellow character.  But, hmm.  Damn, this is shameful.  Still, now I’m maybe 80% confident that this is the closing track from Leviathan, which is called, I believe, “Joseph Merrick.”

C’mon, Mastodon, can’t you help a brother out?  Sure would be nice to close out this cavalcade of fuck-ups and metal failures with an unabashed WIN.

[It was: Mastodon, “Pendulous Skin,” from Blood Mountain.  Sweet fucking houndstooth pajamas.  So, despite being totally dead-on about Mastodon, turns out the two albums I was wheedling back and forth between were both the WRONG FUCKING ALBUM.]

(11.  As I was finishing up typing some of these comments, Mastodon faded out, and in kicks the inimitable vocals of Phil Anselmo from Down’s first album, NOLA.  Thanks, dude, for giving me another confidence booster.  Track’s called “Losing All,” but I can’t claim credit, as Anselmo actually tells you that.)

Okay, now it’s time to turn the monitor back on and see just how shittily I’ve done.
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So, I’m giving myself five out of ten.  I know I had the album wrong on a bunch of those, but I’m pleased enough to have just identified the artist correctly half the time.  And honestly, that’s quite a lot better than I thought I would do at this.

The whole point, though, is not to simply pat myself on the back, or subject myself to an extreme bout of self-castigation.  Instead, I think this is really indicative of something.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I have a feeling that I’m not alone in being in the thrall of the unending pursuit of novelty in music.

I just think, maybe, that it’s time we recognize at what cost this ragged, wide-eyed pursuit must come.

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So, I must admit that I’m a complete sucker for the bizarre black metal ramblings of Tasmania’s own Sin Nanna, otherwise known as the one-man treblefest Striborg.  I own all of the official full-lengths, and several of the reissues which combine previously unreleased demos.  The sound quality varies from each release, careening from hideous, to god-awful, to subterranean, to wind tunnel, to tinnitus-inducing, and so forth.

Something about this guy’s single-minded devotion to the pursuit of black metal’s bleakest core really appeals to me; no doubt a great deal is added to the experience of the music (which can be quite surreal, particularly at either high volume, or, sometimes even more so, at volumes just low enough so that you can’t quite tell if the sounds are coming from your speakers, or are being whispered into a static ether by shades just beyond your ability to perceive them) by Sin Nanna’s deliberately reclusive persona, which suggests that he lives alone in a desolate forest in the midst of the Tasmanian wilderness with nothing but a 4-track to record his frequent and misanthropic outbursts.

All of this to say, really, that Striborg is fucking awesome, and epitomizes the monomaniacal need for extremity in black metal’s least accessible enclaves.  A somewhat less raw Ildjarn (minus the punkish influences, too) might be the best touchstone, but Striborg is, to these ears at least, infinitely more listenable.

The most recent release on Sin Nanna’s label Finsternis Productions is a “split” release between Striborg and Sin Nanna’s dark ambient alter ego, Veil Of Darkness.  This brand new release collects Striborg’s 1997 demo Cold Winter Moon and Veil Of Darkness’s 1997 full-length album In the Valley of the Shadow of Death (omitting the brief intro track from the original release) on one compact disc stuffed to the gills with good times for the whole family.

Striborg’s side of the split is more or less what we’ve all come to expect, albeit with a markedly less trebly sound than many of his other recordings.  Demented black metal ravings and overdriven, humid-sounding ambient interludes are the order of the day.  Veil Of Darkness ply a similar pitch of blackness, but drop the metal and amp up the ambient, producing something not too unlike some of the dark ambient experiments of the much-vaunted (and still somewhat ridiculous) French LLN (Les Legions Noires, or the Black Legions) scene (particularly Aäkon Këëtrëh or Amaka Hahina).

The closing track “Pure Black Energy,” however (apart from possibly recalling the two lengthy dark ambient pieces which closed out Ildjarn’s Strength & Anger, which were titled “Black Anger”), breaks from strictly creepy dark ambient strictures and layers feedback and looped drum noise in a way not dissimilar to a less mechanized Merzbow.

So, anyway, it’s pretty great – if you’ve never heard Striborg, I suppose it’s as good a place as any to start (though I might humbly recommend Mysterious Semblance, Trepidation, or Spiritual Catharsis as perfectly excellent starting points as well).  This CD reissue is limited to 500 hand-numbered copies, and while I can’t say they’ll go quite like hotcakes, I suspect there are enough similar-thinking maniacs out there in the world that you may want to snap one up while you can.

All of which brings me to my original point, which was, in fact, simply to be the juxtaposition of these two images:

Dark, spooky, altogether GRIM, right?

Dark, spooky, and altogether GRIM...WOMBATS?

This dark, spooky, and altogether grim split album of black metal and dark ambient musics arrived at my doorstep lovingly packaged in a padded envelope adorned with this charming Australian stamp featuring what I can only assume is meant to be a Momma Wombat and a widdle cutesy Baby Wombat.  Aw shucks, ain’t it so sweet?

The first thing that jumped out at me, of course, was the extremely ironic juxtaposition of this intentionally off-putting and anti-social music with this reminder that the primary reason the rest of the world loves Australia is that, beyond ridding us of some of our most troublesome prisoners, it is home to an abundance of super cuddly creatures.

This experience was more than a little reminiscent of the strange experience of ordering Xasthur’s latest (and, sadly, last) full-length album, Portal Of Sorrow, directly from Malefic (A.K.A. Scott Conner) himself via eBay.  Or, rather, the really jarring thing was, after receiving the album in the mail, finding Malefic’s promptly submitted ‘buyer feedback’, in which it was explained that I “made payment quickly, [and am an] honest and responsible e-bayer.”

If I were some black metal militant or ideologue, I suppose it would be easy to decry this intrusion of the modern world and its trappings of commerce and fuzzy marsupials, but instead, I think it serves as a nice reminder that no matter how much the extreme forms of music we seek out with great and fevered intent try to present themselves as cold, distant, alien (or at least alienating), there is no escaping the common world we share.  Frankly, I’m really glad to live in a world where both the harsh black noise of some secretive Tasmanian introvert can coexist with living, breathing, pouch-borne teddy bears.

In some ways, focusing on that shared world, with all its manifold evils and its frequent sweet succor, means that the extreme music we love and continue to support can continue to represent something extreme.  That is, if the world really was shit through and through (as so many of our paragons of metal insist), this music would cease to be an atavistic and artistic outlet worth pursuing, because it would merely be a pale mirror’s reflection of the dull gray cast of the world and all its miserable tenants.

Bring on the goddamn wombats, I say.

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