Hunter Hunt-Hendrix not only welcomes controversy, he seems to have a difficult time living without it. Frequently extra-musical in origin, this controversy has every bit as much to do with his outspoken (some would say "pretentious") views on the essence of black metal, and – more importantly – his allegedly dilettantish agenda to dilute the purity of the genre, diminish its progenitors and just generally rewrite the folk history surrounding black metal to reflect a more hipster-friendly, New York-centric supplantation of same that makes the likes of Deafheaven or Wolves in the Throne Room look like harmless interlopers by comparison. To what extent this criticism is justified is of much less relevance than the fact that The Ark Work seems deliberately fashioned to ratchet controversy up to "break the internet" levels.
If you care at all about Liturgy – even if you're just trolling for excuses to bitch about them some more on social media – then you've no doubt encountered "Quetzalcoatl", a firebrand choice of first single that sounds like a cross between Morbid Angel's last album and a voice recognition program carefully reciting back the lyrics to a typical Bone Thugs-n-Harmony song. It's an odd look, by any standards, one that seems designed less to appeal than engage, that engagement preferably taking the form of a discussion on the vanguard of black metal's kinetic potential, although if it manifests instead as buzz-worthy comment parties at the bottom of write-ups such as this one, I'm sure Hunt-Hendrix's blackened heart will nonetheless swell with pride.
Nothing else on The Ark Work quite reaches the WTF level of "Quetzalcoatl" – which is exactly what makes it such a calculated choice of first single – but that doesn't make it in any way an extension of 2011's Aesthetica. Well, actually it does in a sense: that album's roller coaster sense of tremolo-picked post-rock riff cycles (and the jagged, arhythmic blast beats that drive them) has been more or less lifted wholesale and dropped in the middle of a production that comes off like incarceration-era Burzum paying tribute to old Laibach albums on the sole beat up MIDI keyboard that Varg Vikernes was afforded behind bars (a strong case could be made that Vikernes' prison warden did far more harm to the purity of black metal than Hunt-Hendrix could ever hope to achieve, but that's a subject for another manifesto).
"Kel Valhaal" offers the best evidence of this creative stimulus, arriving at a sort of low-grade techno overhaul of Aesthetica's "High Gold" or "Generation" via an OG King's Quest-sounding fanfare and some bizarre sampling that resembles R2D2 repurposed as a wind chime representing the cacophonous treble of that album's guitar riffs. And this is the good stuff, people.
The Ark Work predictably weaves in and out of peaks and valleys of indulgence, but the most grotesque example of bloat on the entire album – the 11.5-minute "Reign Array" – is also the only track that actually resembles honest-to-god black metal, if even then a carnivalesque digital rendering of it (be sure to catch the upcoming lyric video exclusively available on a nickelodeon near you). It still doesn't feature anything approximating a vocal screech, which means the last certifiably black metal aspect of Aesthetica has been jettisoned entirely by album #3.
It's just as well. There's no use pretending that The Ark Work has anything to do with black metal, even in the unlikely event that any given listener finds it to be a leftfield masterpiece. At best it comes off like an ill-considered BM remix album, taking elements of Aesthetica – an already sketchy, if brilliant, take on the genre – and mechanically stripping away its organic charms in favor of a rudimentary electronic production that harks back to the days of dial up internet, when streaming audio wasn't an option but you could maybe find a MIDI version of an old AC/DC track to put on your fan page. Not to mention the fact that a song like "Vitriol" shows Liturgy less in the habit of moving black metal forward, and more in pursuit of taking an ill stab at bringing 80's EBM back.
Personally, I have no real investment in the purity of the black metal template, even if some of my favorite albums represent the most sanctimonious examples of the genre. If I break Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's balls it's because a) he's got a thick skin and I know he can take it, and b) in many, many ways he fucking well deserves it [edit: c) I'm also convinced that name is a preposterously concocted pseudonym that never should have been allowed to escaple 16th century Saxony].
Indeed, for all my mixed feelings I kind of have a soft spot for the Aesthetica-tweaking "Follow" and "Kel Valhaal"; "Father Vorizen" is also an accessible standout, being one of the less digitally overcompensating tracks on the album, although it still showcases Hunt-Hendrix's newfound monotone drawl to unflattering effect, sparing us only the Krazy Bone clipped cadence. Ultimately the critical fault of The Ark Work is the horrendous choice of production style; there were an infinite number of ways that Hunt-Hendrix could have gone electronic to compelling effect, yet he maddeningly chooses the one that sounds like Pro Tools running on an old 386 Packard Bell. Not cool. And wasn't cool precisely what you were going for, Hunter?