I don’t think I can articulate just how excited I was for another Doctor Livingstone album. Their last record, 2014’s Contemptus Saeculi, is one of the great unsung monuments of the modern black metal scene, arguably made better by the fact that so few cared to recognize the brilliance. Like their compatriots in Plebeian Grandstand, they actually began as a chaotic hardcore punk band before crossing over. That violent punk foundation is part of what has made Doctor Livingstone’s more recent material work so well; they uplifted their black metal with jarring experimental detours and pompous classical overlays. While the orthodox Latin trend has been the cool ‘in’ thing for modern black metal since the days of Salvation, Doctor Livingstone went one further by dragging those self-serious orthodox black metal tropes back into the gutter with the screeching hardcore foundations.
Doctor Livingstone’s playful, even comical, spin on orthodox black metal on Contemptus Saeculi was an iconoclastic antidote to a scene that’s recently been getting lost in its own self-replicating austerity. By not taking their tone too seriously and wreaking mischief, they actually sound more evil and dangerous than a lot of their bookworm contemporaries. While I wasn’t totally convinced by the recent album Panacea, which was released under their other project Sektemtum, I was no less fired up for the coming of Triumphus Haeretici. Where Contemptus Saeculi arrogantly ushered Doctor Livingstone into the poisoned realm of black metal, this was their chance to consolidate and expand the unique sound they put forward.
While I think Triumphus Haeretici definitely accomplishes this, I don’t find myself as enrapt as I’d imagined I would be in the months leading up to it. Doctor Livingstone still sound pompous and adventurous, but surely there must be something missing? It could be that Doctor Livingstone’s identity is beginning to blend with Sektemtum’s a little too much, or that their avant-garde threads have swallowed up space previously held by tight songwriting. Maybe it’s even the absence of the last-gasp, punkish screeches that William Roussel from Mütiilation graced the last one with. Triumphus Haeretici feels pretty underwhelming as a long-awaited followup to Contemptus Saeculi. Taken simply on its own merits, however, as a weird and imbalanced black metal record, there’s still a ton to enjoy and feel engaged with.
If nothing else, it’s clear that Doctor Livingstone haven’t lost their grasp of subversion. Triumphus Haeretici begins with a quiet ambient build that would have lasted thirty seconds to a minute if delivered by another band. Here, the ambient intro lasts sixteen minutes. A quarter of an hour has come and gone before Doctor Livingstone are even past the intro, and I’m sure they’re probably laughing their asses off at all the unwary listeners who might be wondering if a practical joke’s getting pulled on them. Of course, they’d be right. This joke at the audience’s expense reminds me of a lot of the shit Andy Kaufman used to pull during stand-up, as well as what became a staple beginning to every Type O Negative album. It’s daring and mean-spirited, and I though I don’t think I’ll be listening through it most times I put on the album, I think it’s totally fitting and, honestly, kind of hilarious.
By the time the material proper starts, most listeners are probably going to be caught by surprise, knocked out of their ambient lull with their biting aggression. ‘Lux Delenda Est’ is one of the most true-to-form tracks here—that’s the sort of Doctor Livingstone I was hoping to hear on Triumphus Haeretici. Black metal is represented more in spirit and structure than the actual riffs, which amble between hardcore punk pyrotechnics and riffs that could have been pulled from a classic rock repertoire. While I was a bit concerned for the sound when I first found out that Roussel wasn’t going to be back on vocals, the trademark screams are still here for the most part. Triumphus Haeretici isn’t as well produced and lacks the jaw-dropping highlight moments of Contemptus Saeculi, but there’s more than enough of the quality and character to keep me happy.
When the material is good, it’s really good. ‘Lux Delenda Est’, ‘Dancing with Horses’, ‘The Muck of the Land’, and especially ‘The Grand Finale’ (only track ten of fourteen) bring the madness and energy exactly as I’d hoped. The songwriting itself can be difficult to praise or condemn when Doctor Livingstone are this all over the place. So much of the album’s material feels like a rhapsody of sketchy black metal antics thrown together with little interest in form or logic. I noticed a lot of the same on Sektemtum’s Panacea even compared to that project’s debut, so it may be less a sign of this band changing than a change in the creative minds behind it—and yes, there is a difference between the two. In my mind, everything that Doctor Livingstone represents was manifested and nearly perfected on the last album; I’m all for hearing whatever these maniacs come up with next, but I’m a bit sad that they’re leaving some of their most promising qualities behind as they tumble forward.
Talking about Doctor Livingstone, I’m always reminded of the short video these guys did for Sektemtum, where they’re taking black metal classics from Mayhem to Deathspell Omega and smashing them on the street interlaced with quick cuts of them sniffing woo powder. It’s ironic that the desecration of certain artefacts (say, a copy of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas) can be seen now as tantamount to sacrilegious in a genre that was originally meant to lay waste to one’s idols. If one thing remains a constant, Doctor Livingstone aren’t interested in making friends with anyone.
01) Triumphus Haeretici
02) Lux Delenda Est
03) Dancing with Horses
04) Give Them Tragedies
05) Opus Magnum
07) The Muck of the Land
08) Fuck You, with a View
10) The Grand Finale (Fin de l’ordre)
11) I’ll Have Some More Apple Pie Please
12) Messiahs and Pariahs
13) A Little Something for You