Liturgy: crossing the haptic void
For all the criticism levelled at Hunter Hunt- Hendrix, you have to respect the man’s persistence. As the creative force behind Liturgy – the NYC-based black metal/art rock group also comprising drummer Greg Fox, bassist Tyler Dusenbury and guitarist Bernard Gann – Hunt-Hendrix is the singular proponent of ‘transcendental black metal’, a re-codified and intellectualised take on the genre to which the metal underground have not taken kindly. Four records in, the offers of physical violence and rabid scene diatribes may have dissipated, but The Ark Work – released on Thrill Jockey this month – isn’t going to win over existing haters.
The crux of the controversy remains his essay, Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism, published around the time of of Liturgy’s first full-length, Renihilation. It was highly contentious stuff: densely verbose, it mooted an original dichotomy of two distinct strands of black metal – “hyperborean” and “transcendental”, separated by a “haptic void” – with an appropriation of genre semiotics (and diagrams!) that, purists argued, weren’t his to fuck around with in the first place.
Fortunate, then, that Renihilation was killer – a smart mess of buzzsaw drone and dextrous blasting that drew on minimalist composition as much as Mayhem and Graveland. If Hunt-Hendrix had just kept his mouth shut, the scene’s reception to Liturgy might have been far different.
2011’s Aesthetica expanded on the framework outlined in the thesis, dropping the measured asceticism of the first record for something more chiming and supernal, garnering the band mainstream critical praise. Both Dusenbury and Fox departed shortly afterwards (they returned to the fold in 2014). Hunt-Hendrix and Gann played as a duo for a short while, but silence descended as work began on what would become The Ark Work.
Depending on how one views both man and thesis, the record’s expanded sonic and theoretical scope is either the closest Liturgy has come to true clarity of artistic expression, or a leap further down the rabbit hole of arch pretension; the frontman a kind of burst dam of ersatz philosophical thought, the band behind merely facilitating the flow of ideas. Hunt-Hendrix has posited The Ark Work as part of a larger gesamtkunstwerk – a ‘total artwork’ of which all three records are distinct ‘episodes’ – which draws on psychoanalysis, German idealism and Christian mysticism. It’s adhered to the black metal tropes of shrill tremolo guitar and blasting drums but this time incorporates “hard-style beats and occult-oriented rap”. He doesn’t, it must be said, make things easy for himself.
Speaking over Skype from his home in Brooklyn, he is placid and polite – far too pleasant to let me know I’ve called an hour late (my mistake). We start with the inevitable journalistic clickbait: the rapping. Having already baited the kvlt scene enough in the past, isn’t it just an invitation to criticism?
“It’s not inviting criticism for the sake of it,” he sighs. “I just see there being a lot of potential that is unexplored in the relationship between those two things. If people think it’s crazy, that’s OK; I was kind of afraid to move forward with it. I know I open myself to criticism and I’m willing to endure it, but it doesn’t feel great. I certainly had some hesitation to really follow through.”
Having ditched the traditional banshee wailing (“it hurts my throat, I feel too old for it now”), his new vocal is drawn primarily from Three 6 Mafia and Bone, Thugs ‘n’ Harmony – “a monotonous triplet flow that has always sounded to me like it’s an incantation or a summoning or a spirit.” The amalgam with black metal is akin to “finding windows from [one] world to another and then travelling between them.”
“Part of what has always drawn me to black metal is that it has such a wide range of aesthetic reference; to a quasi- mythical past, or romanticism, or medieval times, or pagan cultures”
These worlds also encompass medieval sacred chant and banks of midi strings, horns and bagpipes, though extreme metal is still the core around which the songs revolve. Such precarious stylistic balance has seen Hunt-Hendrix align his compositional process with that of Russian polystylist composer Alfred Schnittke.
“I see black metal as a mediator between all these different styles from the past and present, all these different cultures,” he explains. “It’s an effort to use it as the nexus that’s connecting them, then allowing them to cohere in a synthetic way. I didn’t want the record to be eclectic sounding, or to sound weird or bizarre or goofy. Part of what has always drawn me to black metal is that it has such a wide and deep range of aesthetic reference; to a quasi-mythical past, or romanticism, or medieval times, or pagan cultures. I want to follow through with the promise made by those references to these different times and places, and expand the circle.”
It works in part, and The Ark Work is mostly an excellent record. Where Renihilation and Aesthetica had an unmistakeable organic feel – largely via the introduction of the ‘burstbeat’ in the former (a reconfiguration of the traditional blastbeat that wavered in speed and intensity) and in the pure cognisant efficiency of the band in the latter – The Ark Work’s identity is overwhelmingly an artificial one. At its best it’s enthralling: a videogame take on black metal laced with passages of medieval fanfare and synth intervals. The 12-minute opus Reign Array is a highlight, opening with a full minute of plaintive MIDI harpsichord before segueing into a twinkling iteration of the band’s old sound. Likewise Follow and Follow 2, replete with the neat flickers of IDM glitch, twinkling xylophone and the sampled roar of a crowd.
At its worst, though, it errs towards the over-baked and underwhelming, conspicuously lacking the dynamic and cathartic nuance of its forbearers, smothered by an aesthetic that is more polished in concept than practise. This can be in part levelled at the rapping (Vitriol sounds dangerously close to a Salem B-side) but also in a reluctance to harness the raw talents of his band.
Greg Fox’s drumming has always been Liturgy’s real draw, and while his superlative musicianship is still present, here it is pared down, lower in the mix. When pressed on whether he agrees that Fox’s work is intrinsic to the success of the band, he is diplomatically terse. “The drumming in Liturgy is something that was my main focus, compositionally, on the first two albums,” he says. “An important part of this record was to not spend so much time trying to break new ground with the drumming style and to spend that energy on other aspects of the arrangement. But I’m glad he’s playing on it.”
It’s hard not to wish that the The Ark Work – Liturgy generally – was a more collaborative project, that there was some mediating foil to Hunt-Hendrix’s sprawling vision. Still, derided or not, his autonomous determination is admirable, if exasperating. In any case, Liturgy’s take on extreme metal is some of the most interesting and quixotic of the new millennia, certainly preferable to the dopey homage of much of the genre.
“After Aesthetica,” he concludes, “I really wanted to take the time to make an album that I was 100% happy with. The two before this one… I had a lot of difficulty parting with each of them. It didn’t sound enough like the music I had in my head for Liturgy. This does.”
The Ark Work is out now via Thrill Jockey Records