Liturgy want to invoke heaven through sound
What do you think?” Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix laughs when asked whether she considers western society to be in a state of decline. “I mean, what is going on?!”
It’s 11am in Brooklyn and the Liturgy founder has barely had time to complete her winter morning ritual – a prayer, followed by a trip to the grocery store to grab a coffee, fig bar and banana – before we enter the existential weeds. What is going on? Will things just continue to get weirder after Covid, as an astrologer she follows on social media suggested? And whose dog is barking non-stop in the background of our call? “This isn’t a chronic problem, it’s really just this morning,” Hunt-Hendrix answers, adding, with the same heartfelt curiosity that permeates her deepest philosophical reflections: “I wonder what the dog is seeing, actually.”
Hunt-Hendrix – a fascinating thinker as much as a bewildering composer – has rarely shied away from questioning the world around her. The pursuit of boundary pushing ideas has been her M.O. ever since she launched Liturgy as a dorm-room solo project 18 years ago. So it’s not surprising that our hour-long conversation has a wide wingspan, covering the end of the world as we know it (“clearly there are changes underway that are going to transform society completely”), the revival of Catholicism among young people (her feelings are “mixed”), and the Tallahassee rock band Creed (“there’s an interesting complexity within making any kind of rock music and preaching a Christian message, because in the ordinary imagination they’re seen as exact opposites”). All of which are related, directly or not, to Liturgy’s new album, 93696.
Billed as a “musical manifestation of heaven”, 93696 is a work of extremes, even by Liturgy’s standards. At one end of the spectrum are lengthy, virtuosic odysseys through the alchemy of metal, classical and trap that now defines the band’s musical language. At the other, minimal flutes and celestial choral arrangements featuring children from the Walthamstow-based ensemble Hi Lo Singers (who have lent their voices to everything from Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral to Peppa Pig’s Grammy longlisted debut). The result is a monumental double album suffused with “eschatological possibility”, with its feet planted, scarily, in the real world. “It’s pretty apocalyptic,” Hunt-Hendrix summarises. “It feels to me like it matches our times.”
“I’ve always had a strong feeling for the religious and mystical”
In many ways, 93696 is a continuation of what Liturgy have been doing since their radical 2009 debut full-length, Renihilation. In addition to Hunt-Hendrix’s famously divisive paper on “Transcendental Black Metal”, that first album set out the band’s stall as transgressors right off the bat, earning both critical status and hipster scum accusations. Some listeners praised their innovation, while black metal traditionalists baulked at what they saw as pseudo-intellectualism – a crime against the sonic “purity” of the genre.
Flattened by vitriol, the band would go on an unofficial hiatus after just two albums, only to reappear four years later with the even more avant-garde The Ark Work. Since then, Liturgy’s recorded output has become even more complex and confounding, with Hunt-Hendrix expertly marrying her interests across the fields of music, theory and drama. There was 2019’s H.A.Q.Q. – a versatile exploration of existence tied to an ongoing YouTube lecture series – followed by 2020’s equally ambitious Origin of the Alimonies; a “cosmogonical opera” accompanying a performance piece that combined video, choreography and an eight-piece chamber orchestra. With 93696, Hunt-Hendrix drills down further into her vision of “total art” and the synthesis of various disciplines. Exploring belief systems, cosmic love, femininity and metamorphosis, the album goes a step beyond the pursuit of larger truths and sets out to invoke “heaven through sound”.
“I’ve always had a strong feeling for the religious and mystical, and it’s been translated in various ways through different systems of philosophy that I’m interested in,” says Hunt-Hendrix. While faith was only intermittently present throughout her own upbringing in New York City, her parents were both born in the South (her mother in Texas, her father in Georgia) and raised Southern Baptist. “It has always seemed really important to me – that God is real, love is important, and my job, in some sense, was to project this message through art.”
Hunt-Hendrix introduced the concept behind 93696 in one of her YouTube lectures in late 2022. In it, she considers a new eon for civilisation organised around the four “laws” that inform her own personal interpretation of the afterlife, and the role of music within it. None of this is reflected in the lyrics, which favour the personal and poetic, but 93696’s framework is organised into four distinct movements, named after those laws: Sovereignty (independence), Hierarchy (increased connectivity with the goal of meeting people’s needs), Emancipation (the expansion of civil rights), and Individuation (the pursuit of creative self-realisation). “The basic idea is that they take compassion as the touchstone for how to organise society,” Hunt-Hendrix explains. “And that should be the anchor of ethics and politics in a way that it isn’t yet.”
As for its composition, the album is a constantly shifting landscape of textures and tension, reaching for absolute ethereality and absolute violence in equal measure. If you consider heaven to be a fixed state of tranquillity, 93696 has other ideas. “[Abrahamic] theologians think of heaven as a place where humans still have bodies and time flows in more or less the same way it does now. It’s not like everything just becomes calm,” Hunt-Hendrix clarifies. “Rather, you’re going through suffering and transfiguration, but that process has a better batting average than it does in our current world, where so much suffering is tragic and senseless. In heaven, maybe we would still have relationships and goals and worries, but we’d be operating in a way where we’re healing one another.”
“Black metal that is nihilistic isn’t going far enough. You have to enter the void, pass through it, then find affirmation on the other end”
Ten years ago, Liturgy would have caught heat for talking so flagrantly about religion – especially in the context of alternative music. Any band would have. Now, the cultural landscape looks a little different. The controversy around the band has settled and they are an established force within the underground zeitgeist if not within the black metal community specifically (Hunt-Hendrix says herself that she would hesitate to call Liturgy a black metal band now). There is more space for Liturgy to exist on their own terms, speaking to those who want to listen.
“I think it’s more normalised to be religious in the music world,” Hunt-Hendrix says, noting that having the ability to discuss theology directly through YouTube and social media has also made a difference. Though she’s become “even more religious in recent times”, she’s keen to stress that her interpretation of faith – much like her interpretation of black metal – is future-facing and rooted in egalitarianism. “Christianity has a right-wing political association, and it’s normalised because being right-wing is becoming more normalised. That’s where I draw the line,” she asserts. “There’s a very powerful tradition of left-wing Christianity, and its connection with civil rights, which is the version I care about.”
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Liturgy’s work is its inherent tenderness. While abrasive and intense are the first descriptors that come to mind, there is also beauty and grace in their sound. These qualities are instantly apparent on 93696, which opens with Hunt-Hendrix singing a ritualistic melody (Daily Bread) before dropping into a wall of blast beats and feverish strings (Djennaration). But even when Liturgy’s music was populated by death growls and pile-driving guitars, they were always reaching towards the sublime. In early interviews, Hunt-Hendrix said that her initial emotional attraction to black metal was due to its meditative quality of “infinite desolation”. As the band’s music has evolved in a more classical direction, metal has become less of a base and more of a jumping-off point. “What I like about black metal is that it’s more radical than a lot of music. But I think that black metal that is nihilistic isn’t going far enough,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “You have to enter the void, pass through it, then find affirmation on the other end.”
Sonically, Liturgy move closer to classical music with each album. The more sprawling tracks on 93696 – among them Antigone II and its title track – mirror 19th-century classical pieces in their formal structures and climactic arrangements of horns, keys and ocarinas. “My most powerful experiences with music have this kind of infinite quality that’s also very finite, and that’s something I try to recreate. Like heaven – an infinite ascension that’s concrete at the same time,” Hunt-Hendrix says of their sound. “I would like to think that the album sounds like heaven, somehow.”
The way Hunt-Hendrix describes music can feel a little abstruse, but for her it’s everything, everywhere, all at once. She walks around her apartment tapping beats on her chest or snapping polyrhythms on different hands. She has a “huge reservoir of material” – some of which is over a decade old – that she returns to when making a new album. Sketches of riffs, harmonies, motifs and notations. “There’s just lots of swirling melodies and themes,” she explains. “As I walk around, music tends to be in my head.”
Hunt-Hendrix is Liturgy’s sole composer, so communicating what’s in her head to the rest of the band differs each time, depending on complexity, and who is actually in the band at any given time. For Origin of the Alimonies, her accompanying instrumentalists worked purely from sheet music, while 93696 is a mix of sheet music, demos and intuition. “There are certain things that we do, like pauses – it’s called a fermata in classical music, where you’re building up towards a crescendo, then you stop, and then you come back in. It takes a lot of practice and intuition to make it happen,” Hunt-Hendrix says, adding that her current bandmates – guitarist Mario Miron, bassist Tia Vincent-Clark and drummer Leo Didkovsky – are the best musicians she’s ever played with. “I’m in awe of them.”
Ultimately, it’s that impeccable level of musicianship that Hunt-Hendrix believes makes 93696 distinctive. “[This is] the first time I’m releasing a record that doesn’t feel particularly original,” she explains. “It feels like a refinement of all Liturgy has been. It may even be the final Liturgy album, because I’m not sure what will come next.”
While it’s true that 93696 may not contain many new elements, it’s not a rehash, either. It’s a remarkable body of work that continues to challenge the limits of sound, art and thought, from a band that, with each release, gets closer to achieving their almost-Sisyphean task of articulating brain-melting concepts like “the origin of all things”. But above all else, they have a unique ability to emotionally connect; to overwhelm and transfigure. Fans could argue about their Nietzsche or black metal credentials all day long, but Liturgy’s music is adored for a simple, unifying reason: it’s moving.
“So much of the history of the band has involved me not feeling like I’m quite able to express what I mean, musically,” Hunt-Hendrix concludes in a tone that may read as overly modest, but is spoken with a deep sense of fulfilment. “With this album, I really feel like it’s an adequate expression.”
93696 is out on 24 March via Thrill Jockey