[12 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There’s nothing quite like the furor that happens when metal fans get their collective knickers in a twist over a band that tries to use extreme metal as a starting-off point towards trying to create something new. When it comes to Brooklyn’s Liturgy, however, the complaints from metal’s peanut gallery have been so hostile, it’s bordered on comical. They’ve bastardized black metal, something blasphemous in the eyes of underground scenesters. They rely on atonality so much it can barely be called “metal” at all. The music is too repetitive, eschewing conventional song structure. They scream too much. Musically it’s more optimistic than morbid. They live in Brooklyn, and are therefore “hipsters”. They left underground tastemakers 20 Buck Spin for indie rock label Thrill Jockey. Guitarist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix chooses to write about spiritual transcendence rather than bitch and moan about how Christianity sucks like every other black metal clone does. His name is Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, for crying out loud.
On the other hand, for those who are perfectly willing to ditch heavy metal hang-ups, look beyond the parameters of simple black metal, and genuinely enjoy daring new music, Liturgy is one of the more exciting bands to come around in a while. Rooted in the speed, repetition, and atmospherics of black metal (especially Burzum and Transilvanian Hunger-era Darkthrone), Hunt-Hendrix incorporates other musical influences from outside the genre, ranging from the minimalist noise rock of Lightning Bolt, to My Bloody Valentine, to the avant-garde sounds of Glenn Branca, to free jazz, to even Spectralism, and combined with a loose, punk-derived variation on the blast beat he likes to call “burst beats”, Liturgy is something truly unique. 2009’s Renihilation was a very strong debut, the band getting a lot more out of its rather minimalist set-up than expected, but if Liturgy wanted to make a bigger impression on the follow-up, Hunt-Hendrix and his bandmates would have to take even bigger risks.
The potential for pulling off something special was there, but the way the foursome does so on the daring Aesthethica, no one could possibly have forseen it. Rather than replicate the same white noise blur of Renihilation, the band takes a far more eclectic approach. The recording by Krallice’s Colin Marston is a lot warmer and cleaner, but most importantly, Hunt-Hendrix’s riffs rely a lot more on atonal scree derived from Japan’s Boredoms and Melt-Banana. Rather than being simply directionless clatter, noise for the sake of making noise, there’s a catchiness, an immediacy to this music that is astonishing. In direct contrast to black metal’s moments of haunting darkness, there’s a brightness to Liturgy’s guitars here that at first offsets and eventually diminishes any sense of abrasiveness there might be. The dazzling opening one-two punch of “High Gold” and “True Will” are perfect examples; as Greg Fox hammers out those frenetic beats, Hunt-Hendrix and Bernard Gann slice away at their guitars just as fast, letting loose riffs and patterns that build and build, eventually culminating in euphoric climaxes.
Fascinatingly, Aesthethica is no one-trick pony, either. The oddly incessant “Returner” is the most accessible of these experimental compositions, the main rhythm riff centered on a cadence that feels more like Morse code than anything else as Fox flawlessly punctuates the riffs with his snare. Stuttering ascending riffs get “Tragic Laurel” off to a lurching start, the Meshuggah-derived jam “Generation” offers a mid-paced respite and remains just as effective in its own right, while moments of “Sun of Light” sound downright playful. Of all the songs, “Glory Bronze” bears the closest resemblance to the style Renihilation, only it utilizes dynamics in a way that the debut didn’t do often enough.
The vocals have always been a contentious issue for many, and indeed Hunt-Hendrix’s screams, fitting somewhere between the tortured screams of early Burzum records and hardcore punk/grindcore, can be a sticking point for some new listeners. But when heard as part of the entire band, the screams do effectively convey the trance-like bliss that Liturgy wants to create. And although it’s impossible to tell what he’s carrying on about, upon deeper inspection Hunt-Hendrix’s lyrics echo that same genre-bending ambition of the music, often resembling the unflinching, surreal romanticism of Beat poet Gregory Corso more than, say, Darkthrone (“Gashed shoulders and crippled loins / Huge steampunk boulders / Nestling between cargo khaki knees / Magenta flush across your cheek”).
Not all of Aesthethica works, though: the eight-minute plodder “Veins of God” is an unnecessary doom jam that clashes with every other track, while the layered chanted harmonies that make up the entirety of “Glass Earth” goes on for three minutes too long. However, considering just how exhilarating the rest of the record is, it’s a minor complaint, and “Harmonia” quickly returns to Liturgy’s strengths, bringing it all to a thrilling conclusion. In the end, Aesthethica doesn’t give a damn what skeptics from the metal side of the fence think, and neither should listeners. Like Can did to rock music 40 years ago, Liturgy has the audacity to create something strange and new out of extreme music, and already two full-lengths in, they’re off to a brilliant start. It’s challenging at first, yes, but most importantly, it’s inclusive and ultimately uplifting, tossing genre bias aside in favor of several moments of—deal with it, metal sourpusses—pure transcendence.
Lungs filling up with air
As God inhales me
Into the impossible.