In 2011, Brooklyn-based black metal band Liturgy is either redefining black metal or ruining it. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Brooklyn-based black metal band Liturgy started out as the solo project of frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, a Manhattan native who grew up in the hardcore punk scene while gravitating towards the more experimental side of that genre--bands like Converge and Rorschach. The band expanded into a four-piece in 2008 and released their first record, Renhilation, in 2009. But it was the group's second record, 2011's Aesthetica, that garnered it a new level of infamy. Released on indie label Thrill Jockey, Aesthetica received generally favorable reviews from an assortment of sources: NPR and Pitchfork both loved the album, and the fact that it was accompanied by a long-winded and high-minded essay detailing the band's music ("Transcendental Black Metal") was critical catnip. But the black metal scene did not take kindly to Liturgy, and even more traditional rock institutions weren't particularly enamored of the album (Kerrang wrote that "Liturgy tried to make a mathcore record, put two and two together and got three."). Aesthetica was seen as the Brooklyn hipster's black metal record, and that was not a good thing.
Hunt-Hendrix's thoughts on his own music don't really help matters: the essay "Transcendental Black Metal", though coherent and interesting to people that enjoy over-intellectualizing music, is incredibly self-aggrandizing and occasionally patently absurd (sample text: "Transcendental Black Metal is black metal in the mode of Sacrifice . . . it is solar, hypertrophic, courageous, finite and penultimate."). It's an easy target for mockery, but it fails to adequately capture what makes Aesthetica so compelling.
What's most striking about Aesthetica is its production. The "typical" black metal album follows the mold set by early bands like Darkthrone by being purposefully raw or "lo-fi". But Aesthetica is compressed and almost clean-sounding--the guitars are distorted, yes, and the vocals are shrieked, but the sound is streamlined and trebly. Hunt-Hendrix's vocals are pushed far back in the mix; he sounds as if he's singing from somewhere deep in a cave instead of the mixed-hot, upfront approach favored by a lot of metal.
The drummer on Aesthetica was Greg Fox (who has since left the band), and his playing is a large part of what makes the record so gripping. Fox plays more like a jazz drummer than a metal one--though the lightning-fast double-kick bass drum work of metal is present in his playing, he uses a smaller kit and relies on tight, virtuosic rolls around the kit to create the washes of rhythm that Hunt-Hendrix refers to as the "burst beat" (a turn on the typical "blast beat" that characterizes most black metal). Fox's playing at times sounds like Ronald Shannon Jackson's work with Last Exit, or any of the more aggressive free jazz drummers, surging waves of rhythm that don't so much drive the band as buoy it.
Aesthetica gleefully traipses all over the map of "heavy" music in its sounds. "Veins of God" pummels its way through roads paved by bands like Sleep, the Sword, and their own influences (i.e. Black Sabbath), and "Tragic Laurel" contains some truly beautiful melodic interplay between guitars that takes its cues from "Generation" is immediately reminiscent of Lightning Bolt and that group's own Philip Glass-influenced compositions: Liturgy stutters around a skipping odd-meter riff before falling into a heavy lockstep. "Helix Skull" is a solo feature, a complex needlepoint of a guitar exercise, and "Glass Earth" and "Harmonia" feature wordless vocals stacked in open fourths and fifths that eerily evoke Sacred Heart-style shaped-note singing.
Divorcing music from the controversy that surrounds it is always a difficult task, but Aesthetica is worth the attention. It's a fresh, innovative take on a genre that too frequently falls back on recurring tropes and stereotypes. It'll be interesting to see how well Hunt-Hendrix's handles being the metal community's punching bag. Hopefully, the furor surrounding the band's non-musical aspects will die down, and we'll just be left with a great sophomore album from a great band.