Religious music, black metal, electronic, and 8-bit all come together in this bizarre yet ultimately captivating philosophical tome from Liturgy.
“I didn’t make a record that tells a story; it’s a story that tells a record. I wanted to make the most important thing possible—to invent a new philosophy that goes with a new music and a new way of making art and living life.”
-- Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, in an interview with Pitchfork's Grayson Haver Currin
With 2011's Aesthethica, Liturgy frontman and philosophical agent provocateur Hunter Hunt-Hendrix sought a new way of doing black metal. What he got instead was a really good album that, although undoubtedly bolstered by his quasi-theological provocations, didn't really need a manifesto to be the the compelling recording that it is. After making a small splash with Liturgy's debut Renihilation (2009), Hunt-Hendrix, along with many other scholars in the young but fertile field of black metal theory, looked to discover ways to move beyond the formulaic conception of black metal, i.e. the one that parents nationwide are sure is corrupting the youth of the world. (Not unreasonably, a scene that began with murders and the burning of churches left a certain impression.) At the now infamous Hideous Gnosis conference in Brooklyn, which resulted in a full-length volume of essays, Hunt-Hendrix delivered what will be Liturgy's calling card from here on out: the essay "Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism".
Like most of Liturgy's lyrics, which are penned by Hunt-Hendrix, the essay is a lot of things at once, without ever really setting itself down in a concrete position. Various philosophical positions and schools of thought are brought together in an amalgam that's more serial killer ransom note than systematic theology in its construction. There is, however, one main constant throughout Hunt-Hendrix's analysis: a repackaging of Hegelian historicism. "Transcendental Black Metal," he explains, "is in fact nihilism, however it is a double nihilism and a final nihilism, a once and for all negation of the entire series of negations." This dialectical movement of history, for Hunt-Hendrix, is encapsulated through the technique of "Transcendental Black Metal", which moves beyond the banal nihilism of Norwegian black metal and the failed attempt to correct for said nihilism, what Hunt-Hendrix calls "Hyperborean Black Metal". Just as it is for Hegel and history, Hunt-Hendrix sees black metal as moving in distinct stages of thesis and antithesis.
Naturally, the question arises as to what constitutes this Transcendental Black Metal. In short: it's the music of Liturgy, particularly Aesthethica and even more so now with The Ark Work, the band's third studio outing. Hunt-Hendrix identifies "the burst beat" -- as opposed to black metal's requisite blast beat -- as the key technique of Transcendental Black Metal, one that creates an attitude of "Affirmation" rather than negation. Of course, given that Hunt-Hendrix's philosophy is designed as a negation of a negation, this affirmation is itself a sort of nihilism, but let the ersatz Hegelianism end here.
Whether or not one finds these musings interesting, with Aesthethica, Liturgy's breakthrough, one didn't really need to adopt the Transcendental Black Metal framework in order to appreciate the music. Arguably, one's understanding of the band's point of view is enhanced by a reading of Hunt-Hendrix's essay, but it's not necessarily the case that a whole new world is opened up when one hears an Aesthethica song like "True Will" while keeping the concept of a burst beat in mind. That album, simply put, is an inventive collection of experimental rock and metal, one that on its own was one of 2011's finest LPs. Spanning minimalist jams (album highlight "Generation"), plodding doom instrumentals ("Veins of God"), and hypnotic chants ("Glass Earth"), Aesthethica remains a daring affair four years after its release.
With The Ark Work, however, Liturgy not only matches Aesthethica's daring; they also get closer to the Transcendental Black Metal formula, one that the latter only got to in certain snippets. The record opens with "Fanfare", a declaratory overture of synthesized horns that layer atop each other until a jarring conclusion, which segues right into the blast beat-driven (or perhaps "burst-beat driven") drumming of Greg Fox, whose tight rhythms are a perfect complement to Hunt-Hendrix's tremolo picking on the guitar. Already the sonic of Aesthethica is brought to mind, but it's not long into The Ark Work that the band's progression becomes clearer. Whereas that sophomore LP tended toward hodgepodgery, with doomy riffs placed somewhat disjointedly next to more cerebral experimentation, this record is more consistent in tone and mood throughout, save for one or two divergent moments. Here I refer to the electronics-driven "Quetzalcotal", the closest thing to a banger this band has written and maybe ever will write, and the spoken word piece "Vitriol", an awkward take on a Hindu chant that is the disc's weakest moment.
Although Hunt-Hendrix's vision of black metal is, like his predecessors', atheistic, The Ark Work sounds like a religious album, albeit in a postmodern, self-reflexive way. The meditative and pretty instrumental keyboard interlude "Haelegen" is not unlike an organ prelude played before a Catholic or Anglican mass. Admittedly, its keyboard texture is more akin to 8-bit video game soundtracks than high church organs -- a nice callback to the Aesthethica tune "Helix Skull" -- but the feeling is nonetheless there. This pseudo-religiosity is maintained in large part due to the heavily repetitive nature of of the songwriting here, a kind of repetition that evokes the classic works of minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The stunning "Kel Valhaal" is a strong case in point here, utilizing the synthetic horns that make "Fanfare" so captivating to an even more maximal effect, due in large part to Fox's drumming.
This ecstatic and almost ritualistic repetition in the songwriting here does have that feature that is the core of Hunt-Hendrix's vision for both Liturgy's music and American black metal writ large: transcendence. This is music that builds and builds until cacophonous catharsis is reached. From a music theory standpoint, Hunt-Hendrix's burst beat concept begins to make a great deal of sense on The Ark Work; much like tremolo picking, blast/"burst" beats are all about building rapid tension such that the release hits like a sack of bricks -- which the ten tracks on this LP certainly do.
Of The Ark Work's many feats, this is its most resounding: it manages to capture Hunt-Hendrix's aesthetic vision without feeling like it's reaching to tack on a philosophy to its adventurous music. The record truly feels like Transcendental Black Metal, whatever that might mean. For a time, there was a concern that the world might not ever hear such a realization, as Liturgy initially faced a disbanding following Aesthethica, resulting in a lineup consisting only of Hunt-Hendrix and guitarist Bernard Gann. Fortunately, Fox and bassist Tyler Dusenbury rejoined the group in 2014; although Hunt-Hendrix certainly draws a lot of attention on his own, his pontificating would be nothing more than esoteric nonsense were it not for the visceral pulse provided by Fox and Dusenbery's rhythm section.
However, while The Ark Work represents the strongest fruition of this transcendent vision to date, it doesn't entirely escape the realm of esoteric nonsense, particularly with regard to Hunt-Hendrix's lyrics. For the most part, the lyric sheet to the record reads something like Eastern Philosophy Mad Libs, with contextless lines stacked one after the other, ostensibly in the hopes of conjuring up mystical imagery in the mind of the listener. See the nonsensical "Vitriol": "Soon creation will finish its process / Soon all struggles will be recreational." When these lyrics aren't meaningless they sometimes fall into the realm of the unintentionally funny: "Soon the delicacies will be sprinkled with sea salt / Soon the media will try to be honest." When interesting lines do show up, they work only when excerpted to stand on their own: "Reign Array" takes an interesting image like, "I killed the air / Surrounding the vines" and follows it up with the head-scratching "I broke the hive / Pink infants stomped around." Ultimately, since Hunt-Hendrix's vocals are almost always submerged in the euphoric instrumentation that surrounds him, the words aren't a make-it-or-break-it weakness. Nevertheless, for someone who aims to create a whole new understanding of philosophy as it relates to music, a little clarity could go a long way.
Lexical clumsiness aside, The Ark Work finds this Brooklyn group doing something genuinely inventive, which is no small achievement given what they had already accomplished with Aesthethica. Much like the recent music of Swans, this is captivatingly repetitive music that grabs the listener by the throat and drags him into a higher aural and indeed emotional plane. Although it's probably the case that most won't come out of this album being on exactly the same page Hunt-Hendrix is philosophically speaking, it's easy to feel as elated by this music as he is absorbed by his nascent philosophical worldview. The Ark Work is a different kind of bliss, but a bliss nonetheless.
Finally, the eternal question with Liturgy: Is it metal? Insofar as the Liturgy project centers on something called Transcendental Black Metal, which involves the usage of blast beats and tremolo picking, it's safe to say that the influence of black metal is alive and well with this band. But just as throwing a banjo on an album doesn't make it country, nor do these stylistics mean that this group is out to write the next In the Nightside Eclipse. In fact, Hunt-Hendrix has expressly said he is "less committed to black metal", which is made more than obvious by the songwriting and instrumental technique of him and his bandmates. Genre isn't a preoccupation here; thinking inventively about music is. There is only one right answer to "the metal question", and it is, "Who cares?" If you let yourself fall into the repetitions and rhythms of The Ark Work, you might just come out with something like transcendence after all.
Splash image: press photo of Liturgy by Erez Avissar.