Liturgy Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix
Photo: Alexander Perrelli / Rarely Unable

Filling Hearts With Diamonds: An Interview with Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy

Exemplified by the new album 93696, Liturgy have moved ever further out into space all their own, tethered only by a slender cable to their sonic point of origin.

Thrill Jockey
24 March 2023

Across the past 15 years, Liturgy have stretched and warped the form of black metal into thrillingly imaginative shapes. Exemplified by their new album, 93696, Liturgy have moved ever further out into a space all their own, tethered only by a slender cable to their sonic point of origin. They’ve achieved this by adulterating that root element with classical music, laptop electronics, and strains of the avant-garde without losing touch with metal’s furious energy.

The mind and soul at Liturgy’s heart is Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix, composer, philosopher, multi-instrumentalist, and even religious theorist. PopMatters learned a little about where this intrepid explorer of musical, emotional, and intellectual realms finds herself.

I appreciated how the October release of the As the Blood of God Bursts the Veins of Time EP (2022) whetted appetites for 93696. But it felt like a red herring, given how compact it was while, by comparison, the album is such a vast work.

The EP was a bit of a departure, having such a steady beat the whole time — we do that every once in a while. It felt it would be nice to follow up our previous record, Origin of the Alimonies (2020), which had such classical music pacing — moments of silence, ebbs, and flows — with a crushing metal song because the EP is pretty much a single song. I like to highlight different dimensions of what the band does in isolation.

The EP was also a reference to an art show of the same name I did last year (24 June-31 July 2022 at Gern En Regalia, New York City). It was a solo show of my sculptures; the cover of the EP is one of the sculptures from the show, and it’s all work that involves 3D printing and laser engraving, spray-painting on materials, sort of an attempt to create a sacred space connected to the music.

I’m very interested in having the music be in a dynamic relationship with philosophy and art. I’ve been focused more on art in recent times, and it’s really only in the past year or two that I’ve been able to do all three at the same time. I feel I was maybe shy about making art and that it’s only now I’m doing what I was envisioning in my original philosophical text (2009’s Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism.) I’m writing and developing philosophy every week on my Substack, putting that online, so maybe it’s just a matter of finally getting to things. It’s funny how a body of work develops a life of its own. In a way, it’s been intentional, but how it has come to fruition is spontaneous.

It’s noticeable that the EP’s title is a lyric from a previous song and that various tracks on the new album are positioned as sequels to previous ones. Can you talk about the connections between 93696 and the overall body of work?

At this point, I’m kind of fascinated by the canon of Liturgy’s music. We’ve put out a lot of music, and it’s exciting for me to revisit old material and draw new inspiration from it. The songs are totally different and new but cross referencing Liturgy’s past. I’m not sure why, it just felt right. So, “Red Crown II” takes a theme from the song “Red Crown” on Aesthetica (2011) but performs it on ocarina and in a different way. We recorded it in 2020, and that’s when a lot of the really intensive work happened — though a lot of the starting points of the music were from much earlier. It was pretty much done in 2021, but we didn’t get to release it.

All the music is about God, its sacred music, and that’s why it’s called Liturgy. The four sections of the album refer to four dimensions of the vision of heaven that I’ve been trying to develop philosophically over the past six or seven years. H.A.Q.Q. (2019) was more about God, while this album is more about heaven. In a way, the music is meant to sound like heaven or draw one’s attention to the thought of building the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s a very time-consuming process writing this music. I’m attentive to every detail, and I revise obsessively, to the point of madness practically. The music sounds very frenetic, and the process of composing it feels like what the music sounds like; there’s a lot of intensity goes into it, a lot of attention and revising. It grew organically, pretty much the way all our albums do. I have the seeds of songs, little riffs, or themes for several songs, and when I’m starting I’m already thinking about the track list: what’s the first song? What’s the last song? How’s it all going to be paced? The songs all develop from there and morph into one another and get longer and longer — that’s why musical material passes between them a lot. On this album especially, there’s a lot of reference between different songs.

There’s an interlude piece for each of the four sides — the four parts — and those relate to one another. For example, “Angel of Sovereignty” is kind of the same composition as “Angel of Emancipation”; “Angel of Hierarchy” is kind of the same song as “Angel of Individuation”, but they’re scored in different ways, and there are variations in terms of how they unfold. Then, between different songs, there’s a lot of material passing around. Some of it has meaning, but a lot of it doesn’t. A lot of it is because as I’m improvising with the material, I’ll like two different ways that I’ve ended up using it, and then I’ll use both in different tracks because there’s so much going on in each song.

That’s very common in 19th-century classical music, which is my favorite kind of music — Brahms or composers like that — where there’s a process of getting compositional materials worked out and then weaving them together, turning them around, slowing them down, speeding them up and having them morph around like that. It’s something I really like about a certain way of writing classical music, and it was another inspiration too.

Is it correct to say that your formal education in classical music has been of significant benefit to your work over the years?

Well, I took classical music seriously while studying it, and there was a time I thought I would be an avant-garde minimalist composer or something. Of course, I always liked rock music too, and I ended up getting swept into the music scene in Brooklyn. Making music in the rock or punk tradition felt more alive, but I had classical music skills, too, so I think I’ve always structured songs like classical compositions. Even in Aesthetica, there’s a particular way those songs unfold which is part of what is distinctive about Liturgy, and it comes from my having studied Brahms and other composers. I was doing it more intuitively, though. I even forgot how to write musical notation for a while and relearned; I didn’t completely forget, but I lost facility with it. Origins of the Alimonies is completely a work of classical music, it has a full score, and I relearned classical music to make that.

93696 is much more of a rock record, but those skills are still present. I’ve always loved the union of rock and classical music; it’s always been a big goal of mine because I love both styles of music so much. I love the meaning of both musical traditions, too, they both have a social and political meaning, but it’s very difficult to get the two to work together. There is music that combines rock and classical music well if both versions are very avant-garde, improvised, noisy, and experimental. Liturgy is avant-garde but it’s also tuneful in a lot of ways. Creating that kind of combination of rock and classical music, in music that sounds like normal music, in a way that isn’t in bad taste or just stupid, is something that has always animated me.

You’ve never been shy of challenging people it’s clear. Are you starting to notice that your work has inspired others to pursue their own visions too?

Liturgy is a pretty singular thing. I have friends who make music that is cutting edge, and I feel like there’s something shared there, but Liturgy is quite an unmoored kind of project. At first, it was about combining black metal, emotive hardcore, classical minimalism, and classical romanticism. I was interested in exploring trap music and adding glitch elements, and then I went more into classical music, added video elements, and refined the philosophy. For this album, I’ve said it in a few interviews, and people have thought it was funny or strange to say, but I don’t really feel like there’s anything new about 93696? In some ways, I was more interested in refining the sound and making something that was made well with a sound that has matured into what it is.

The relationship between Liturgy and its audience has always been an interesting thing, but I think, over time, the band has been able to create its own audience just because of what the band does, not because of the genre or because the audience identifies in a particular way. I tend to like music that does that kind of thing. It can be a bumpy road, but it’s just how it goes. I’m more interested in singular artists, I don’t think that’s the only legitimate way to make music — other ways are good too. People can like music for whatever their reason is — but I like the singular approach, and that’s what drives me. I also like the idea of inspiring someone, not necessarily in the sense of them making music that sounds like Liturgy, but inspiring them to make music in their own unique way, to ‘touch a nerve.’ I know people I’ve been in touch with where it’s happened that way, and that’s what I care about the most.

There aren’t many artists out there writing their own philosophical and religious visions of the universe, that’s for sure. It’s a tricky question to answer, but where do you feel that drive comes from?

Maybe it’s partly a mystical sense? I feel I’ve had mystical experiences, and maybe it’s pain, old pain that’s being processed. Maybe it’s just that I’ve had this combined love of music and philosophy too… It’s not something that I can step back from and explain because I don’t fully understand it myself. I certainly am driven, though I’m not sure what I’m driven for. There’s not a goal except to share a vision and find people who resonate with it and have that be a meaningful experience, a shared sense of utopia. I like to think of it by addressing it toward an audience, but as individuals, just certain people, because not everyone cares about this way of making art and connecting to individuals rather than groups.

Christianity is a part of my background but in a strange way. I had a taste of Southern Baptist Christianity while being raised in New York City, so my upbringing was a mix of the religious and the Godless, and I’ve carried that with me. There’s something to the idea of just wanting to try to help the world and how that should play out in culture and how it can play out in modern times. That’s certainly something that is a source of great fascination for me. From a young age, I had a mystical sense, a sense of concern with God, and a sense of the obviousness of the reality of God, which not everyone has.

I can only speak from my own experience, but there have been two or three times in my life when I’ve felt a powerful sense of epiphany, a sense of eternity. I don’t have those experiences often, though I meditate and pray regularly, which gives me a version of it. Bbut there have been a couple of times when those moments have occurred spontaneously, and I’m not even sure how to describe them. The process of composing the music has that quality, too, because I think of the process as being in partnership with God where my muse is divine, and I’m working with someone. That’s what it feels like, though I know people say that all the time when they’re talking about making art. You can have that experience and not label it as divine the way I choose to.

For me, the experience of making music is mystical. Then the experience of performing, or even just practicing it, in a different way, it feels divine — just having band practice puts me in such a good mood! Playing our set feels good because the emotions are so open and sincere, and though it’s hard to execute, we know the songs pretty well, so we do a good job. I love playing with my bandmates; the process of playing together is a huge part of the music. I put a lot into the composing, which I do all on my own, but performing the music has a whole process of getting to know the songs and playing them with a certain feel, and just being in sync in this organic way and sharing that with my bandmates — it’s one of my favorite things.

When you share the songs with the group to refine further, is the music already more or less entirely composed?

Some songs are completely finished, while some are very close, about 90%. Normally I don’t bring something in until all the parts are pretty much written. There are some big exceptions to that, or sometimes we’ll get something together, and it’ll feel all wrong, so we’ll take it apart and do something different. I rarely write songs in our practice space. We have a shared space in Brooklyn that other bands use, and we usually practice once a week or maybe more if we’re working particularly hard on something. During 2020 we practiced three times a week because there was nothing else to do! I mostly write music in my apartment, though. I have a guitar and a little practice amp, a computer, and a keyboard. Then there are different programs I use, such as Sibelius, Ableton, and Logic. A lot of material is not written on guitar, I’ll play it on the keyboard, or I’ll program drums or different production elements.

I admit I adore how your use of software allows the music to reach this peak of intensity and to stay in that moment without being dulled or becoming repetitive…

I think of it as an essential feature of Liturgy’s sound. There are two fundamental and unique techniques for Liturgy: there’s the “burst-beat” — a particular method of combining different blast and grind beats — then there’s “general tremolo”, which I call the glitching. It’s meant to refer to guitar tremolo, which I call “special tremolo”. It’s a spin on Special Relativity and General Relativity. I don’t talk about that one as much! I like the sound of the glitching, I also enjoy experiencing the continuity between the glitching and how the music is played. I don’t think the glitching would be as meaningful in other musical contexts.

We’re playing the music so fast that the glitching reminds you it’s a recording. I find this psychedelic effect mesmerizing because it’s so similar to what’s happening within the music. Have you ever seen Mulholland Drive? There’s a famous scene when they’re in this theatre, and these people are playing music. They put their instruments down, and the music keeps going, and the guy’s like, “there is no band!” I think of that when I’m doing it; it’s always like that.

It seems so clear that this is a vision for living, that it isn’t just a job. I’m fascinated by artists who, rather than giving up, repeating themselves, or semi-retiring, have stayed creative throughout their lives. Where do you see life going next for you and Liturgy?

I’m open to the idea that the world will change in the next couple of years or in my lifetime. I think there’s something about that in the music too, the idea that we live in the Apocalypse Times in some way. I don’t know whether what is coming is really good or bad, but it doesn’t feel like it will be “business as usual” for much longer — maybe five years, maybe 20 years, but within my lifetime. There’s a certain sense of awe about the future and what’s happening in the world that has always been an influence on this.

Even the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven, I think of that as something that could be on the horizon in a way. Sometimes I’m in moods when I’m so deep into the art that I want to build the Kingdom of Heaven or spread a desire for it. Then in other more mundane moods, I think of reality as a more basic thing. I certainly imagine I’ll continue to strive to expand creativity for however long things keep going the way they are.