Photo: Alexander Perrelli / another/side

Liturgy’s ‘93696’ Delivers Ecstasy, Physicality, and Intellectual Endeavor

Already noted for their determination to challenge themselves and their listeners, Liturgy’s 93696 shows them refusing to settle for less when more is possible.

Thrill Jockey
24 March 2023

Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix cares little about what you think or feel about her or her work. This has been a constant since Liturgy‘s debut in 2008; the Immortal Life EP came emblazoned with the claim “PURE TRANSCENDENTAL BLACK METAL” in full caps. Amid circles of more rigid black metal fans, that statement alone stoked a wrathful fire. It brought to full blaze by Hunt-Hendrix’s 2009 paper, Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism which was essentially a call for the overthrow of (hyperborean) black metal’s existential despair in favor of a new form of (transcendental) black metal reveling in life’s energies.

It’s hardly surprising such a bold declaration would spark resistance from those who didn’t feel black metal needed to be toppled in a coup. Adding fuel to the flames, while Hunt-Hendrix’s paper was concise, well-expressed, and clear, she was also well-versed in the verbiage of academia, which sparked irritation from those sensitive to the appearance of being spoken down to by middle- and upper-class intellectuals.

Hunt-Hendrix refused to back down. Liturgy’s albums Renihilation (2009), Aesthetica (2011), and The Ark Work (2015) bore names, track titles, and lyrics referencing or representing her philosophy. That trait then went into overload with a self-created cosmic foundation myth explored across her solo album New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala (2016), Liturgy’s H.A.Q.Q. (2019) — an acronym for “Haelegen Above Quality and Quantity” — and its successor, an opera, Origins of the Alimonies (2020.) New album, 93696, continues down that path with an album title “derived from the religions of Christianity and Thelema, a numerological representation of heaven, or a new eon for civilization….an exploration of eschatological possibility divided by the four ‘laws’ that govern her own interpretation of heaven, ‘Haelegen'”. I have three degrees from Cambridge University and reading this still inclines me to declare “what the fuck?”

Except Hunt-Hendrix’s musical results are so utterly and consistently compelling. Every single release bearing the name Liturgy has been bold, adventurous, and distinct from their past efforts while impossible to mistake for any other artist. Last October’s As the Blood of God Bursts the Veins of Time EP was a good omen for the latest incarnation of the group with Leo Didkovsky (drums), Tia Vincent-Clark (bass), and Mario Miron (guitar). Almost garage rock in its immediacy, the EP contained Liturgy’s most straightforward and concise rock songs in years, even while the titles — “93”, “36”, “696”, and संसार (“Sansaar” or “World” in Hindi) — acted as harbingers of the album to come.

In stark contrast to such brevity, 93696 weighs in at nearly 80 minutes, and its numerological conceit does make one suspect even the song lengths might be perfectly poised elements in some delicately balanced scheme. In the same way that Origin of the Alimonies was divided into formal acts, this record is topped and tailed by instrumentals, with six other instrumentals dividing the songs with lyrics into pairs, except “Antigone II” which stands alone. The sections of 93696 are further demarcated by instrumentals christened to represent Hunt-Hendrix’s four laws: “Angel of Sovereignty”, “Angel of Hierarchy”, “Angel of Emancipation”, and “Angel of Individuation”. Four songs — two with lyrics — are positioned as sequels to previous works: “Red Crown II” (Aesthetica’s “Red Crown”), “Antigone II” (a stand-alone single from 2020), “Immortal Life II” (referencing the EP of 2008), and “Haelegen II” (The Ark Work’s “Haelegen”) which also has an echo in “Haelegen II (Reprise)”. This nodding to the past was already noticeable in the title of the preceding EP, taken from a lyric in Aesthetica’s “Glory Bronze”.

The songs with “II” appended invite one to seek points of comparison to their supposed predecessors, though it can feel like a blindfolded parlor game. “Antigone II” has enough drama to make it a fair sequel to 2020’s kinetic single. Meanwhile, “Red Crown II” connects overtly via the clever choice to have the rhythm that dominated the first minute-and-a-half of the original finger-tapped lightly while Jack Rudin plays the ocarina — a type of flute — and Hunt-Hendrix interjects painfully unlovely notes on a Wurlitzer electronic piano. On the other hand, “Haelegen” was a solo organ piece, while “Haelegen II” is a celebratory metal eruption complete with treated backing vocals. “Haelegen II (Reprise)” is a duet for acoustic and 12-string guitar, their common roots comprehensively obscured. The shimmering keys and choral chants of “Immortal Life II” also have little visible sonic commonality with the 2008 song and seem more attuned to “Aqua Marina”, the outro theme from the show, Stingray. That’s no criticism: there’s a welcome shared sense of faith in love’s boundlessness.

The “angel” instrumentals, all beautiful in their own right, are perhaps tied by a discreet compositional thread in the way that each is initiated by a high-low pattern. At the very least, the links are clear between “Angel of Hierarchy”, a piece for toy piano and vibraphone with each note given lonely space in which to shiver, and “Angel of Emancipation”, which takes a similar approach on Rhodes piano. The two others reach into church spaces. “Angel of Sovereignty” is a choral work sung by the Hi Lo Singers — a London, England-based youth group — with pure tones broken by brief pauses and a gorgeous final quarter where voices cascade past one another like an ornamental fountain of song. “Angel of Individuation” is even more breathtaking in scale and effect, with its powerful string piece gradually overtaken by the ping of metallic wires before both acoustic and electronic sources combine into a thunderous rapture that would not sound out of place hailing the literal arrival of a divinity to the soils of Earth.

The remaining tracks represent a new pinnacle regarding Hunt-Hendrix’s ability to create songs that are utterly pulverizing because of their relentlessness and compositional complexity. Even the relative calm of the opener, “Daily Bread”, sees Hunt-Hendrix’s alto lament tied to a sine wave, then prized open to unleash a multitude of different voices within. “Djennaration” and “Caela” feel like being swept down rocky rapids, subject to a constant battering, then sudden passages — a beatscape on the former, a punchy juddering rhythm on the latter — where one can gulp air and fill one’s lungs. The relatively steady top structure and quieter, briefer tracks feel vital if one is not to be overwhelmed and exhausted rather than exhilarated.

Even the mere four-and-a-half minutes of “Before I Knew the Truth” features guitars that constantly roll downhill while talented soprano Charlotte Mundy laments their loss. Hunt-Hendrix whoops excitedly against the band’s tumbling cacophony, and all are brought to rest by a duet for glockenspiel and piano. Most songs feature a digital intervention, too, glitches that act like the screech of terminally skidding tires anticipating a car’s crunching cartwheel down a steep cliff. Within the confines of a song, they interrupt passages of intensity that, if extended without pause, might become repetitious and thereby lose their thrill. Instead, these breaks shudder the listener with a brief power all their own before hurling us back into the crush and clatter that can now be sustained at a violent peak a while longer.

“Ananon” feels like a worthy and necessary prelude to the full 15 minutes of the album’s title track. “93696” surprises by giving a masterclass in Liturgy’s rock chops. The track whips through its running time at a light-footed pace by combining elements that would make up several different songs for any less ambitious group. We get awesome Shellac-style bass grooves, tasty headbanging post-hardcore riffs, passages where every high note seems to be scrambling up over its predecessor’s shoulders, a mid-section in which delicately picked notes sit somewhere under the overall roar, all boiling down into slow surges that lash out over and over. Only in the final minutes does the broader instrumental palette of Liturgy come into play to carry everything home.

Anyone who has ever broadcast their solitary path to the world has, at some point, lamented having to walk it alone. It is the impulse of the human animal to reach out, seeking empathy, comprehension, and understanding. In so doing, we compromise, we soften, and we bend. But modern humans are neither slaves to nor merely a gloss over an irresistible animal self. We can refuse, we can resist, and we can overcome. Faced with music so singular and unique, my dearest hope is that Hunt-Hendrix continues to reject comfortable acceptance and to share these missives from whatever wild land she is traversing. Here’s to life as a permanent revolution.

RATING 9 / 10