Most of the world conforms, not because they’re forced to, but because it’s easy and they have bigger concerns. There’s a template to follow, there’s the balm of acceptance if one does so, and in the end, it’s exhausting and unprofitable to resist. In the case of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, most discussion of his work dwells on the annoyance his conception of “Transcendental Black Metal’ arouses in purists, or on accusations of pretentiousness. By contrast, what I love about Hunt-Hendrix is his determination to create something wholly his own, to be a renaissance man. It’s a refreshing stance when so many are busy miming rebelliousness and mouthing “fuck the haters”, while tailoring every gesture for maximum acceptability and minimum deviation from established norms. This man is fearless, and the sense that he’s going to surprise keeps my ear open.
The return of Liturgy with new album, H.A.Q.Q., rewards that attentiveness. While 2015’s The Ark Work was a flawed attempt at an all-encompassing meisterwerk, H.A.Q.Q. feels like the linear successor to 2011’s Aesthethica given its comparatively listener-friendly blurring of black metal, post-rock, and electronica. It’s a matter of taste how much attention one pays to the quick guide to Hunt-Hendrix’s philosophical interests provided as cover art. Against lazy invocations of that decades-old musical cliché Satan, Hunt-Hendrix attempts to will a new foundational vision into existence. To poorly paraphrase just a sliver of it: 01010n’s vast brightness remains in this world in the form of the Genesis Caul, which leads Reign Array and Kel Valhaal toward the production of prismatic structures that might permit s/he/im into the true fullness of 01010n. I’d rather listen to this kind of glorious derangement, his “vision of apocalyptic humanism”, than wallow in the philosophical blankness of uninteresting hedonists.
Liturgy have once again crafted a coherent album-length suite of music, but this time they’ve remembered to make actual songs too. Opener “HAJJ” sculpts what sounds like a cassette tape on fast-forward into repeatedly cresting waves before tumbling into the song’s core. It’s the musical equivalent of a mass cavalry charge, with only the briefest room for air when cycling through Don Caballero/Battles guitar riffs, or when a vocal chant wavers in the background like a sixties idyll of Hawaii. “Virginity” even raises a smile with a library music worthy harp glissando before plummeting straight into full black action soaked in echoing room ambience. There was a fair question to be asked whether Hunt-Hendrix was spreading himself too thinly given recent months have seen his first gallery exhibition, PERICHORESIS, the premiere of opera Apparition of the Eternal Church, now a full Liturgy album too. The answer seems to be that the guy is on an inspired tear.
Electronic glitches have been incorporated into every song, and they’re irksome in the same way as disc-rot or vinyl scratches. Being generous, however, it does add something. Most extreme music in the black metal vein becomes numbing through constant pounding within relatively conventional structures. Liturgy uses these irritating jitters to set your teeth on edge before flinging you straight back into their assault. The result pauses so one can’t become indifferent to the riff-rhythm-and-scream, but pauses that ratchet up the tension rather than relieving it. Of course, the glitching is still as annoying as hell. The band’s use of electronic technology bears smoother fruit on interludes “Exaco I”, “Exaco II”, and “Exaco III”. Each foregrounds an acoustic instrument then augments it, whether slurring the performance, underpinning it with samples, or blowing the sound up into something larger.
Attention has been drawn to Liturgy’s lineup changes given a change in personnel can often yield freshness, or collapse previous greatness. Drummer Leo Didkovsky and bassist Tia Vincent-Clark fill spaces left by the departure of Greg Fox and Tyler Dusenbury, respectively, and do so without raising a single doubt about their impressive talents. By the same virtue, however, the questions asked of Liturgy have never been about instrumental competence, it’s mostly about compositional decisions. It’s a relief that H.A.Q.Q. can teeter on the brink of disaster over and again, then flip each song into a triumph. On “God of Love”, there’s a disappointing pastiche of orchestral soundtrack music that sounds like somber themes you’ve heard a dozen times but, just as you start to lose interest, the band smash into the most aggressive attack found anywhere on the album. It’s breathtaking how hard they push, every motion is impossibly up-Up-UP through treble-heavy, arm-aching strumming, before finally it breaks into a freer period of off-kilter switches between alternating riffs.
A similar threat of failure is visible on the title track “HAQQ”, which spends its first minute patenting the new genre of “Transylvanian sea shanty” before, thankfully, the guitars kick in. There are so many intriguing ideas at work. The loop deployed partway through is the only stand-out use of electronic effects on the main songs. A back-forth choral harmony is pitched against Hunt-Hendrix’s screams though this vocal layering is mostly crushed under the instrumental howl. Bernard Gann’s fingering is nimble and erudite. The piano and bell outro is a beautiful payoff delivering the listener into “. . . .”, which is the culmination of the “Exaco” suite before a solo guitar burns everything to cinders.