If you are a serious, disciplined listener of music, black metal might be an as-of-yet unwritten entry in your encyclopedic grasp of music and its oft notorious sub genres. You might view it as elusive or even contradictory. Perhaps you find it overly serious, dark, depressing, maybe even unintentionally funny and ridiculous. But there it is, this entry, unfinished and perhaps unfairly ignored. Black metal traces its origin to thrash metal acts like Venom and Bathory but its real history begins in the early 90s in Norway where bands like Mayhem, Immortal, Emperor, and Darkthrone perfected a raw, low fidelity sound defined by trebly guitars, continuous pounding double kick drums, tortured vocals, and pagan, anti-Christian lyrical content. It was a scene that was linked to murders (most notably the murder of Mayhem’s á˜ystein “Euronymous” Aarseth at the hands of Varg Vikernes, who still records under the moniker Burzum), the arson of dozens of historic Stave churches throughout Norway (some at the hands of Varg Vikernes himself), and suicide (most notably by Mayhem’s vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin). Black metal’s “second wave” was met with a satanic panic of press in Norway and all over the globe. Its corpse-painted performers were seen less as members of a musical sub genre and more as willful participants in out and out Satanism and far-right politics, a reactionary categorization that still permeates accounts of black metal’s history and current iterations, most notably in Michael Moyinhan’s Lords of Chaos, a book which has been criticized for failing to dispel this categorization and even tacitly endorsing this (mis)understanding of the music. Varg Virkenes denied accusations of Satanism and insisted this (or maybe his) music was something more primitivist, a-Christian, and neo-pagan. Yet he aligned himself with toxically xenophobic political viewpoints, and although he (and the incredibly nascent national socialist black metal movement) operate within an extreme minority of an already obscure genre, the associations stick. Darkthrone’s Fenriz dismissed any political associations whatsoever, and his jovial, light-hearted demeanor belies Varg’s self-seriousness and the genre’s stereotypically dismal attitude. Whatever “second wave” black metal was, it was the ultimate enactment of what extreme music always masqueraded as and never quite was, it was excess and violence and confusion. Yet, theological and semantic arguments regarding “Satanism” aside, it was absolutely misanthropic, anti-Christian, and deeply nihilistic.
American black metal, if anything, further internalized these themes. Though the Norse originators were bands who weren’t shy of the things bands do-who were perhaps straightforwardly debaucherous individuals behind all their cryptic pseudonyms, painted faces, and a darker-than-thou ethos-their American counterparts had become one man “hordes,” known only by their pseudonyms. Leviathan’s Wrest and Xasthur’s Malefic are particularly salient examples (not to mention associated acts Weakling or Lurker of Chalice), seeming ascetics who shun live performance, interview requests, and anything beyond a sustainable baseline of existence, musicians who deeply embody black metal’s extreme emotional negativity. And even among the more public, performance-based bands-from Washington’s eco-pagan Wolves in the Throne Room to Texas’s esoteric, somewhat traditionalist Absu-the commitment to nihilism and “darkness” remains. And then there is New York’s Liturgy. Perhaps such a historical introduction is unnecessary, but if it seems over-indulgent let me clarify. This musical lineage, at least its European strain, is something Liturgy, a solo project cum four-piece from Brooklyn, pays particular attention to. I think, most of all, it is something they pay particular attention to because they seek to destroy it, to create something new with the pieces, to attempt a musical evolution. Or, at least, another evolutionary strain.
On December 19th of last year, Liturgy’s founder and principle member Hunter Hunt-Hendrix spoke at a symposium of black metal theory in Brooklyn entitled “Hideous Gnosis”, his lecture on “Transcendental Black Metal” appears in a recently published book containing the essays presented at the symposium. In a dark bar in Brooklyn Hunter urged for a black metal of “affirmation” over “nihilism,” “hypertrophy” over “atrophy,” and “courage” over “depravity”. In a sense, he asked black metal to be black metal and also its opposite. As he tells me, this new iteration of black metal “should channel and renew the spirit of liberation, and it should consume everything that’s out there and reterritorialize it on the basis of a vision of apocalyptic ecstasy”. There is an inherent openness to this approach, and perhaps not a more fitting name than Liturgy-this is black metal to be played publically in sunlight, in joyous almost spiritual ecstasy. It is this in the face of black metal’s inherent dark void, perhaps even embracing it, standing above and looking inside.
It might all sound entirely convoluted but I swear this imagery makes sense as soon as you hear the music. At any moment Liturgy’s pieces sound like they are going to self destruct, to be sucked back down as severed arms and guitar strings and drum sticks into the eternal void its predecessors lauded. But before we get there we have Side A, a subdued untitled track (one of many interesting near-ambient pieces peppered throughout the album) that starts off Liturgy’s debut as a full fledged band, Renihilation, and serves as a prelude to its second track, Side B’s “Pagan Dawn”. Over its brief two minute span a vocal incantation slowly builds on itself and anticipates a coming storm. This storm is “Pagan Dawn”, with Greg Fox’s frantic drumming speeding up and slowing down (a masterful blend of technical ability that avoids sounding robotic or inauthentic) as the harmonies arc and Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals-still the traditional blackened howl-are somehow excited, joyous, and yearning. This is not a woeful yearning, but a yearning for some momentary “yes,” a “yes” through gritted, grinning teeth. Those harmonic moments build into a brief unaccompanied progression about a minute and half in, announcing the return of Fox’s breakneck tempo-shifting rhythms, what Hunt-Hendrix calls the “burst beat”. It is exactly that, a burst, a propulsive force, an impermanent acceleration away from black metal’s cold dark interior. Liturgy is very frank in its desire to be musically transcendent, and cognizant as well that this transcendence is “an immanently generated mirage of transcendence, like a horizon or an asymptote” . They structure their songs to be ever-climbing beasts, fast and loud as hell. In the hands of any other group of musicians Side B would be called “Pagan Dusk,” a lament, a complacency with darkness and nihilism, a set pounding tempo with depressive shrieks and despondent riffage that might otherwise drone on for ten minutes. But Liturgy is not any other black metal band. The latter half of “Pagan Dawn” almost recalls this monotony as it breaks down into a plodding, methodical mid-tempo march, as though walking with black metal of old for a little while, placating it, challenging it. And then Greg Fox launches into yet another ever quickening burst beat, Bernard Gann and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix build a towering harmony on guitars underwritten by bassist Tyler Dusenbury. It is elating and rich and it resolves and retreats as suddenly as it began, having only skimmed the horizon.
A few years ago my obsession with black metal began. I was in my dorm room in the middle of the night, forcing myself through Ulver’s seminal Nattens Madrigal. “Hynme VI: Wolf and Passion” kicked in, and its soaring opening was a revelation-it was sincere and affirmative and fleeting, and it died eventually into diametric, ominous verse. But that opening moment was a crystallization of the idea that extreme metal, and even black metal, is only extreme in its cacophony, and to some extent its postured conjuring of “darkness,” sometimes a jejune and silly “darkness” at that. It was a realization that there could be emotional nuance in the most extreme metal, that it was serious, that this was a joyful seriousness, that it was art. Liturgy is a re-affirmation of this notion. And maybe, reading all this, it still seems ridiculous to you. A symposium on black metal “theory”? A band with a dense conceptual underpinning? But again, I am addressing you: the serious, disciplined listener of music. And I’d hazard to say that you listen to music because its expression of the ineffable is deeply resonant on a wide spectrum of emotional, intellectual, and (maybe) spiritual levels. It is a medium to transmit what mere words or mere images cannot alone express. Black metal has long broadcast a very particular expression: deep sorrow and depression, an intellectual longing for a pagan pre-history (and often the “darkness” or “evil” that is intentionally conjured is conjured to show us that these emotions and concepts are only connotative in such ways in the wake of Judeo-Christian tradition). If anything, the emotions and this idea of “darkness,” silly or not, are things we typically try to tuck away and hide, and so it is in a sense a genre that is hidden and tucked away. What is exciting is to see a band attempt to forcibly remove a genre from its cave and expose it mercilessly to the light, a band who takes its lineage seriously and decides to actively do something with it, something truly experimental, American, and ultimately uplifting. Liturgy is taking the sound of black metal’s past and asking it to express something unique and new while still remaining secular, musically destructive, and chaotic. It’s alchemy, really, an almost contradictory dark positivity.
The following appeared recently in a New York Times article about the “Hideous Gnosis” symposium:
During a Q. and A. period Mr. Hunt-Hendrix was challenged by Scott Wilson, a professor from Lancaster University, […] Mr. Wilson wondered, skeptically, if transcendentalist black metal just boiled down to “all you need is love.”
“I’m not so interested in defending anything I say,” Mr. Hunt-Hendrix replied. “I only like to be judged on whether it’s interesting or not.”
So whatever your entry on black metal looks like now, it ought to include at least a sentence on Liturgy, whether you see them as standard-bearers or visionaries, noodling hipsters or serious musicians. All they ask of you is what you ought always to be giving as a serious listener-your interest.
Liturgy’s full length album Renihilation is available here from 20 buck spin. An interview with guitarist/vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix appears after the jump.
Liturgy started as your own personal project. Where you at all aware of the disparate incarnations of U.S. Black Metal, which are alike, if at all, in that they are one man, multi-instrumentalist “hordes” (I’m thinking of Xasthur, Leviathan, Wrath of the Weak) I think you’ve mentioned in some interviews that you were more interested in sort of the second-wave of black metal (Mayhem, Immortal, Ulver, etc), what was it that attracted you to these bands? As well, where did your musical interest lie outside of black metal, or perhaps more specifically, why was it this sort of music you gravitated towards when Liturgy first began?
I’ve never listened to much USBM, with the exception of a few records by Xasthur or Judas Iscariot. Certainly the second wave in Scandinavia was the black metal I first got into (Darkthrone, Ildjarn, early Emperor), though gradually my interest veered towards continental Europe - France and Poland particularly, I think. Some of my favorites: Graveland, Vlad Tepes, Satanic Warmaster, Mutiilation, Blut Aus Nord, Warloghe, Haemoth. Around the same time I was also getting way into post-romantic classical music, which is in a way similarly cryptic and esoteric because no one cares about it or respects it: Scriabin, Bruckner, Nielsen, Sibelius. I think I began to kind of fuse the two traditions in my mind - both because there really are certain concrete musical similarities, but also because there is a similar nostalgic, grandiose, esoteric vibe. Sibelius is the crossover in a way. He was Norwegian, first of all, and his musical style was totally reactionary and antimodern. Even though he was aware of Schoenberg and Bartok etc. he stuck to his Romantic vibe almost desperately. Somehow to me Graveland and Sibelius have a similar aura. But I was also getting into euro-avant-garde stuff, particularly Xenakis, Ligeti, Grisey, Stockhausen, etc. etc. And for that matter, more than anything else, I was studying continental philosophy: Deleuze, Badiou, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Schopenhaur. I was in school for philosophy at the time that I was developing Liturgy, and that was actually my main concern. Anyway all of this seemed so faraway and magical, and to me black metal, post-romanticism, avant-garde contemporary classical music and continental philosophy seemed deeply connected – which maybe in reality is isn’t, at least not to the degree that it is in my imagination. I dunno, it’s hard to explain. The music on this side of the Atlantic that I was most down with was minimalism/postminimalism, like Reich, La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, up to Glenn Branca, and also My Bloody Valentine, though I also listened to a ton of hardcore like Orchid, pg. 99, Coverge, City of Caterpillar. But that stuff felt very familiar. I guess Liturgy was born of a desire to inject all the European culture that seemed so auratic and faraway into the tradition that I felt more a part of, and link it all to under the umbrella of the signifier “Transcendentalism” associated with Emerson etc.
How did Bernard, Tyler and Greg get involved with Liturgy? Was it always the plan to expand the project into a fully-formed band? Is there a common affinity for extreme metal amongst the band, or is there more of an interest in the music at hand?
It wasn’t always the plan to turn Liturgy into a full band, or to even really end up with a rock band necessarily. I was really deep into philosophy and composition, and I bet five years ago I might have told you that Liturgy would end up being almost the negative image of what it is - that it, it would have been postminimalist composition that was inflected by black metal on the one hand and by Nietzsche and Wagner on the other hand. The “burst beat” concept was always of crucial importance. After Immortal Life, I spent a lot of time trying to take it to the next level, working on Xenakis-inspired stochastic generators to create chaotic and fluctuating electronic blast beats using Max/MSP. But I was never quite satisfied with tending in that direction. Partly because I love composing harmonies and melodies, and harmony and melody is precisely what avant-garde composition cuts out. I was in a real crisis with this and finally decided to try it in rock band format, even if it wouldn’t be so cerebral or sophisticated. Greg, Bernard and Tyler all went to school together and knew one another, though I knew Greg and Bernard independently. Bernard shares my interest in classical music and he joined the band first. We played one show together as a duo, then Greg came along and brought Tyler with him. It all came together super quickly; it was much less work that what I’d been trying to do, and I already had a million songs. I think everyone in the band likes metal more or less, but probably that’s what binds us together the least. I don’t think anyone in the band is like actively seeking out new metal to listen to. Our interests are all a little different, and they’re all elsewhere.
Also, is Greg mimicking the tempo shifts of the drum machine from the solo Liturgy recordings? The speeding up/slowing down of the percussion throughout the album is incredible.
Yes, exactly! On Immortal Life I’d just modulate the tempo with a knob, but that was just a sketch of the vision I had in mind. The Max/MSP experiments sounded stupid, but working with Greg was immediately very rewarding. A live drummer can’t accelerate and decelerate with the same continuity that a machine can, but he can cross thresholds from one tempo another; it’s pretty simple but very visceral and satisfying. That’s the essence of the burst beat. Basically we worked out three “tempos” or patterns really, and he switches between the three at key harmonic moments. And there are certain moments with true accelerations, though it doesn’t really work in this context to be doing that all the time.
What role did Colin Marston [of Krallice and Behold… The Arctopus] have in the recording process for Renihilation? How did he get involved in the recording ?
He’s recorded many of my friends’ bands, so he was an obvious go-to for this. It was nice working with him, because he knows all about how to make metal sound heavy in a traditional way, but also is aware of other kinds of aesthetics, so it was the best of both worlds.
Though Krallice and Liturgy are sonically distinct, it is interesting to see a black metal presence in New York-do you see a sort of community developing out of this (I don’t want to suggest a “scene” since that word now carries a lot of connotations) in the same way there has always been art-influence punk and experimental music in the city? Do you have hopes for what “black metal’ can become outside of Liturgy?
Yes, I’m very interested in the future of black metal in America. I think it should be called Transcendental Black Metal and it should channel and renew the spirit of liberation, and it should consume everything that’s out there and reterritorialize it on the basis of a vision of apocalyptic ecstasy.
I’m fascinated by the anti-nihilist/transcendental content of the music. Do you have any literary/philosophical interests that have had an influence on composition? (Pagan Dawn, as a title, reminds me of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and the idea of the revaluation of values, for whatever reason)
Yes, I have a very deep interest in Nietzsche. Good call. The revaluation of values, the “no” to nihilism and the Zarathustran affirmation make up the fundamental kernel from which the music of Liturgy radiates. Black metal has always been Nietzschean - often pretty explicitly, but usually it is the vulgar, fascist, racist Nazi reading of Nietzsche; I want to take what’s already there and reinscribe it on the basis of the more subtle, contemporary and profound Deleuzian reading of Nietzsche, which comes down ultimately to Affirmation. Actually I like to think of the old school of “Hyberborean Black Metal” as occupying the position of Nihilism in the Genealogy of Morals… Nihilism is a “No” to the priest, but it produces a soul that is even sicker than that of the Christian. The Renihiliation is the final “No”, the “No” to Nihilism which is Zarathustran affirmation. The last connection I’ll make to Nietzsche is: I take very seriously the idea of the experimenter who tries on different cultures and value systems like different cloaks, and then revaluates them and generates an individual culture/system-of-values for himself. That’s why it’s important to me for Liturgy to be standing in the void, at this crossroads between the “black metal kvlt”, “hipster culture”, “serious music”, etc. which there’s been some controversy over. To not accept any herd, to not live inside a cultural paradigm but to smash different paradigms together and forge something out of the fragments…. so that’s not an influence on the composition exactly, but on like the total aesthetic vision so to speak.
There is an oscillation on Renhilation between the untitled tracks and the percussion driven, more metal-driven (for lack of a better term) tracks on the album (and the two we’ve chosen for the 7-inch). Is there a conceptual motivation for this? For instance, the first track’s two minutes of tranquil droning vocals transitions effortlessly into the sensory overload of blastbeat and guitars in “Pagan Dawn”. Is there an intellectual dichotomy being explored here above a purely musical one?
Well, the untitled vocal track develops by adding progressively higher partials from the overtone series - the overtone series of course being a major theme in a lot of the music I’ve been talking about. Maybe starting the record off in that way was an effort to situate the black metal sounds in that schema. But really more than anything, though the concern was musical. I thought it would sound great, musically compelling on the most intuitive level, to set up pagan dawn with a progressively growing vocal drone.
“Pagan Dawn” has a real sense of urgency to it, even in the blissful tremolo harmony about a minute and a half in. Urgency runs throughout the album but is most prevalent I think on that track particularly. I’ve thought of that urgency in terms of the yearning for transcendence and the sort of reality that you seem to be only ever approaching it as a person, as though transcendence or spiritual ecstasy is an asymptote. Do you feel that the music itself contains that transcendental power, or that it is a best representation of what that transcendence could be, that it is merely work towards that idea?
Ha, yes the figure of the asymptote looms very large in my imagination actually. The transcendence in question is a sort of immanently generated mirage of transcendence, like a horizon or an asymptote. The “Almost…”, the eternal “not yet”, the goal that hangs in the sky etc. I think we are touching upon something very fundamental to human experience, or at least to my personal experience. Of course this is also known as the Void and as the Gap. I think that Alain Badiou has put together a very exciting universalized philosophy of the Void. One has to listen to it and remain faithful to it, and even though there’s nothing to reach, nevertheless something changes and new things are born. Something like that. So Liturgy is a transmission of an experience of fidelity to the void. I mean the vision that generates Liturgy is itself a sort of horizonal Transcendental Idea; ultimately it does not hang together, it doesn’t cohere, but with enough fidelity it takes on a life of its own…
I’m interested in the lo-fi quality, is there a balance you try to reach with recording quality (a point when you’d say “this is too little fidelity”)? Did new ideas come across now that you have a group of musicians who perhaps bring different qualities to the table? Anything you might like to say about these tracks or in general (especially to a readership who probably listens to some noise but to whom black metal is some foreign entity)?
I like a raw sound, but I also want everything to be pretty audible. That’s why Colin was good to work with. He understands that a raw aesthetic doesn’t “sound bad” but also was able to produce one without sacrificing actual fidelity. The one thing I’ll mention about Pagan Dawn specifically is that the bridge section with the slower beat is supposed to be a sort of blast beat in slow motion. I’m very interested in the way that the mind relates to different tempos - like how a continuous thud at a very fast speed is a whir, but if it goes slow enough your whole body begins to throb and groove with it. That was clearer on the demos, because I just toggled the tempo to make it slower. Yes, for the new record we’re doing a lot of work to focus on the ways that my ideas resonate with the other members and trying to channel that. Bernard is an incredibly virtuosic guitar player, so that’s something to work with. Greg and I have produced a live version of the burst beat that has aspects that are particular to him, that weren’t anticipated in advance, so we’re trying to flesh that out. Tyler’s been showing me a bunch of Aka Pygmy chanting which we’re going to incorporate into the new record.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem073/02 Pagan Dawn.mp3