Liturgy are a black metal band from Brooklyn, New York – a place more often associated with hipster indie than extreme metal. The band themselves perform in shirts and jeans, and though frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix delivers his vocals with an abrasive wail and drummer Greg Fox batters out incendiary blast beats, Liturgy have divided the metal community. This reaction is at once predictable and confusing. On the one hand I can see why black metal fans may not warm to Liturgy’s unconventional posturing, but on the other, I can’t understand why their progressivism is not more embraced.
Tellingly, the main objections to the band seem to encompass not necessarily their music, but rather the way they dress, and their unashamedly intellectual ideas – neither of which are seen to be in keeping with true ‘kvlt’ black metal. Granted, Liturgy don’t actually call themselves ‘black metal’ – they prefer the term ‘transcendental black metal’ invented by Hunt-Hendrix. In short, this sound seeks to create an ‘ecstatic’ rather than a nihilistic experience, and implies that the music will go beyond the boundaries of traditional black metal. But the focus on the aesthetic rather than the sonic in criticisms of Liturgy shows primarily that black metal is more than just music; it is an ideology, and secondly, that its ideology is completely static. Liturgy’s second album, insouciantly titled ‘Aesthetica’ in fact seems a knowing challenge to aesthetics-based detractors.
Transgression and tradition are among the main facets of black metal ideology, and Liturgy’s inversion of these to more positive concepts is seen as an assault on the fundamentals of black metal. But is it really an assault, or is it rather an evolution? Liturgy’s ‘transcendental black metal’ builds on established concepts in the genre to discover new forces and sounds in the music. There’s little doubt that since the mid-80s black metal has largely followed a sonic and aesthetic formula, regardless of whether this was only relevant within a certain timeframe in certain circumstances. This has led to a glut of black metal music, but arguably a dearth in quality. Sounds tend to evolve over time through some sort of dialectic, but because of black metal’s very ideology, change is seen as negative and dialectics are impossible due to black metal needing to remain ‘pure’. Defining the genre in terms of old traditions and transgressive beliefs lent a certain degree of honesty and solidarity to it, but its strength is being systematically pulled apart by identikit groups with no attachment to the circumstances of the genre’s initial genesis – surely a problem of tradition for black metal fans?
Liturgy on the other hand have taken black metal as a base to explore further possibilities of the sound, and ended up with a more expansive, sonically progressive interpretation. The passion of black metal often came in rage, but Liturgy switch this to ecstasy. In Hunt-Hendrix’s manifesto entitled ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’, he also argues that nihilism = affirmation, lunar = solar, and purity = penultimacy. Nonetheless, this level of intellectualism is a problem in itself, not just for black metal fans, but for everyone. There is a definite danger of being caught up in ideas and allowing the music to become sterile and vaguely ridiculous. If black metal is to do with raw ‘feeling’, then Liturgy are living evidence of the mind/body problem – where their music is all mind. Some of their tracks sound more like experiments than songs, and this can be alienating whilst also showing inconsistency on Liturgy’s part for preaching about transcendent emotions but making thoroughly cerebral music.
Nonetheless it sometimes takes a bit of brains to be inventive, and Liturgy’s sound is clearly something new for black metal; taking as much influence from Brahms and Steve Reich as they do from Emperor and Mayhem. Mixing cyclical minimalist structures, Romantic harmony, and black metal heaviness is certainly interesting, if not compelling. Liturgy are trying to distil the power of black metal, and turn it into something new, away from the clichés and stereotypes. The skill and bravery required to do this is considerable, and they should be applauded for at least trying.
(Originally published on SoundShock)
(Originally published on SoundShock)