Liturgy has been a punching bag for metal’s genre police at least since the 2009 release of its first full-length, Renihilation. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, front man of this New York-based band, had been releasing solo demos as Liturgy since 2005, but in ’09 he made the fateful decision to publish the philosophical manifesto Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism as a sort of companion piece to Renihilation. It described transcendental black metal as, among other things, “the reanimation of the form of black metal with a new soul, a soul full of chaos, frenzy and ecstasy,” and its heady tone and lofty criticisms of traditional “hyperborean” black metal couldn’t have been better engineered to infuriate the reactionary gatekeepers of the metal tribe.
Watching the toxic invective and ad hominem attacks pile up, you couldn’t help but wonder: Why do so many of these people insist that one man’s statement of vision is actually an arrogation of authority to dictate the definition of black metal for everyone? Would it have helped if Hunt-Hendrix had written it in first person, with an “I think” in front of every statement? This fiasco did little to dispel the stereotype of metalheads as anti-intellectual goons so wedded to the genre’s romanticized working-class roots that anyone daring to position it as art music could count on being set upon like a spy caught behind enemy lines. As though avant-garde art doesn’t arise from the working class all the damn time!
Fortunately, Liturgy’s new third album, The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey), folds so many elements into its vibrant, toweringly strange music—minimalism, spectralism, Viennese late Romanticism, medieval sacred music, glitchy electronica, triplet-flow rap—that arguments about whether it counts as black metal seem likely to be superseded by arguments about what in the hell it is, and what it’s doing, and how. All for the best, I reckon.
Drummer Greg Fox and bassist Tyler Dusenbury returned to the band for The Ark Work, after quitting during the outpouring of critical praise and anonymous trolling that greeted 2011’s Aesthethica. Fox’s immediately recognizable “burst beats” make it especially clear that Liturgy requires more than Hunt-Hendrix’s architectural vision to sound like Liturgy—it needs the chemistry of these four players. (The fourth is guitarist Bernard Gann, son of critic, composer, and long-ago Reader contributor Kyle Gann.) Fox and Hunt-Hendrix are childhood friends, and Fox is no stranger to music with spiritual and philosophical overtones—in 2012 his group Guardian Alien put out a record called See the World Given to a One Love Entity.
I spoke to Hunt-Hendrix by phone, hoping to get some insight into The Ark Work and the theoretical scaffolding behind it—a system he’s developed privately over the past decade and doesn’t necessarily share with the band. “The album is not about this cosmology, but by developing this cosmology, I was able to make the album,” he told Pitchfork last month. As you might expect of someone who’s been pilloried for years because he aired his ideas in public, Hunt-Hendrix can be wary in interviews, but he seemed relatively comfortable by the end of our conversation. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and very slightly for clarity—for better or worse, we both really talk like this.
Philip Montoro: What’s the reception to the new album been like?
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: I’m expecting the reception to be mixed. We’re going for something on this record that I don’t think communicates itself immediately. It seems to me that younger people tend to get the record right away. People who tweet about it in a way that I recognize as representing what I’m going for tend to be younger—they’ll be 20 or something like that. Seeing a place where metal and rap and composition can easily coexist—it sounds crazy when you think about crossing those boundaries. But it does make a lot of sense, from my perspective. And I think it does objectively make a lot of sense too. It’s something that someone would do anyway, at some point—I’m kind of surprised that no one has really done it yet.
What are the elements that make that kind of combination seem so inevitable to you?
It’s a combination of styles of music that I all like for the same reason. They feature a vast, really emotive, really emotional epic sweep that I identify with German Romanticism from the 19th century. That appears in trap-rap production—like Lex Luger and Mike Will—and also in black metal. There’s just this larger world, where all these things can coexist.
I listen to a lot of weird metal, and I have to say, the new album is pretty unprecedented. I want to ask you some more detailed questions, but I figured I’d start with something that anybody could ask—what is an Ark Work? I’ve seen the term in your writing, but I couldn’t define it.
The definition for that term isn’t totally clear to me either. But it has something to do with a reactivation of the ancient hermetic quest to give birth to the divine through artistic symbols—through a total work of art. This reactivation uses contemporary technologies and cultures and institutions, so it takes place across the music industry and the art world, and it exists on the Internet. Primarily.
I’ve heard you mention that tone poem of [Alexander] Scriabin’s that was intended to bring about the second coming.
Something like that.
I assume he never finished it.
He died before he was able to complete that piece. He was planning to write a tone poem that would resonate in such a way that it would trigger some deep tectonic potentiality in the world that would cause the revelation to happen and redeem humanity. There’s lots of composers and artists who have this type of vision in their work, and essentially this is the effort to do that as a black-metal band.
Do you see anybody else, in any discipline, pursuing a similar project? Is anyone who’s active now an inspiration?
I think of Genesis P-Orridge as an inspiration, in his work with Psychic TV and the Temple ov Psychick Youth—in that it’s this experimental band that is attached to an institution that’s kind of like this redemptive effort. There’s an implicit utopian promise in a lot of counterculture. This record is just a matter of tying a lot of those different types of utopias together.
From other interviews, I gather that you see the tribalism of musical subcultures as a dead end, since it doesn’t actually prevent the co-optation that it opposes and it limits people’s creative choices. Is that part of your project, to make an end run around those constraints?
Yeah, basically. I’ve always been frustrated with countercultural formations, and there’s this relationship that capitalism has with cultural forms that oppose it, which is that it just consumes them. I mean, I love lots of music that’s in that vein. But this is a different kind of effort than that.
Is there a special attraction to the language and sound of metal? I mean, obviously there is. I guess I’m asking what it is.
My initial attraction to black metal was that it was a window into a much more cosmic and pagan and mythical world than most of the other music I was listening to. I was listening to a lot of hardcore and screamo in high school. But I was reading a lot of Nietzsche and also listening to Wagner and stuff like that. Frequently black-metal bands, in their album art and the sound of their music, evoke something very primordial. So that was my initial attraction. And that’s the reason I still call the music black metal. I recognize that this is really not a metal record at all, and it doesn’t make very much sense to market it towards a metal audience. But I still like to call it transcendental black metal, because it has its origins in that aspect of what black metal is—in the mythology surrounding the birth of black metal. You know, the church burnings and the murders—this strange thing that happened in the 90s.
Did that cosmic scale lead you to the ritual music that’s such a big part of the new album?
I think of black metal as a material, just like every other genre that I pull from. It’s not because black metal is cosmic that I invoke medieval sacred music. It’s just that they’re both aspects of the same thing. This music is ultimately about emotion—an expression of a lot of sadness and pain, and attempts at overcoming and transcending. I don’t feel there’s just one genre that would adequately express that. I’m looking for resources from all different genres to give expression to what I see.
I’ve persuaded myself, listening to the new album, that I can hear Moroccan trance music and maybe even gamelan, but who knows. What ritual-music traditions is Liturgy actually borrowing from?
In a way there’s no tradition that Liturgy is trying to borrow from. There’s an overall sound world that different traditions participate in. It’s not like I’m trying to emulate any other kind of music.
I suppose “borrow” is the wrong word. Sources of inspiration or energy?
I could name a couple. I love ecstatic qawwali, like the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And I really love medieval chant from the 11th to 13th centuries—composers like [Guillaume de] Machaut and Pérotin. I don’t know. Gagaku. Shomyo chanting—that’s a style of Buddhist chant. And jazz—Alice Coltrane. Or the music of Messiaen. I’m a huge Messiaen fan. The Turangalîla-Symphonie—I’m very influenced by that sound world. If you listen to that piece, I think this album makes a lot more sense, in a way.
Messiaen had really particular ideas about the relationships between notes and overtones and what happens when you pile them up, and I thought I could hear that in the amazing halo of microtonal drones that surrounds so many of the songs on this record. Is that a line that’s safe to draw?
Yeah, with a broad brushstroke. I really love the lineage of music between Messiaen and Xenakis and Ligeti and Scelsi, through to the spectralist composers like [Gerard] Grisey and [Tristan] Murail. They write all this music that uses the overtone series in a very technical way. [Liturgy’s] music isn’t composed like that music is at all—it’s much simpler. It’s rock music. But my love for that sound world and the primordiality that it conveys—I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up on this record. It’s a huge influence. I studied a little bit at Columbia [University] with Tristan Murail, one of the inventors of spectralism, which is just a more systematic way to make music that sounds like Scelsi. [Murail] studied with Messiaen. In school I studied classical composition, but it wasn’t my main thing. I was very interested in composition, but I was involved more in the rock scene. And I studied philosophy too. In a way this Liturgy project is just an effort to combine those things.
You’ve described the aesthethic (with a “th”) as a mode of “directly neural art” that fosters joy and transfiguration. What do you mean by “directly neural” in that context?
It’s possible for a sound to awaken a state of consciousness without communicating anything other than that. That’s pretty much what I mean by a “neural” form of art—a sound that resonates in a purifying way.
I’ve heard you mention a production and compositional technique you refer to as “integral tremolo.” What’s that?
I recently changed the name of integral tremolo, and now it’s called “general tremolo.” General tremolo is transcendental black metal’s analog to what, in hyperborean black metal, would be called special tremolo. Like picking a string really fast.
Yeah. General tremolo is expanding that technique to other elements of the mix, including the extended percussion, like the glockenspiels, but also to elements of the recording that have been recorded in advance—it’s only possible to do that by using stutter edits. So I think of the vocals on a lot of songs as having a general tremolo effect on them. “Kel Valhaal” has general tremolo parts where the entire track begins skipping.
That’s a really big element on this record. Like, the glitchiness and the really obviously synthetic sounds. Very few people starting out with a foundation in black metal would go anywhere near that stuff. Is the synthetic-versus-acoustic dichotomy important?
Yes. I’m interested in the dichotomy between the synthetic and the organic, but also in the union of those two elements, or trying to find a way to synthesize the two. Part of the interest in that for me is just that I wanted to combine different styles of music. There’s certain things that I wanted to do that I could only do synthetically. But I did also think that there’s something deep about this dichotomy, because of the Internet—because of how “cyber” and synthetic I feel like my own life is becoming. How much time I spend in relationships that are mediated by the Internet. Ultimately this music is a reflection of my feelings, and so I wanted to be honest about that aspect of the way that I experience life, by having a synthetic-organic dichotomy—and also by having the music so saturated, so overloaded with information but at the same time having an overall flow, an overall arc.
On this subject—the glitchy stuff especially, and the layers of overdubbing—there’s a lot more happening on the record than four people could possibly duplicate onstage with conventional instruments. How are you guys addressing that challenge on this tour?
Through using a MIDI guitar pickup that’s connected to a computer. And my vocals are running through the computer too. So I can play synthetic horns and strings and bells, and I can create the same vocal effect live, with some MIDI pedals and a laptop. Basically I can press a button with my foot that makes my vocals skip. It’s an Ableton effect—it’s called Beat Repeat. It’s a pretty weird setup, and we’ve been practicing that recently. But it’s not quite like the record—it has a similar effect, I think, and it conveys something of the vibe of the record. But it certainly isn’t quite the same.
I wrote this record pretty much all on Ableton, and I was learning to use Ableton as I was writing it. So it was a kind of convoluted process. And a lot of elements on the original demos and stuff are on the record, though eventually we recorded the live band with Jonathan Schenke, who did a really fantastic job of mixing the live elements and the synthetic elements.
There’s a lot of suspension and tension between . . . pretty much every possible axis of contrast. I’m assuming this is all deliberate—it all sounds incredibly precisely thought out. Was there a particular psychological or emotional effect that you had in mind?
It’s definitely deliberate, and it definitely is finely wrought. It’s not improvised or something like that. This is the kind of swirling, pulsing, violent, creative-slash-destructive vibe that I’ve always had in my head—or maybe in my heart, or wherever—when I want to write Liturgy songs. This is just the first album where those sounds actually appear on the record. This kind of sound world is very attractive to me. It’s the kind of music that I want to make.
I realize that what you’re trying to accomplish aesthetically and philosophically, spiritually even, with Liturgy might be just sort of an unattainable ideal—the kind of thing you aim for knowing you can’t reach—but if you could reach it, what do you think it would look like?
[Laughter.] That’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer, because the fact that it’s unreachable is inherent to what it is. I don’t know why this is the vision that I have, but I’m doing my best to be faithful to it. I realize that it is . . . I don’t know what the word is. Eccentric. And to be straightforward with you, it’s sort of a performance. It’s not completely sincere, even though the effort to do it is entirely sincere. It’s like a drama.
Obviously, when artistic production is involved, there’s always a performative element. I was wondering if the vision that’s sort of over the horizon and unreachable is something that you’ve elaborated on any further.
The vision over the horizon?
Yeah. Even though it’s built into it that you can’t reach it, a lot of philosophical and spiritual traditions have that kind of unattainable state of perfection.
It would be a world of pure poetry. I have a name for it—the acronym is SHEIM. It stands for the Sovereign Heirarchico-Emancipatory Individuation Municipality. So SHEIM is the name of a city of creation that exists after the redemption—after the catastrophe of the actual world is overcome. I would imagine it being a world where there’s still a lot of suffering, but it’s all suffering that’s on a path. Basically the only things that exist are music, art, and philosophy, and they just whirl around together and transform one another.
There wouldn’t be any pointless suffering in this world? That would be one of the differences?
There would be no needless suffering. I think the problem with the world is that there’s so much needless suffering, that isn’t redeemed. The world is totally horrible—it’s unbearable to even think about it for too long. But there are other kinds of suffering, which are kind of the point of life—suffering that leads to a transfiguration. I’d imagine there being lots of that kind of suffering. [Pause.] In the Sovereign Heirarchico-Emancipatory Individuation Municipality. [Laughter.] v