In a 2009 essay titled Transcendental Black Metal, Liturgy frontwoman Haela Hunt-Hendrix details her philosophy on black metal. For her the goal of black metal is to move past what she’s calls the Hyperborean black metal of Norway to her brand of “transcendental black metal”. The body of the essay discusses the genre in connections to her own religious philosophies. For Hunt-Hendrix, black metal isn’t a genre to follow but a medium to express their uniquely personal Christian ideology. It’s an attitude and philosophy that has led to Liturgy having polarized reputation with metal fans.
That friction between the expectation of what black metal, a genre with origins in paganism, is like and what Liturgy create is precisely what makes them exciting. The Brooklyn based band still utilizes the traditional high pitched guitar shredding, blast beats, and howling one expects of black metal. Yet on a given album you might also hear bells, flutes, harps, electronic breaks, and chamber orchestras. That willingness to go out on a limb may not be endearing but it makes them exciting. With the release of 96396 imminent, now seems like a good time to reassess Liturgy’s discography as a whole for new fans and people who previously wrote them off. It’s a recognition that a band can start out as one thing and transform into something else.
While their debut Renihilation is not the best introduction, the album shows how far Liturgy has come. A track like “Arctica” is the band working in a more straightforward more black metal mode. Haela Hunt-Hendrix howls like she’s trying to get a message through a snowstorm while she and fellow guitarist Bernard Gann shred maybe the highest pitched guitar notes ever in a black metal song. About halfway through the song however, the band begins a stop start dynamic more at home in math rock or hip hop than black metal. It’s an early sign of a band doing their own thing rather than go along with the genre.
Their second album Aesthetica truly sounds like an album of “transcendental black metal” with tracks like “Sun of Light”. The song still has the high pitched guitar notes, the black metal howling and blast beats (or as Hunt-Hendrix describes them “burst beats”). Yet those high guitar notes spiral into the upper reaches of the stratosphere while the drumming provides the foundation to do so. This is the band building a sonic cathedral to God. Truly, it sounds like new life coming from death.
One of the strengths of Aethestica, and Liturgy as a band, is the willingness to not purely being a black metal band. Where the majority of tracks on Aesthetica are black metal influenced, “Veins of God” is pure heavy sludge. Instead of the high pitched shredding on the rest of the album, Hunt-Hundrix and Gann lay down the heaviest riff the band had recorded to date. Along with tracks on the album like the Sonic Youth influenced track “Generation”, Liturgy are unafraid to show off the sounds in their arsenal.
On their third album The Ark Work, Liturgy began incorporating electronic sounds and production into songs more heavily. It’s a deliberate 180 degree shift from its guitar heavy predecessor. A track like “Kel Vahaal” sums up the sound of the album. The first half of the song is bagpipes, horns, and hip hop drum beats wailing in unison. Then Haela Hunt-Hendrix’s clean vocals enter, almost rapping. These are a lot of sounds that probably should not be together but that’s the point. Liturgy are at their best when they refine their experiments throughout their career. In hindsight, tracks like this on The Ark Work seem like a dry run for the ambition realized in Origin of the Alimonies.
On a track like “Quetzalcoatl” though, they’re experiments to merge black metal fury, heavy electronics, and more religious music work. Over furious black metal and a thumping drum machine, Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals preach about rituals related to the Aztec deity and the beauty of that deity. Stuttering live drums and an orchestra kick in later just add to the intensity of the song. The song truly vibrates with apocalyptic energy.
It should surprise no one that Liturgy has a song in their catalogue titled “God of Love” off their H.A.Q.Q. album. The song starts off with strings before blasting into black metal fury. Harps and bells clink away in the background. About half way through the band goes hard into a groove occasionally broken up by electronic skittering while choir-like vocals haunt the background. Howls and black metal punctuate every now and then. Then a harp sends the song off to its conclusion. It’s Liturgy at their most epic.
Without a doubt, Origin of the Alimonies is Liturgy’s best album to date. The album saw the band go through not just personnel changes but before the release, Haela Hunt-Hendrix came out as a transgender woman. Hunt-Hendrix said their transition was a key part of the album’s creation, appropriate for an album about the birth of the universe. For many, finally all of the chamber music, hip hop influences, and yes, the religious philosophy, all made sense in the context of an album. As it’s a concept album, singling out one song seems almost disrespectful. However, “Lonely OIOION” really captures the scope and ambition of the entire album. It also makes a great case for the band constantly refining their process. Nothing on this track is different from what’s come before. Harps, organs, flutes and an orchestra play alongside the traditional black metal sounds. Hunt-Hendrix simply refined how they arranged them from their previous experiments.
It’s hard to tell what 93696 will sound like. Liturgy never attempts to repeat themselves, only refine. However, many of the song titles look like second parts to songs from throughout their career. Even going by the title track probably won’t provide clues. Released as three of the tracks on last year’s EP As the Blood Of God Bursts the Veins of Time, 14 minute thrash epic with bells and electronic glitches before giving way to an orchestra. It’s all done in a way only Liturgy would try which is probably all we should expect from a release.
– D. Morris