When Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, the frontman of Brooklyn metal band Liturgy, penned a lengthy essay back in 2009 titled “Transcendental Black Metal” to explain new, more upbeat possibilities for the genre, the reception could be read as skeptical at best. Simply put, there are some metalheads who deem Hunt-Hendrix and Liturgy misrepresentative, posers, and fertile territory for Internet Tough Guy-ness over their status as a metal band. But “transcendental black metal” doesn’t represent just another metal subgenre to Hunt-Hendrix. It is, rather, a much more vast creative starting point.
“The essence of transcendental black metal is neither the actual music nor the idea, in the sense of a concept, that could be articulated in words,” Hunt-Hendrix, 30, shares over the phone before kicking off his spring tour. “[It’s] more like the notion of an intensity, an idea that exerts force on reality, but isn’t itself real. It’s like an attractor: There’s this muse or this unreal star on the horizon, and that’s transcendental black metal. I pull thoughts and music from it [and] that’s the primary thing.”
It’s ambitious stuff, for sure, but it’s a viewpoint that Hunt-Hendrix considers intertwined with Liturgy’s music. The Ark Work, the group’s third studio effort, is an especially sharp example of Hunt-Hendrix trying to show listeners the possibilities of what metal can sound like and achieve. And despite claims from detractors, Hunt-Hendrix isn’t at all interested in perfecting a black-metal sound; his focus centers on using the genre as wheels for a wholly different vehicle.
“The whole question of ‘black metal’ at this point isn’t very relevant,” Hunt-Hendrix says. “I know I don’t make that easy, because I call the music ‘transcendental black metal,’ but my intent is to make music that’s universal, like Kanye West or something. Obviously not his same amount of appeal, but music that’s taking everything around and trying to mix music that makes sense.”
There are some familiar sounds from Liturgy on The Ark Work — namely, the guitar tremolo and ceaseless drum blasts that have defined the band in previous years — but it becomes obvious early on, even to casual metal listeners, that The Ark Work is unlike any other metal album out there. There are bells; there are bagpipes; there’s MIDI — all persistently clashing with Liturgy’s frantic riff-blitzing. But the unexpected sounds that are peppered throughout The Ark Work all serve the much larger purpose of highlighting the organic versus the digital, in what Hunt-Hendrix has deemed “post-internet black metal.”
“[Composer Gustav] Mahler said that ‘a symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything,’ ” Hunt-Hendrix says. “I wanted to create a state of extreme information overload and distraction on the one hand, but also tie it together with long-term development and continuity and emotion. To have this sort of clash…the struggle of something like that and the sort of habits I’ve developed with my phone or my computer.
“I was aware that people would be surprised when they heard what the album sounded like and maybe not get it right away,” he continues. “Or people who liked the last couple of records wouldn’t like this and [I’d] maybe find a new audience or create a new audience over time. [But] I’ve seen reviews written by younger kids on the internet that conveyed, to me, that they understood the album a lot better than the reviews I’ve seen written by professional critics. It seems like younger kids get the music more easily and generally, beyond that, it’s not super well understood.”
Following Liturgy’s second album, 2011’s Aesthetica, bassist Tyler Dusenbury and drummer Greg Fox, both original members, departed the group, leaving a major vacuum in the sound that Hunt-Hendrix was just starting to manifest with his bandmates. Both eventually returned for The Ark Work, but not before giving Hunt-Hendrix ample time to experiment with the new theories and sounds that ultimately begat Liturgy’s third effort.
“The main thing was to make music that would combine all the influences that I have,” Hunt-Hendrix says. “There’s some really old stuff like Romantic, classical music, sacred music, avant-garde classical music, [along] with rap and metal and punk. I wanted this record to really create this world, just this thing that would be really beautiful and emotional and yearning and cosmic. Something huge and massive, but also immediate and direct.”
Notably, Hunt-Hendrix drastically changed his vocal delivery on The Ark Work, from the banshee-esque screams of Liturgy’s first two records to a more subdued, trance-inducing style inspired by the triplet flows of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Southern rap.
“I wanted to be able to convey lyrical information a little better, and another part of it is not wanting to go through what it feels like to scream,” explains Hunt-Hendrix. “But the vocals are kind of the nexus at which you can’t really tell if the music is rap or rock or classical music, and I feel like there’s something interesting going on with it.”
Some years down the line, Liturgy’s work might very well prove to be seminal — a source of inspiration to another group or musician attuned to Hunt-Hendrix’s core ideas. It could just as easily prove to be the opposite, remaining a cult favorite at best. But what we have now is the undeniable sound of Hunt-Hendrix and his bandmates reaching for something new, and it’s the sound of that reach that continues to keep Liturgy noteworthy.
Liturgy will be joined by Mivos Quartet and Psalm Zero at Saint Vitus on April 15. The show is sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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