Today, Sweden's Watain maintain an old-school theatrical image of metal's most evil tendencies (they even drench crowds in buckets of pigs' blood), but American black-metal artists like Agalloch and Castevet have carved unique new niches. And, for that matter, the audience has expanded far beyond its metal-head roots. Just recently, I spotted a hipster at Trader Joe's wearing a Burzum T-shirt.
Chief among black metal's new class of stylistic innovators is Liturgy, a New York City-based quartet that pairs classic tropes such as blast beats and dense, cinematic melodies with the tight riffs of math-rock, the abrasiveness of post-punk and abstract textures that recall the works of 20th-century classical composers like Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In fact, a handful of tracks on Liturgy's new album, Aesthethica, began as chamber pieces written years earlier.
This hybrid beast of soaring, complex sounds is thrilling to behold, but despite Liturgy's critical acclaim, their incorporation of sounds outside of the genre has led some to question whether they're a legitimate black-metal band. From his home in Brooklyn, Liturgy frontman and songwriter Hunter Hunt-Hendrix says he understands how one might not fully “get” where the band is coming from.
“The tradition that we've grown up with is very far from black metal,” he says. “I think different people in the band might answer in different ways, but the people that I really look up to as an early generation of musicians are people in the New York scene in the late '70s and early '80s—Glenn Branca and No Wave. Those are the groups and that's a tradition that we really identify with. At the same time, our music really is black metal, too. The reality of the situation is very complicated, so I can understand why when people try to figure out what it is, they don't totally get the whole picture.”
Hunt-Hendrix began listening to black-metal bands like Darkthrone and Emperor in high school, subsequently forming Liturgy in 2004. Following the band's debut, Renihilation, he published Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism, a cerebral manifesto that lays out the band's vision in great detail. In the lengthy treatise, pub lished in 2009 for Brooklyn's “Hideous Gnosis” conference, Hunt-Hendrix juxtaposes his vision of “transcendental black metal” against “Hyperborean black metal” and makes bold statements such as, “The time has come for a decisive break with the European tradition and the establishment of a truly American black metal.”
This fueled some of the backlash against the band. The nigh-scholarly nature of the document has prompted observers from metal communities like Metal Review and more mainstream rags like Vice magazine to dismiss the band as “hipsters,” “pretentious” and, perhaps the most venomous of all, “false metal.” Without taking offense, however, Hunt- Hendrix offers gracious disagreement to such criticisms.
“If you were to go online and read what people say about the band, either inside the black-metal community or outside, in the mainstream press or in independent press, it's very different from our experience and what the band actually is,” Hunt-Hendrix says.
One of Liturgy's most striking qualities, which is also prominently mentioned in the manifesto, is their emphasis on affirmation and positivity, rather than the nihilistic or bleak world view espoused by prominent black-metal bands like France's Deathspell Omega. Hunt-Hendrix goes so far as to describe the title of their new album as a kind of artistic utopian ideal.
Aesthethica “is an aspect of the world that is the site of the good and the beautiful,” he says. “And I think that the role of art and music is to touch this place, where there are more possibilities.”
While Liturgy may not win over every dyed-in-the-wool black-metal listener, they're nonetheless taking the genre to interesting new places and blending it with different sounds and styles. In the process, Hunt-Hendrix says, they're attempting to make something new out of rock 'n' roll, as well.
“My unique take on it is, we're just a vision of a way American black metal could be,” Hunt-Hendrix says. “I think American black metal should be revolutionary and not reactionary, in the way that Scandinavian black metal is. But there's also something problematic about the revolutionary status of rock. Some cross between the kind of American rock tradition and black metal is sort of a way of mixing opposites and creating something fresh.”
Liturgy perform with Chelsea Wolfe and The Long and Short of It at The Casbah on Monday, July 25. myspace.com/liturgynybm