Moral & Aesthetic Truths: An Interview With Liturgy
, July 6th, 2011 05:08
Liturgy's Aesthethica is one of The Quietus's Albums Of 2011 So Far. Kevin McCaighy talks to the band's Hunter Hunt Hendrix about extremity, desire and D.H. Lawrence
For just over a decade, bands from America have ruled the underground black metal scene. From Xasthur and Leviathan to Nachtmystium and Wolves In The Throne Room, it has been a rich period, as the crown was usurped from their Scandinavian forebears. As a new decade begins, another band rises in turn to assume that mantle in the form of Liturgy, a talented Brooklyn-based quartet with vision and a manifesto with which to realize both.
Their latest album Aesthethica is their second full-length, and expands with confidence on the promise shown on their debut Renihiliation. But this is a different beast altogether. The opening track 'High Gold' sets the scene with a series of experimental chiming and Cageian signals that grow ever harsher and insistent. Finally bursting into life, the track arranges itself in garish, non-linear patterns, marked out in tight measures of thrashing technicality. These elements demonstrate just how far underground music has shifted from the more traditional or classic tenets of black metal, and beg the question: what relevance do they have in regard to band like Liturgy? The group adheres to an aural sensibility that has been dubbed 'Transcendental black metal'. When questioned about a definition of this term, vocalist/guitarist Hunter Hunt Hendrix replied:
"The transcendental always has to do with a yearning for the absolute. And the power of that yearning to crush old forms and erect new ones."
For me, the crucial word is 'yearning' - a word that characterizes every aspect of Aesthethica. The album presents itself as a formidable clarion cry, blazing with a wide-eyed, almost feverish tension that permeates every stinging guitar riff and drum blast. But the group's crashing virtuosity draws on other, more applicable sources that are somewhat removed from the black metal area they insist that they occupy. For example, the production that eschews more primitive black metal methodologies for a leaner, drier atmosphere best suited to the bitter, over-trebled sounds generated by Hunter Hendrix and Bernard Gann's twin guitar attack. In turn, that guitar sound has many a fine antecedent: in the skewed and oblique variations of Don Caballero and the serrated metallic edge at the core of Shellac to name only two.
A post rock sensibility runs through this band like a secret double helix, and is fore-grounded by the agility and precision of Greg Fox's punishing drum skills. He is the one leading the way musically – everything else is flanking and in ramrod support of those crashing virtuoso beats. This alignment is closer to a band like A Minor Forest, whose inscrutable precision was their greatest asset, than anything heard during the heyday of mid 90s black metal. What do the band themselves feel they have taken from black metal? Its extremity is the most audible constituent:
"Extreme desire is the force that applies to the music we create. Or something a little more abstract. Extreme intensity, extreme extremity. The fissure where everything is impossible and nothing is defined, where there has to be a struggle. Somehow it all has to do with a kind of ancient notion of heroism."
If one group can be described as heroic in the US black metal underground, it is Weakling. A San Francisco-based group that barely registered on anyone's radar during their brief career, they exist now only as a legend. In laying waste to both Mayhem and Enslaved during their only known live performances, they laid down the gauntlet to the prevailing Norwegian black metal rulers, and in 2000 left behind a single album epitaph in Dead As Dreams that ranks one of the most potent legacies of any underground group in the past quarter century. Although it occurred almost in a vacuum, this is where the tide turned in favour of the America, and soon the onslaught would begin. Liturgy's notions of extremity are somewhat more refined, though still feral at their core. The pin-sharp clatter of 'True Will' where Hendrix's vocal writhing is caught in a barbed wire crossfire of noise, is a bracing, at full gallop with a barely restrained atavism. Its repetition rams home Liturgy's group-as-unit philosophy, everything in its place with no element above another. When asked about their formative influences, Hendrix is typically bullish:
"It's really hard to pin down a single most formative influence. But if the choice had to be made, I'd say either Converge or Nietzsche."
It would be difficult indeed to find an extreme group from the US who wasn't in thrall to the influence of Converge. The banshee wails of Jacob Bannon are a prominent source for Hendrix throughout the vicious strains of 'Harmonia'. It's harried, all guns blazing atmosphere is pure Converge – a hardcore hurtling toward the abyss as if life itself depended upon it. Hendrix's vocals have come in for some sustained (and to my mind unwarranted) criticism in some quarters, but their lack of variation is not the hindrance it's presumed to be. It is instead a demonstration of an implacable force at the core of the tumult that surrounds it, that remaining steadfast as the chaos threatens to engulf it entirely. The elevated nature of Hendrix's vocal, high in the mix, is exemplified best by their current single 'Returner', where they act as a functioning deterrent, providing solidity whilst triumphal, martial riffing swirls around it. It is yet more evidence of Liturgy's place amongst the purveyors of a new technicality and virtuosity that include such musicians as Mick Barr of Orthrelm, Zach Hill of Hella, Phil Manley (ex The Fucking Champs) and Marnie Stern.
On first listen, I even mistook the boastful, sun-kissed instrumental of 'Generation' for a track by Stern. Its deadly, needling guitar tone has a great deal in common with this errant and gifted wing of leftfield rock. The video for 'Returner' also provides a great deal of information with regard to the group's aesthetic tendencies, depicting them simultaneously as white robed supplicants stalking moodily through a church and as figures performing within a field of mirrors. During the group's recent tour of the UK, Hendrix discovered a book that he feels is vital to the understanding of where such imagery is drawn from:
"I found an early study of D.H. Lawrence titled D.H. Lawrence: Prophet of the Apocalypse, which was my reading material for the rest of the tour. The author of that book claims that Lawrence's great flaw was his refusal or inability to separate moral truth from aesthetic truth. That interested me because the title of Aesthethica is meant to designate that very gap between those two things."
The resonance of black metal within such apparently disparate visual settings is at times hard to discern. The potency of Liturgy very much lies in the aural field, but what are left out of the equation are the compelling visual connotations that have illuminated the world of black metal for its followers, and obscured it for its detractors. The corpse-painted legacies of every band from Sarcofago to Gorgoroth may seem to be behind us, but they still have something to tell us about the nature of the music itself, again proven by the endless haunting photographs in the music press that introduced the likes of Crebain, Draugar, Leviathan and Xasthur to hundreds if not thousands of potential fans. Their chilling darkness and morbidity were visual markers that led directly to an exploration of the music created by these individuals, moving away from the Satanist tropes that had plagued the Scandinavian scene for too long, in favour of more personal and intrinsic motivations. Hendrix enthuses:
"Black metal is so fertile for two reasons basically, one is cultural, the other is musical. The cultural reason is that it developed outside, on the margins of the Anglo-American tradition of rock counter culture. That's why the politics and the attitude are so confusing and convoluted. You don't find the kneejerk 'fuck the West, fuck you mom and dad, fuck tradition' attitude that is such an automatic part of rock attitude. There is more respect for tradition, for nature, the gods, and there is nationalism, racism even. These of course are not necessarily virtues, but there is something startling and alive about it."
Ultimately, there is nothing cloaked or shadowy about Liturgy, nothing that can rival the cold, cadaverous chill of the original cover shot of Xasthur's A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors, as Malefic lurks ominously alongside an open noose. Instead, theirs is an open and transparent form, a new and stimulating mutation emanating from black metal, but not wholly derived from it. They aren't "disregarding the boundaries of black metal, hardcore and experimental music", they are joining the ranks of groups that are finding out for themselves what aspects of those genres apply best to them and what they can draw from them. At their nascent level nothing can or should be disregarded.
"American counter culture is a total carcass, it is so cynical, so zombie-like, totally disconnected from the Utopian political/spiritual vision of someone like Ginsberg. The true counterculture is a child of Transcendentalism, it is a descendant of Whitman, Henry Miller, the Beats... an affirmation, violent and revolutionary, but ultimately affirmative. The point being that black metal perhaps could be a way to reconnect to the original vision of counterculture, to rekindle the flame, but black metal itself would have to be turned on its head."
Aesthethica has Liturgy in a constant state of arrival, finding their feet in the terrain of black metal, surging headlong from one space into another, and discovering what it truly means to map out their own territory.