Back in September, Liturgy headlined Il Motore during POP Montreal’s opening night. Even as an accidental trio (one member couldn’t get into Canada) the group were powerful, perhaps even more so in this stripped-down format.
Liturgy’s frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix has generated a lot of controversy (see his academic treatise “Transcendental Black Metal”) for his serious–some would say pretentious–take on black metal, art, and ecstatic experience. Regardless of your opinion on such matters if you are a fan of extreme music, Liturgy’s Renihilation (2009) and Aesthetica (2011) say more than enough on their own. Though the band may play up their role in the evolution of black metal, their sound owes as much to punk, thrash, American hardcore, and screamo, not to mention further afield 20th century experimental music, conceptually if not sonically.
The black metal scene in New York doesn’t seem to have a community of its own, making Liturgy’s autohistoricization all the easier. Even so, recent bands like New York’s Vaura (featuring Toby Driver of Kayo Dot) or Chicago’s Locrian have begun to carve out their own unique niches within the black metal scene, yet still seem to exist in similarly hybrid territory. These artists stand in sharp contrast to the True Black Metal movement that is obsessed with reifying what has come before. Does this trend in Black Metal affirm Hunt-Hendrix’s assertion regarding the destiny of “American” black metal?
There is something about Liturgy, particularly live, that justifies their frontman’s lofty rhetoric. A distilled rawness combined with technicality and intensity; the communion of the four musicians collectively brining force a cacophony of creation. The “burst beat” pushes and pulls, while the other musicians attentively listen, their songs not so much unfolding as being torn into being by sheer force of collective will.
I decided to continue the conversation with Hunter. We talk about Black Metal, Affirmation, macho posturing, and the recent departure of drummer Greg Foxx.
Joseph: What is it about Black Metal that appeals to you? When did you become interested in extreme music in general ? Is there something in particular about Black Metal that opens it to what you describe as the potentiality of Affirmation, more than say, ambient music, or power electronics, or classical?
Hunter: I don’t think people really choose what kind of music to make. The decision to make black metal is totally inexplicable – it follows from and urge to make black metal – rather than from a calculation about what the best possible music form to use would be. The urge is contingent, I guess… it comes from experience, from encountering and loving certain musical styles. Whenever I really love a record, I also always am really disappointed in it, like it just isn’t quite right, something could change about it that would make it satisfy me more. The sound of Liturgy comes from that dissatisfaction with regard to a constellation of music that I love.
I’ve always have a lot of respect for bands who are doing heavy music in a way that subverts the machismo and other stereotypes typically associated with heavier genres. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve also distanced myself from those scenes because despite our best intentions, the aggressive nature of the music coupled with our contemporary cultures attracts people who like the music and come to the shows in order to get out their own aggression in unacceptable ways. Unlike hardcore, which when I was coming up at least still had a communal vibe and a “take care of each other in the pit” ethic, metal often seems to display the opposite. Rather than making space for yourself in a crowd, it becomes about simply hurting people. I’m generalizing, I know, but even the show at Pop Montreal suffered from this. In terms of the stated aims of transcendental black metal as articulated in your paper, do you struggle with this or do you welcome the conflict?
Normally we do not have violent people hurting each other in the crowd during our sets. People usually either push each other around in a warm fuzzy Lightning Bolt kind of way or, more often, just stand there and stare. A little violence isn’t the worst thing in the world, though if there were circle pits going on at our shows I wouldn’t be into it.
I was really interested in your insistence on contrasting the Nordic/European/Hyperborean black metal against “American.” With this in mind a band like Deathspell Omega, more than a classic example like Gorgoroth perhaps, seems to me to be in many ways on the opposite pole. They preach Satanic metaphysics, are a studio band who don’t play live, are deeply rooted in European tradition, yet also diverge from traditional theatrics and elements of Nordic black metal. (Right wing politics, Adorno and negation, etc.) Is the live experience, the subversion of doxa, etc at the core of what Liturgy is about? In some sense, what Liturgy is doing is so different from this, such an act of selective reappropriation and hybridization (which strikes me as quintessentially American in itself).
Back to the inexplicable urge… I felt a very strong need to present a vision of Transcendental Black Metal and relate it to a notion of America. The core of what Liturgy is about is Affirmation. There are other bands under the umbrella of black metal that really are not so different, some American, others from other places…. and there are bands that have attitudes that are nearly diametrically opposite. I grew up with people who were more oriented towards punk and indie rock, which involves a little more of a disaffected, slacker, inarticulate attitude. Part of what drew me to black metal is that it a forum for presenting a Grand Vision… whatever that vision is.
Along those lines, witnessing Liturgy as a three piece during Pop brought some of these features into a more stark relief for me. Greg’s drumming literally took center stage, and the influence of grind, metalcore, etc seemed easier to tease out. Greg left Liturgy following the tour with Boris. What does this mean for the band? Particularly because of the emphasis placed on the burst beat, and the centrality of Greg’s incredible playing to the live experience and the band’s sound in general.
Having Greg as a drummer has been really wonderful. It’s important though not to confuse the centrality of the burst beat concept with any one instantiation of the concept, by any one drummer or other means. The next Liturgy record will be quite a turn of the page – I’ve been working on new material in the little bits of off time we’ve had between tours this year – but the burst beat remains at the core..
Humor and seriousness needn’t be at odds. Do you agree?
I definitely agree… there is a sort of really profound schizophrenic humor that is more serious than seriousness.
The ‘transcendent” experience is one of shedding the ego, or getting out of the way, of putting ones subjectivity aside and joining with others. But this is part of what it means to be human, it is immanent. Transcendental suggests that there is something else, something more real than that which we experience most directly.
As philosophy goes, I am very much pro-metaphysical and don’t believe all the Heideggerian hype about the exhaustion of metaphysics. Metaphysics is really doing well right now… I’m thinking of DeLanda, Badiou, Harman. I think it is important to be able to root an ethics in a metaphysics…. But anyway “transcendental” has many different meanings in different contexts, and in the context of Transcendental Black Metal, I prefer not to pin down an exact meaning for the term.
There’s of course a lot of internet chatter about your being Elitist? Do you agree? I support this, it should be said. Isn’t black metal in some sense already “Elitist”? Not that it is arbitrarily exclusive, but requires the adherent to learn certain things, go through a process of discovery and revelation.
Yeah black metal is the most explicitly elitism-affirming genre i can think of.
The theoretical, conceptual aspects of Liturgy have gotten so much attention, a lot of controversy, that wouldn’t be generated merely through publishing a blog post or in an academic journal. Do you think that this controversy, and/or attention to the treatise itself, has actually helped develop your audiences appreciation of your music? Meaning needn’t be dictated by the creator’s intentionality. (Perhaps you disagree?) But how do we then inject work into the world that affects a change? When you wrote “Transcendental Black Metal,” did you do so with the specific intention of framing what it is you intend Liturgy to be?
I’ve only seen like one or two comments about the manifesto that suggested that the reader had read the document carefully and was attuned to what it says. I think people who mostly listen to music see a text and don’t really think about the creativity that goes into writing a text. It’s interesting – because people don’t read it, and because the style is so oracular and obscurantist anyway, the manifesto ends up being a sort of mirror, or a place for people to project their fantasies about the like antichrist or anti-antichrist or whatever of metal. I’m not really explaining myself very well…. it is interesting to see how you can hit a nerve, and give lots of people the pleasure of collectively hating you for something that you’re not saying – because they have no idea what you’re saying, haven’t even bothered to check…. it’s like the metal community was lying in wait for someone to come along, the ultimate False Metal, and Liturgy seemed to fit the profile…. The intention behind the manifesto had to do more with creativity than, say, pedagogy or something. I thought it would be beautiful and powerful. I wanted to perform the Act of delivering a declaration, and sit back and experience whatever effect comes about.
What role do you think aesthetics plays in affirmation? The arts, I’d argue, teach us how to make judgments, and contribute to the formation of communities of taste, however in the modern world they just as easily becomes tools of distraction. Again, I felt this at the show last week, in regards to the audience’s reaction. Both the younger annoying kids, and the rest of us.
I believe in the identity of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. These three live in a sort of electric fluid space that opens and closes or appears and disappears. I think the task of art is to open this space and draw things out of it, and connect people to it…at least give them its scent. It is interesting because as time goes on it is harder and harder to separate or distinguish “art” from “culture” in general. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Can you explain the context of the chanting/voice loops in your music? Aside from the screaming which generally characterizes your vocal, both full-lenth records (and your live set) have used vocal/chant loops. For me, in the experience of listening to the entire albums, they read as a reminder of the humanity behind the creation, and the fact that they are off-pitch or monotonous makes it that much realer and more undeniable. They ground our interpretation of the rest of the album in this way, humanizing the playing, the collective action. Is this what you were going for?
Yes, I think that humanizing aspect you speak of is exactly what I was going for with the chanting.
The use of repetition, overtones, feedback, tremolo, loops, etc suggests influences broader than only black metal. (Aside from the obvious philosophical and literary influences in the concept, which arguably are tied to the genre in any case.) But I wonder, who might you site as an influence on your vocal technique in particular, which, though unique and relatively ‘gentle,’ if I may, seems very clearly rooted in Black Metal?
Ha, I really have no vocal technique. I just scream. Maybe Jacob Bannon [Converge] or Charles Maggio [of the criminally under-appreciated Rorschach] are influences.
Are your records recorded live? There really is a feeling in this band that there is a true collaboration. This feeling , to me at least, gives your music a sense of life that is often lacking, particularly in metal.
Everything is actually painstakingly composed in advance. People say the same thing about Ryan Trecartin’s videos – it seems like the characters are just vibing together and improvising lines and so on, but he actually scripts/storyboards everything. I think it is really hard for a band to just jam together and come up with something that merits multiple listens, and I really believe in the craft of composition. But you can compose in a way that is very jagged, free and spontaneous sounding, and leave room for localized improvisations here and there.
Was their a certain moment in your life when you first felt that you needed to be an artist/musician?
Yeah I was like 6, I saw the “Smells like Teen Spirit” video and that was it.
Ending with nod to Seattle. Perfect. Thanks for the interview Hunter.