For a relatively new band, Liturgy come with a lot of baggage. Some of that is critical-acclaim, for sure; but a good deal of the rest has billowed up around their high-concept approach to their music, and their – well, vocalist and guitarist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s – relatively high-profile theorising around the band’s self-mythologised ‘transcendental black metal’. Simply type the term into Google and see the sneering responses it’s engendered, the accusations of hipsterism it’s created – and the broiling vilification it’s received from much of the black metal community. It kind of goes without saying that this is something of a shame as it gets in the bloody way of listening to the band. And in truth, they’re a hell of a proposition.
The roots of Liturgy are in technical death metal and the ‘brighter’ (tonally speaking) end of black metal. If you wanted an easy lineage, you could think Athiest, Meshuggah or Krallice. There’s also something of a punk or post-hardcore brutality to their sound – think Converge, or even Refused at a push. Lightning Bolt also often get mentioned, which makes sense in terms of their rhythmic roll and the extraordinary juddering patterns and upthrust of drummer Greg Fox’s beats. Part of Fox’s method has been characterised as the burst beat, named in opposition to the traditional death/black metal technique of the blast beat. This neologism both describes Fox’s remarkable style and allows for a play on the notion of bursting – be that preconceptions, or something more theoretically developed, close to the post-structuralist idea of the rupture.
Theory aside for now, Liturgy’s sound is really a visceral thing: because of the excess of treble, it’s something you feel as sharp and incisive at the point of entry (the skin, the eardrum) – this was particularly true of their debut album Renihiliation, which in places was physically painful to listen to; and also thanks to Fox’s fills and telluric bottom-end and Tyler Dusenbury’s (in places) baggy bass, their sound also seems to inhabit the body, rattling against the inside of the rib-cage. Then there are the unholy shrieks of Hendrix. His style is oddly in opposition to much black metal vocalese – more declamatory somehow, more avian. His cries at times remind me of hearing black-headed gulls this winter, screeching their calls across the pitted surface of a frozen lake. The final component to their sound, and this is where the high-concept stuff comes in, is the symphonic overtones, the sense of a sustained crescendo in pursuit of the infinite, of transcendence. In many ways these different facets of their sound pull against one another, or form a kind of shifting, multi-layered puzzle. As such, and despite their lofty claims, sonically, Liturgy remain oddly elusive and literally hard to pin down.
And so to the theory. A whole academic movement has developed around extreme and black metal in recent years, the epicentre of which was the legendary Hideous Gnosis symposium which took place in Brooklyn in December 2009 (and which later became a book). Hunter Hunt-Hendrix delivered a lecture at the event entitled ‘Transcendental Black Metal’ in which he argued for a new kind of American black metal. This new form would escape from the shadow of the European tradition and would be characterised by a trajectory of hope and transcendence via a kind of heroic pursuit of nihilism and sacrifice – or, another neologism, Renihilation, the title of the first Liturgy record. The talk (which you can access here and listen to here, if you’re so inclined) is full of such Nietzschean hyperbole, and plays similar language games as the likes of Deleuze and Guattari and Frederic Jameson – language is put under pressure to reveal its inherent illogicalities, neologisms are frantic and frequent, words are placed under dialectical pressure to spiral towards new meanings. But, and it’s a big but – and this might broadly be called something of an anti-modernist approach – ‘is it worth it?’ And instinctively, I’m not sure it is. I’m not against the style per-se or the strategies involved, but with a band this thrillingly visceral and emotional, all this theoretical weight distracts from the vibrating sonic drama that assaults you with each listen (and with each astonishing live appearance).
I think in the end, most of this will cease to matter. Those who have taken against the band have their agendas and are unlikely to be swayed, those who simply appreciate thrilling and ecstatic music will lap this stuff up. As for the band’s grand aims, I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take it all quite so seriously. A glance at the lyrics shows the band temper their search for the Sublime with an absurdist approach worthy of Zen koans or some of Robert Anton Wilson’s outer-reach experiments. The bottom line is that Asthethica is a beltingly good metal album and personally I’m quite up for riding the beams of light beyond the hyperborean into the transcendental. Whatever the fuck that means.