A New Black: The Music of Liturgy


New York black metal band Liturgy is one of those rare groups so technically precise that their live performances sound exactly—exactly!—like their recordings. Their recent performance at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, celebrating the release of their second full-length record, “Aesthethica” (Thrill Jockey), began not with a count-off or an introductory guitar riff, but with drummer Greg Fox simply raising his arm to hit a cymbal. In a split second the rest of the band synched up with him.

Liturgy’s music tends to rapid strumming on the high end of the guitar neck by guitarist Bernard Gann and singer/guitarist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. Fox’s blindingly fast drumming alternates with mid-tempo parts accented with a double bass drum, supported by ten-ton bass chords by Tyler Dusenbury. Extended and repetitive instrumental passages recall a typical rock band’s hit-everything-all-at-once grand finale, accompanied by Hunt-Hendrix’s shrill, wordless caterwauling—delivered, live, with a strangely nonchalant air. After starting as a solo project by Hunt-Hendrix, Liturgy expanded into a full band in late 2008 after the release of the Immortal Life EP (Unfun/Infinite Limbs). That was followed up in 2009 with Renihilation (20 Buck Spin).

Originating with and named after English band Venom’s second release, Black Metal (1982), this subgenre of heavy metal is descended from speed metal and thrash metal. Characterized by extremely fast tempos and highly distorted guitars, black metal has often tended to the atheist, misanthropic and nihilistic in its worldview.

Unlike some practitioners of black metal, Liturgy doesn’t go in for costumes and props. No corpse makeup and no axes; their wardrobes consist of jeans and T-shirts. At the Knitting Factory, after a sound engineer flashed strobe lights during a speedy part of one of their songs, Hunt-Hendrix said softly into the microphone, “You can do cool stuff with the lights again, if you want,” and sweetly smiled.

The band has some of the trappings of an art project. To accompany the new record, Hunt-Hendrix issued an over-the-top 15-page manifesto, “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism,” that’s rife with academic language befitting his background as a Columbia philosophy major. It features a prolegomenon (a ten-dollar word for a preface), a section titled “The Haptic Void as Final Cause,” diagrams, claims for the “burst beat” as an innovation on black metal’s “blast beat,” and an explanation of TBM’s philosophical optimism and positive attitude. It concludes with an epilogue including “theses on aesthetics” and a color photograph of Hunt-Hendrix. The band is not unconnected to the art world, having been included in 2009 in Brandon Stosuy and Kai Althoff’s show “Mirror Me” at Dispatch, a New York gallery.

With a previous album titled Renihilation and all the wordless howling on the records, it’s hard to know how seriously to take the positive-mental-attitude stuff. However, Liturgy’s focus on affirmation is a deliberate  counterpoint to the sinister reputation of black metal following the involvement of some of the genre’s founders in church burnings and murders in Norway in the ‘90s.

Denver music critic Eryc Eyl tells A.i.A., “While I find the manifesto and the notion of trying to divorce black metal from its sullied past intriguing, I’m more interested in whether it’s actually good black metal, and I think it is. And by sidestepping some of the scarier and more iconoclastic elements of the genre, Liturgy has the opportunity to uncover a whole new world of fans, folks who previously thought Queens of the Stone Age was hard.” Indeed, the Knitting Factory crowd did not seem like a typical black-metal audience, but rather like Hunt-Hendrix’s Columbia classmates, including one young woman sporting a Jesus Lizard tote bag.

Questions about musical identity and legitimacy aren’t new. Can Das Racist, two not-black guys who met at Wesleyan, make genuine rap music? For that matter, is it okay for white English guys to play the blues? Can clean-cut New Yorkers adopt a doom-and-gloom Northern European metal subgenre and make it their own? In the face of Liturgy’s inarguably fierce music, questions about genre definitions, about irony and authenticity, simply fade—or, to some, become all the more interesting.

Photo by Mike Vorassi