Liturgy is an Arkwork. It’s not just the songs, albums, shows — it’s also the reactions, the suffering, the stigma, the misrecognitions, the resoluteness, the unexpected detours. To be ‘pretentious,’ grandiose, to remain faithful to an impossible goal, to stay in contact with one’s own desire and follow through with its consequences, unsure of what they will be … to be real. – Hunter Hunt-Hendrix
The above quote from a 2011 interview by writer Brandon Stosuy with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy, is something of a manifestation of the band’s trajectory. Not only does it embody the intentions of Liturgy as a synthesis of the arts — a total art work — but it also encapsulates the consequential moments of the band’s past, and the diverging ways audiences have responded. With their latest release, The Ark Work, Liturgy return with their third full-length album, continuing along what is distinctly their own path.
‘The earlier records were all much closer to black metal. The arrangements were always guitars, bass, drums and vocals. This one is much more eclectic in terms of genre. The production is varied, the vocal style is different — it’s definitely a different record in a lot of ways, but I think it still sounds like Liturgy,’ says Hunter Hunt-Hendrix when describing his band’s recent release on Thrill Jockey Records. Led by Hunt-Hendrix on vocals and guitar, Liturgy’s band members include guitarist Bernard Gann, bassist Tyler Dusenbury and drummer Greg Fox. The Ark Work — preceded by the momentous Renihilation (2009), and the critically acclaimed Aesthethica (2011) — marks a significant evolution in the band’s overall sound; a sound that is as much the result of a synergy of each musician’s talents as it is a genre-provoking project.
As the sole songwriter of Liturgy, Hunt-Hendrix wrote most of the band’s early material while studying philosophy and composition at Columbia University; a combination reflected in the release of a complementary text to Renihilation in the form of a manifesto titled ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’. The text is a philosophical exposition influenced by black metal, and is by no means an analytical study of black metal music. Rather, it outlines the differing temporal, spatial, technical, geographical and spiritual modes of two strands of black metal — described by Hunt-Hendrix as ‘Hyperborean Black Metal’ and ‘Transcendental Black Metal’ — and their broader implications. ‘Transcendental Black Metal’ is where Liturgy situate themselves, with The Ark Work pronounced in the press notes as ‘the first true sonic realization of Transcendental Black Metal’. When speaking over the phone from Brooklyn, an emphasis on the sonic characteristics of Liturgy is precisely how our conversation unfolds.
‘There’s a couple of different processes that all come together at the end,’ explains Hunt-Hendrix. I catch him in the middle of writing new material, while Liturgy are on a break ahead of their European tour later this month. He candidly breaks down his process: ‘I’ll write harmonies and melodies on a keyboard or guitar, and I have these rhythmic motifs that I write separately. For Aesthethica, I began combining them in different ways throughout the album. There are rhythmic motifs that appear in different ways in different songs on the album that gives it an organic cohesion. For this new record, a big part of the process was learning how to make music on a computer — which I wasn’t familiar with before — using samples, MIDI instruments, sequencing, and re-sampling. I generate materials that are melodic as well as rhythmic ideas, and then bring them together on a computer. Then, I make a complete demo with the entire arrangement, in this case, of the entire album, bring it to the bandmates, and we turn it into a live thing.’
Live reviews of Liturgy often describe the accuracy in which the band plays the album material — no mean feat considering the interwoven nature of the musical arrangements, coupled with unabating rhythms. With The Ark Work, Liturgy’s instrumentation has vastly expanded, layering their regular instruments with synthetic digital counterparts, and running sections through various effects. ‘It’s like a live action movie with CGI in it. There’s a lot of real stuff and fake stuff, but there isn’t a synthesised drum kit. The drum kit is all live, but then there is electronic percussion that supplements it…There are also live bells that are supplemented with MIDI bells.’ He adds, ‘mixing the album was really complicated. Jonathan Schenke deserves a lot of credit for getting everything in there and getting it to still rock. The more instruments you have in an arrangement, the more it kind of… it makes it hard to have everything hit really hard, and be visceral, and have all elements be audible. It was a real project for the mixing of the record.’ When you consider the difference in dynamic range between glockenspiels and bagpipes, both of which are included in the album, you realise just how difficult that task must have been. While Schenke was mostly working with the synthetic MIDI equivalents of these instruments, Hunt-Hendrix later enthuses over the idea of performing an orchestral version the album: ‘I want to do a show at some point that has a full live ensemble with string players and horn players — people playing bells and stuff. I think this material could be realised that way.’ In the meantime, the current lineup of musicians remains the four band members playing their respective instruments, with the addition of Hunt-Hendrix triggering a MIDI guitar pickup connected to a computer in order to re-create a lot of the sounds from the record.
Hunt-Hendrix’s connections with music from the past are well documented in interviews — referencing classical and choral music, medieval chant, minimalism and spectralism amongst others. However, it is his interest in more current music genres such as rap, IDM and glitch that are brought to the fore in The Ark Work, heard especially in the vocal imprint of the album. Abandoning the black metal screams and dissonant vocal clusters of previous releases, Hunt-Hendrix adopts a novel melodic vocal style in The Ark Work. Despite being heavily processed, the vocal line doesn’t lose its semantic character. ‘I wanted to be able to communicate words, to make the lyrics audible, but then to also manipulate the vocals to a point where they’re kind of just another instrument where they’re bleeding into this overall texture. In a way that was the biggest change in the album, because people really identify with vocals. If you hear a record, and someone is screaming on it, you pull out all these assumptions about what kind of music it is, and you identify with it or don’t identify with it in a certain way. This new vocal style… it’s not like I switched from screaming to singing exactly, as it’s closer to rapping or to liturgical acclamation or something like that, but it was important to me to go in that direction.’
Another new direction Hunt-Hendrix has taken Liturgy, is into the realm of film. ‘I’ve always wanted to connect music to drama. I really like David Lynch’s films — the soundtrack is very important, and there’s this cosmic weird drama going on with it.’ He adds, ‘I’m starting to work in film a little bit. I want to make something that is more integrated with concepts and narratives and visuals. I’ve done some studies… shorts that have a narrative element to it, with music that sounds like Liturgy.’ It’s this dedication to an overarching idea of what Liturgy is and could be that seems to drive Hunt-Hendrix’s artistic impetus, with each successive exploration getting closer and closer to some ideal. I’m reminded of cybernetician Stafford Beer’s guiding principle for his work; a form of instruction known as a heuristic, defined in the book The Brain of the Firm as: ‘a set of instructions for searching out an unknown goal by exploration, which continuously or repeatedly evaluates progress according to some known criterion.’ In other words, quoting Brian Eno, ‘if you wish to tell someone how to reach the top of a mountain that is shrouded in mist, the heuristic “keep going up” will get him there.’
Liturgy play Whelan’s on Monday 26th October with support from No Spill Blood, with tickets costing €15. The Ark Work is out now on Thrill Jockey Records.
Words: Sharon Phelan