All photos by the author unless otherwise noted
The snobby, precious metal community has treated Hunter Hunt-Hendrix as a punching bag since he formed the band Liturgy in 2008. The singer and creative force behind the project has been described as the David Foster Wallace of black-metal, the anti-Antichrist (metal humor), and is regarded by some as the poster boy of inauthentic, "hipster-asshole" music-appropriation acts. After all, he did publish a manifesto called Transcendental Black Metal, which VICE excerpted and described as "what happens when you approach the most inherently comical form of metal with absolutely no sense of humor or fun."
But for those who don't jerk off over original Mayhem pressings, Liturgy has always been an awesome (albeit brainy) band that makes awesome records. To many kids who didn't grow up idolizing OG Norwegian metal, Liturgy was a less intimidating entry point to a music genre where not knowing the difference between War Metal and Viking Metal is more embarrassing than shitting yourself at prom. And thanks to the Brooklyn-based band, a bunch of people probably checked out the metal groups that purists claim Hunt-Hendrix has tainted with his didactic texts and nerdy interviews.
On March 23, Liturgy will release The Ark Work on Thrill Jockey, its first LP in four years, and undoubtedly it's most epic. Though Hunt-Hendrix describes the music as "rap-metal" (two genres appropriated in one this time!), the record could barely be categorized as anything other than a Liturgy album. It's reference points—the chantlike triplet flow of southern hip-hop acts like Three 6 Mafia, Swans (who the band recently opened for), grandiose classical composers—are meaningless in comparison to the feeling of frisson that the ten songs inspire. And that's exactly what the bandleader hopes for.
Hunt-Hendrix talked to me about what he really means by "rap-metal," how he's attempted to tie art, music, and philosophy together in a seamless triangle, and the album being influenced by a Russian composer who had a mystic plan to unveil the apocalypse through sound.
VICE: I was told the new album is really influenced by southern hip-hop and triplet-flow rap. Could you expand on that?
Hunter Hunt Hendrix: It's not a rap-metal record, but I really wanted to try to find a new basis for combining rap and metal. I thought that was interesting because rap-metal has such a weird reputation.
I loved Korn as a kid, but I don't feel like I'm above rap-metal. I was a huge Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fan when I was little—and Three Six Mafia and stuff like that, too. That's always been kind of with me. And I felt if I were to change the vocal style of the music, I would want to use that kind of triplet-flow language because it reminds me so much of liturgical chanting and things the super occults would chant.
Now there's like Migos and Kendrick Lamar, and triplet flow is all over the place. Interestingly, I planned on doing this for the new album before those guys blew up. It took a long time to write this record. As I was working on it, I saw A$AP Rocky come out with songs quoting Bone Thugs' flow. That older style is so popular and now it has a weird resonance with rap that's happening right now, which I didn't intend to reflect. And at first I was weirded out by the similarities, but now I think it's kind of cool.
It doesn't sound like you're trying to rap. It sounds more like you're influenced by it, or the religious chanting you mentioned.
You might not know if I was rapping unless I told you I was [laughs]. I want this album to be this alchemical fusion. It has all these parts that come from very specific places, but you wouldn't necessarily recognize any of them. You don't want it to be a mash-up or Mr. Bungle, where it's something like salsa-meets-industrial. It's hard to make music that is really eclectic but doesn't sound eclectic. So I don't think it would be in good taste to actually sound like I'm rapping. I think if you listen to it, it makes sense.
So why did you want to do triplet flow and shy away from screaming? How does the style apply to larger, conceptual goals of The Ark Work?
The main reason is that I liked it, and I wanted it to sound that way. Also, I didn't want to scream anymore. It's kind of bad for your throat. There are quotidian reasons, too. But there's something interesting to me about the challenge. Put it this way: Black metal is the kind of music that is known for racism, homophobia, political conservatism, and this closed-off hatred of The Other. To combine it with rap is really to do this violence to black metal, which is kind of interesting to me. It pulls it further away from its roots, and it's kind of a clash.
It challenges metal against something that it culturally opposes. But at the same time, you're appropriating from hip-hop and southern culture and combining it with something that relates to oppressing that culture. On one hand, you're manipulating the conservative, negative side of black metal for good, but on the other, you're appropriating a culture you're not a part of and meshing it with something it may not necessarily want to be tied to.
Yeah, and I'm not totally comfortable about that. Rap is a tradition that I'm not a part of, and I'm just dabbling in it. I'm not totally comfortable with anything that I do with this band. At this point, I'm not afraid of critics, but I'm not sure that I'm doing the right thing.
Why describe it as rap-metal, though? That feels limiting.
It's hard to know what to call something. I like calling this music rap-metal, in a way. But also there are rap-metal appropriation acts right now that I'm interested in, like Contessa Stucco of Cunt Mafia. It's time right now to reconsider rap and metal as bedfellows or whatever—and I don't shy away from saying that. There are so many genres and micro-genres and names. It's absurd, but so is saying, "I'm just gonna do my own thing. It has no name." That's absurd, too.
[Liturgy's] relationship to black metal has always been appropriation. It's not true black metal. My main musical background is classical music. What I like the most is Ligeti and Scelsi, and this weird, piano avant-garde, post-serialist, post-spectralist stuff. It's like that meets performance art or something. That's how this band started. It was kind of like this performance that incorporated black metal. While I was at Columbia, I planned on being a composer who used black metal. Then it turned into more of a band.
How do you want listeners to feel when listening to The Ark Work? What's the ideal reaction?
I want them to be floored. I want to make music that's completely astonishing where you listen to it and your sense of ordinary reality is shattered. I want the music to be… bursting. And I like to use whatever rhythmic motifs or combinations of different arrangements to bring it to a place that's unusual and full of emotion. It's kind of like a torrent of cosmic sadness, like when you're crying, but you're not sure if you're happy or sad—or even mourning.
I think of [the album] as a total work of art. Music is one of three elements that are interconnected: music, art, and philosophy. The idea is to make music that is astonishing enough that it makes you want to philosophize and puts you in the philosophical mood. So it's like a triangle with music on top: Music goes to philosophy and inspires you to philosophize. Then you allow a new concept to be born through you, because you're philosophizing. And then what philosophy does is it legislates, and then once you have a philosophical foundation, you have the right to do something. You have a right to follow through with an idea. That's where art comes in. Art isn't like making a painting, necessarily. It is an endeavor of any kind that is faithful to a philosophical core.
So it's this three-part structure and you're constantly spinning around, moving through all three. It's called a perichoresis. And this is an appropriation of the Christian term. I think the career of the band is a work of art, like a sculpture. The career is like a drama. So for me, being able to make this music is kind of difficult. After the last record, I was kind of afraid to make this album because there were a lot of people who were waiting on the bleachers to be critical of it. But I wanted to follow through with it. So I had to put together this music-art-philosophy structure to feel like I had the right to make it.
So with this album, you want people's reaction to be inspired to start philosophizing?
The idea is that we're in this world where there's all this anxiety, and there aren't structures in place that are telling us how to live. There are good things about that and bad things about that. There's not as much social control, but in a context like that, it sort of falls to the arts to play that kind of role to give meaning.
Sometimes what's frustrating though is a lot of art refracts some aspect of the modern condition, but it doesn't offer any solutions. So how do you get past just thinking about the anxiety and actually do something bigger?
You can make great art by itself or great music by itself, but that runs the risk of being doomed to merely reflecting. Or, to reach some kind of deep truth, and then expressing—but just expressing.
Then what is your bigger goal when it comes to creating art?
The highest expectation that you can have for art is for it to allow you to transcend. So my idea is that you can join the three together—music, art, and philosophy—and it will create this tornado of meaning so that you can transcend or just reflect.
My ideal for art is the German Romantic ideal: Wagner, or my favorite composer, Scriabin, who's kind of a caricature of Wagner. Wagner wanted to combine drama and music to create these new myths that would take the place of religion in order to lead society, or whatever. Scriabin sounds like Wagner but more extreme. His vision was to create a music and light opera that would be performed on a river, and the audience would all be involved. When it was performed, music would resonate in such a way that it would trigger the unveiling of the apocalypse, and would redeem the world just by achieving a certain sound-light ratio. I love that idea. He never finished it, though.
I just love things being uncertain. I love being unsure of what to do next, or being unsure that I did the right thing—or even talking about ideas that I can't back up. I kind of like being out there, always on the verge of complete humiliation.
I read you say in another interview that The Ark Work is the most honest Liturgy album yet. Do you still feel the same way?
Yeah, definitely. What I mostly mean by that is that is this album sounds more like the way I hear Liturgy in my head more than any other album. I mean, I love the last couple records. But it was really hard to part with them because I wasn't totally happy with them. And with this one, I really sat down and made sure that it was like a full-on execution. It's not the end of the road. I feel like I can do more, but there's like a vague abstract version of what you want to make, and then you kind of just have to find the ways to execute actually making it happen. This time, we just kind of stuck with it, and went all the way in making it the way I wanted it to sound. This is the music I want to hear most.
The Ark Work is out on March 24 through Thrill Jockey.
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