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Explaining 'The Ark Work': Liturgy's Hunter Hunt-Hendrix Interviewed

Monday, 08 June 2015 Written by Ben Bland

Photo: Liturgy by Erez Avissar

Liturgy are, without doubt, one of the most talked about “black metal” bands of our time. Since Hunter Hunt-Hendrix started the project, initially as a solo venture just under a decade ago, they have released three records, all of them largely genre-less. For Hunt-Hendrix, black metal is as much a philosophy as a sound, and Liturgy’s music has flowed from his ideas on “transcendental black metal”, rather than from specific tropes of the style.

The band have also been noticeably controversial, with Hunt-Hendrix’s philosophical writings on black metal provoking (or at least appearing to provoke – see the body of the interview) sneering dismissal and accusations of pretentiousness.

In the meantime, they released two of the finest albums in the modern day history of “black metal” – ‘Renihilation’ and ‘Aesthethica’ -  and this year returned to the fray with ‘The Ark Work’, which saw Hunt-Hendrix’s compositional style embrace an ever more diverse and – for purists of any genre – problematic array of sounds.

Luckily, Hunt-Hendrix was able to answer a few questions for Stereoboard via email, having just returned from tour, while the band are in the UK this week, playing at Brighton’s Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, London’s Electrowerkz and Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival.

Firstly, how would you sum up ‘The Ark Work’ as a new addition to Liturgy’s discography and as a progression from ‘Renihilation’ and ‘Aesthethica’?

This record is much more honest than the previous records. Instead of constraining the style so that it has a relationship to black metal as a form, as I did for the previous records, on this one I’ve decided to let it all hang out and express the huge surges of feeling in my soul using whatever materials are available to me. In a way it is the truest Liturgy record because it is the most accurate realization of the sounds in my heart, but from another perspective it is quite a departure, as people have noted. The first two records were about going deeper and deeper into a drumming style that would explode black metal. This record is more about arrangements. I think it has a completely different audience.  

Greg and Tyler came back into the fold to record ‘The Ark Work’ last year. While you’re seen very much as the public face of the group I get the impression the chemistry between the four of you is absolutely crucial to the band. Is that the case?

I consider the energy that the four of us share to be sacred, and I am very grateful they’ve returned to the fold. I don’t want to sounds like I’m grabbing for credit, but I should clarify that I am the sole composer of all aspects of the music. It’s not like I sketch out a few parts and then we take it from there as a group, so in my view the premise of your question is incorrect. I think, if anything, people generally see me as – merely – the public face of the group, the guy writing the manifestos, interpreting the music. But in fact the sound emanates from the vision, and I sculpt each measure of the music at an intimate level. People are very reluctant associate me with anything more than the ideas. The result is people saying things like “Hunter’s ideas about his transcendental music are dumb” and in the same breath praising the music precisely for being so transcendental, but crediting the band for it, almost as though I weren’t a part of it. That has always been mystifying and painful to me. It is an extreme injustice.

Do you think that Greg and Tyler returning to the band significantly changed the sound of the record?

No, the sound of the record would not be different in any significant way if Greg and Tyler had not rejoined the band – but I’m glad that they did. The live show would definitely be different without Greg and Tyler. That’s where our group energy really shines. Again, I don’t really appreciate the premise of the question, because it backs me into a frustrating choice between asserting my creative agency versus appearing to disrespect my bandmates. Even though at a highly detailed level the music, including the drum parts, would have been exactly the same – and barring a few details it was completed before they rejoined the band – I am grateful that at the 11th hour Greg offered to rejoin, and that Tyler accepted my request that he rejoin too, so that we could continue with this line-up.

You’ve abandoned more ‘traditional’ black metal vocals on this release. Is that simply to emphasise the band’s change in sound or is there another reason behind it?

It definitely isn’t an effort to emphasize the change of sound. I wanted to do vocals like this on ‘Aesthethica’. In a slightly different universe, Generation and Veins of God might have had this style of monotone triplet flow over them. I tried it out back then, but abandoned it. At the time I didn’t have the confidence to follow through with the move, but now I do.  

I’m intrigued by the bell sounds that appear throughout large swathes of the record. What inspired the use of sounds like that? It made me think of recent Swans records first and foremost.

On this record I do a lot of integrating elements that were reserved for interludes on the past records into the songs themselves. ‘Aesthethica’ has several bell interludes and a chant interlude. So basically it was a matter of incorporating those elements into the actual songs this time. Definitely in sync with recent Swans too. It’s hard to imagine Liturgy existing at all without Swans.  

Was this record directly influenced by any of the other acts from a broadly black metal background who have gone on to incorporate more diverse sounds into their music (e.g. Dødheimsgard, Sigh, Ulver, etc)?

I usually hate it when black metal bands do anything other than pure, raw, epic metal in the vein of ‘Transilvanian Hunger’. Paradoxically my taste in black metal is actually really unyieldingly orthodox, though I don’t listen to very much black metal at all these days. Actually one major exception to that, now that I think of it, is Bathory’s ‘Hammerheart’. I adore that record and admire Quorthon’s courage in initiating such a radical shift in sound. I think Follow and Follow 2 on ‘The Ark Work’ sound a little bit like Shores in Flames.  

If there’s one track on the new album that is likely to prove controversial to some then it’s Vitriol, with its clear hip hop influence. What was the thinking behind that track?

It wouldn’t be so controversial if the record were just marketed towards fans of Tri Angle Records artists or Animal Collective fans or Radiohead fans or something. I really have no desire at all to be controversial or to ask anyone who wouldn’t like this album to listen to it or form an opinion. There’s some ineffable point at which my love of rap and my love of metal overlap, and I was searching for that on this record.  

‘The Ark Work’ sounds like a challenging release to take on the road. How are preparations for performing the album going?  

I use a MIDI Guitar pickup to play virtual symphonic instruments using my guitar, Tyler has a synth bass pedal, and I run my vocals through a computer so I can stutter them in real time. It sounds a lot like the record, but it’s obviously not quite the same. As I said above, the live show is really where the band comes to the fore. People can watch Greg play drums and see us rocking out and feeling the music; the arrangements aren’t as important.    

The aesthetic of the artwork has always been very significant on past releases. What can you tell us about this side of things on ‘The Ark Work’? I understand that the symbol on the front cover is particularly important?

I’m unhappy with the artwork on this record. There was a different album cover that I really wanted to use, but both the label and the management fought really hard against using it, and I backed down – which I regret. The art we have is half-baked, and I wince whenever I see it on our merch table or a thumbnail. If I could do it over again I would have delayed the release further to make sure we had art that was as powerful as the art on previous releases.   

It’s a strange title – for a time I was labouring under the misapprehension that it was in fact ‘The Art Work’. What does it mean and does it tie in to a conceptual thread running throughout the rest of the album?

‘The Ark Work’ is a continuation of the age-old hermetic quest to redeem the world using music, art and philosophy. It is quasi-fictional and quasi-real. In a way, I consider the record to be a sacred work of art – but I’m not entirely able to commit to that belief. There’s a mythopoeia connected to the album. Reign Array, Kel Valhaal, and two other figures called OLOLON and The Genesis Caul represent four aspects of human subjectivity. I don’t have a concise way to relate it. The system is something I’ve been developing as a result of mystical experiences and close study of Lacan, Kabbalah and William Blake. I like the idea of trying to create a vast epic in real time, live tweeting the composition process, generating fragments of it here and there on the internet, and ultimately failing to arrive at systematic consistency – and affirming failure as inherent to the process. I am driven by a genuinely prophetic urge, for better or for worse, love it or hate it; it feels to me like I have a duty to follow its lead wherever it takes me.  

When you first started talking about Liturgy, and black metal, in the way that you do, did you suspect that the response would be as heated as it has largely been?

During the months leading up to my lecture about Transcendental Black Metal, I was on the verge of suicide and suffering from mild psychotic delusion and hallucination.  It felt to me that delivering the lecture was the most important thing I would ever do in my life. I was having Nietzschean visions of breaking world history in two and so on. People don’t really realize how much pain and emotion and even madness went into the composition of that piece. So I was actually not surprised that it had such a big impact, although in retrospect I think it was insane of me to think that it would (even though it did, if that makes sense). Basically, reality turned out to be as crazy as I was at the time…

Why do you think people seem to have this fear of others – whether academics, journalists or musicians themselves – analysing and theorising music? I feel this is especially strange with something like black metal, which has always had a clear philosophical underpinning.

I’d like to make a distinction: In my interpretation, my manifesto was the target of a lot of hatred, but the manifesto wasn’t the reason for it. The reason was that Liturgy were four good-looking young hipsters in Brooklyn, which is something the wider world loves to hate, and that we were using art rock and minimalism in black metal in a new way, which people not familiar with those styles couldn’t appreciate or understand. The band was already controversial when ‘Renihilation’ came out, which was before anyone knew about the manifesto. I think me delivering it provided an easy target for that hatred to latch onto and expand hugely – but it wouldn’t have been hated at all if the music wasn’t so original, or if I was some big metal dude or someone writing on LARM. You’re right – there’s tons of philosophical discourse in black metal. It’s mainly those external factors that made my lecture so controversial.  

I’m intrigued whether there were other potential directions for ‘The Ark Work’ that were not taken. Did you always envision the record sounding like it does or were there other possibilities that were discarded?

Sure, yeah. Father Vorizen almost didn’t end up on the record. There are two or three other nearly finished songs that didn’t make the cut. The overall sound world was basically the same from the start – the glitch sound, electronics, horns and bells and so on, but there were details of the arrangement that changed over the course of composing and some even during the mixing process, to deal with certain limitations. We did the band recording with Jonathan Schenke, and he was extremely helpful and patient in getting the pre-existing materials organized and in the difficult task of achieving a democratic balance between all the elements.  

‘The Ark Work’ does rather raise questions of what elements could not be incorporated into Liturgy’s sound. How far does your vision of the band’s musical approach expand? Are there any clear directions in which you can imagine the band heading in the future? Are there any that you can rule out?

I personally see myself working more towards music drama and mythopoeia, though I don’t know what exactly the relationship to Liturgy is. As for the sound, I could imagine incorporating more of the sound world of avant-garde spectralism. But I imagine the next Liturgy record sounding like basically a combination of ‘Aesthethica’ and ‘The Ark Work’. There’s a sense of having arrived somewhere with ‘The Ark Work’. With the previous records I always felt that they were steps towards a sound – with ‘The Ark Work’ we have arrived at that sound, and I don’t at this point expect it to change in any kind of surprising way. It’s more a matter of honing now. I think a reasonable goal is to make a new record that has a lot of what ‘The Ark Work’ has but also highlights the raw energy of the band more in the way that ‘Aesthethica’ did, maybe even to do some writing together as a group.  

Liturgy Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed June 10 2015 - BRIGHTON Sticky Mike's Frog Bar
Thu June 11 2015 - LONDON Electrowerkz

Click here to compare & buy Liturgy Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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