Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy. — Photo by Ben Shapiro
Despite the recent bestowing of cultural currency to certain strands of extreme music, black metal remains strikingly inaccessible to many listeners. The adoption of Teutonic dogma combined with an incessant commitment to countercultural excess has led many prominent band members to engage in church burnings, killings, and other fanatical behavior. It may be difficult for some to imagine Bushwick resident Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who sat down with me recently for a late-night interview regarding his long-time black metal project Liturgy, producing such work. He is thoughtful and soft-spoken, unlike the more publicized figures of the genre like demented Norwegian murderer Varg Vikernes.
"The idea," he told me, "is to use the tools of black metal for an ecstatic experience rather than a nihilistic experience." He is not interested in critique, either of the contemporary black metal scene or society at large. By freeing himself from certain rhythmic and structural constraints and eschewing the traditionally dark imagery, he works to imbue a tired genre with a sense of emotion and uplift. "Immortal Life," his 2008 release on band mate and longtime friend Greg Fox’s record label Infinite Limbs, attests to this.
Listening to Liturgy is an absolute joy. On the recordings, tremendous ambient soundscapes give way to radical shifts in tempo; the parameters of the traditional mouse-heart black metal drumming are modulated through the use of a drum machine. Live, Hunter employs Fox (drums), Bernard Gann (guitar), and Tyler Dusenberry (bass) to round out his sound, and the whole band fluctuates between moments of concentration and chaotic disorder. The pieces may grow out of a deliberately brutal sonic palate, but emotional elements of melodic brilliance are buried under the competing textures. Some listeners might be surprised to hear that Hunter studies classical composition, and uses Liturgy as a space to work out interests in 19th century Romanticism. For example, he told me that "there is no other form of rock music where it makes any sense to use harmonic structures present in Brahms; you can do that in black metal."
Perhaps the most striking element of Liturgy for me is the invocation of Christianity and Catholic iconography, which stands in stark opposition to the pagan deconstruction of organized religion inherent to seminal bands of the genre. Hunter sees both black metal and Christianity as structurally antithetical to everyday lived experience while at the same time allowing their membership a venue for therapeutic fantasy. "I don’t know why its so interesting to me to have Christian imagery in black metal," he says, "but the contradiction of it feels to me like it meshes well with the contradiction that is already there." He wants to make the reactive link to Christianity more transparent: "no one fixates more on Christianity than someone who is making album covers with upside-down crosses, and maybe that is what is exciting for me."
Hunter went on to talk to me about Nietsche’s philosophy of history with regard to the emergence of black metal (seriously!) and ended our interview by speaking very eloquently on the possibility of revolutionary music. "There is a certain tragic masochism is making metal. I wish I had more faith in music’s ability to have ethical or subversive power. Unfortunately the concept of counterculture music having that potential has been completely co-opted. But there is some connection to a sort of empowerment that follows suffering." Liturgy works in part as an attempt to crystallize and share this feeling of empowerment.
Liturgy will perform this Saturday night at Market Hotel as part of the Swoon Biennnale Benefit Show.