When Metal Isn’t Metal Anymore: Redefining the Genre with Liturgy’s Frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix

Photos by Jane Bruce

“It’s been this interesting drama, being perceived as a black metal band and judged as one and judged for not doing certain things based on that,” says Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, frontman for Brooklyn band Liturgy. “In a way, black metal has never been the primary influence.”

He guesses his first exposure to heavy metal came when a teacher smuggled some Metallica or Sepultura into his guitar lessons around age 10. In high-school his interest gained velocity, speeding past Korn or Cradle of Filth to get to terrifying, corpse-paint-smeared Norwegians like Darkthrone. “My attraction to black metal is, in a word, that it’s such a ‘cosmic’ form of music,” says Hunt-Hendrix. “I was listening to a lot of screamo and hardcore in high school too, and that stuff only went so far in this cosmic direction.” Born a New Yorker, Hunt-Hendrix moved to Bushwick after college to start the band who’d become both one of the most loved and hated examples of black metal’s continued creep into the politer confines of indie-rock.

After a brief stint as a solo act, Hunt-Hendrix enlisted guitarist Bernard Gann, bassist Tyler Dusenberry, and childhood friend/ferocious drummer Greg Fox in order to reach into that great beyond. In 2011, the fully-formed version of Liturgy released their second album Aesthethica, a breakthrough that managed to be heady as well as skull-crushing. Outside of their records, Hunt-Hendrix was outspoken about the philosophical necessity to present a different sort of black metal to the world, one that was more human and less nihilistic. He famously presented his ideas in a manifesto to an academic symposium in 2009, at a Williamsburg bar. For his intellectual efforts he was mocked by metal’s old guard. Like many reformers he was occasionally threatened with bodily harm (by online tough guys, at least).

Aesthethica’s follow-up, The Ark Work, is a deeply strange album that goes even further to ditch some of the most common elements of the genre. The most drastic shift is the singing, even just the fact that Hunt-Hendrix sort of does some. “I wanted to stop screaming, no matter what,” he says. “I was tired of that way of singing. It’s too intense.” It’s easy to see how a guy like him, who struggles to put forth a billion ideas at once, might feel limited by a screeching style that provides maximum emotional catharsis, but renders specific lyrical ideas completely unintelligible.

“I didn’t want to make the classic move of the metal band that stops screaming and starts singing,” he says. “So I settled on a style which I think of as rapping, that’s influenced by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, by Three 6 Mafia. It’s this kind of monotone triplet flow, which I thought would be a way to start singing but was also just something that no one’s really done before in this context.” (He’s got a loftier rationale ready, too, noting the similarity between his faux-Southern flows and the cadence of medieval Catholic incantation.)

huntertight

Despite a relentless drive towards new forms, Hunt-Hendrix bristles a bit at the idea of Liturgy as mere explorers, desperate to plant a flag on any bit of unclaimed turf. “The stylistic choices are kind of bizarre, or at least seem bizarre at the moment, but it’s not novelty for it’s own sake. It’s not trolling or trying to make people mad,” he says. “The music is very sincere, and it’s very filled with emotions. That’s something that people don’t really comment on that much.”

For those not  versed in the fine distinctions between apocalyptic sub-strains of black metal, the music’s appeal, especially live, comes from witnessing something that’s physically improbable. To achieve such intense volume and speed is to do something that seems almost beyond human, to reach the place at the edge of exhaustion and overwhelm that Hunt-Hendrix calls cosmic. So, it’s another point of curiosity that The Ark Work should use so many synthetic instruments. It’s got horn, bagpipe, percussion, and guitar tones clearly conjured by mouse clicks instead of lungs or biceps. Is that a direct attempt to subvert the idea of music that demands pure athletic will to make?

“I think of it as an honest reflection of contemporary experience,” says Hunt-Hendrix. “The idea is to make a post-Internet black metal. There’s a gap between our organic lives with each other and the ways that we connect that are mediated. I wanted to be honest about that on a record. To continue to explore the feelings and intensities of black metal, but to draw a wider circle around what I consider to be the aesthetic whole.” In the band’s latest live shows, he’ll trigger those sounds through a MIDI guitar pick-up attached to a computer—real sweat and effort conjuring stuff that’s distinctly fake. “It’s something that is truly organic, but also truly synthetic,” he says. “I’m into that paradox.”

Another Internet-era contradiction looms large over the entire Liturgy project. “I remember a time when it was much more common to identify with a single kind of music and think that other kinds of music were so bad that it’s funny, just because they were different. Even with crust punk bands, who used to sound exactly like metal bands, hating metal bands,” says Hunt-Hendrix. “That’s really changed in a violently drastic way. Everybody hears and knows, and kind of likes everything,”

As intense, ear-splitting, and occasionally nasty as black metal can be, it’s been one of the last holdouts to wide acceptance, resisting assimilation into the aggressively eclectic music fandom the Internet has enabled. In that light, it’s understandable that Liturgy’s efforts to open the genre up to new elements, and attract casual fans might not be fully appreciated. Hunt-Hendrix gets that, but doesn’t know any other way forward. “I don’t totally have a grasp of what it means to be making this genre of music or to identify with a genre of music,” he says. “That’s all just kind of confusing stuff.”

“I’m not offering an answer on the record, I’m just kind of asking the question.”

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