There's a paradox at the heart of black metal: It's both fearsome and laughable, majestic and ridiculous, chaotic but disciplined, all at the same time and usually for all the same reasons. Its most significant early recordings, from 1991-93, were brutally raw and primitive, but they were packaged with an elaborate theatricality—white corpse paint, inverted crosses and pentagrams, fake blood—that amounted to a crude, absurdist high art.
The Brooklyn band Liturgy exists at the precise point where all those paradoxes come together. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, the 24-year-old Columbia University graduate who leads the band, adheres to the strict formal code of black metal. On Liturgy's 2009 debut album, Renihilation, trebly guitar riffs disappear in a haze of fuzz and feedback, spiked by high-pitched, mostly unintelligible vocals and repetitive, trance-inducing song structures. But Hunt-Hendrix has abandoned the misanthropy and satanic imagery of black metal's past in favor of what he calls "pure transcendental black metal." Renihilation is a secular hymn, modern ritual music that draws on minimalism, African and Middle Eastern music traditions, and Martin Heidegger. ("His idea of Nietzsche is basically that modernity is nihilism and the escape from it is an annihilation of nihilism," Hunt-Hendrix told a reporter from Interview magazine in December. "It's dissolving the final core of bitterness that is God's shadow after the death of God.")
What's Liturgy's background? How did you get into black metal in the first place, and how did you get the band together?
When I was younger I made black metal for years on a 4-track. Eventually I started calling it Liturgy and performing out. I became interested in making a kind of black metal that was more vital, alive, and ecstatic and calling it transcendental black metal. Part of that came from watching Lightning Bolt play live and seeing how there was a way to create the kind of vibe they produce in their live shows using black-metal techniques, but pushing them beyond their usual limits. And hearing recordings of Glenn Branca's symphonies. In late 2008 we pulled a band together.
What's your response to people who say Liturgy isn't really black metal—that you have to be evil to count as black metal?
Yeah, I mean, I really love black metal, both the musical techniques and the culture of it. We really aren't part of a black-metal scene, though, so if that's someone's criterion for judging a band, then they're free not to listen to us, which I'm okay with. I'm just happy to be getting to play music the way that I'm most excited to play it, and to have people hear it and form an opinion one way or another. At the same time, it's not like I mean to be making black metal without all the "theatrical bullshit" or something. The "theatrical bullshit" and the invocations of a pagan past and of mysticism, the occult, Nietzschean philosophy—that's all part of the essence of black metal. Some might say that stuff is all stupid fluff, but I think it makes black metal the richest form of rock music, because there are these real connections with the past, with tradition, with spiritual questions. I like that black metal is so much more serious than most rock. I can't stand music that's just about having a good time.
There are some strange, or at least unexpected, influences that pop up on Renihilation, especially the choral vocals. Where do those come from, and why do you incorporate them?
It just seemed natural. When I was deepest into black metal, I was also deep into Arvo Pärt and early medieval music like Perotin and Machaut. The vibes of minimalism, medieval chant, and black metal are unmistakably congruous, I think. I've noticed that in a lot of reviews people are surprised by my impulse to list music like that—minimalism, medieval music, spectralism, qawwali, Romanticism—as influential. Like it's a controversial thing to make that connection. But I don't know, I guess I'm just following my music taste, and producing something in tune with the constellation of music that I love. It all makes sense in my head, and it really does all cohere into a unity, I think. People just have blinders on and think too much in terms of genres and scenes.