*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #27 of the SBR Album of the Week.
Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix is a genius in the eyes of Spin magazine and an interloper in the black metal scene to most underground publications. Formerly known as Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, the transgender Brooklyn composer surprised everyone in 2020 with the release of the excellent black metal opera, Origin of the Alimonies. Part Stravinsky, part Kayo Dot and part Triptykon, it won Hunt-Hendrix acclaim and silenced some of the critics who dismissed Liturgy as hipster black metal. Now, she returns with her most ambitious work to date – a double album of one hour and twenty-two minutes.
Liturgy have always been transfixed by the idea of creating transcendental black metal through the incorporation of other genres, most notably progressive rock and electronica. On 93696 they make their most daring attempt to reach this objective via the power of angelic soprano harmonies and chaotic guitar melodies. Ex-Kayo Dot drummer, Leo Didkovsky, is the key to making this happen. Hunt-Hendrix pushes him hard on the eight-minute epic, ‘Djennaration’, after introducing the album with two minutes of divine voice arrangements in opener, ‘Daily Bread’. Here, Didkovsky accents everything in sight as if auditioning for the sequel to the film, Whiplash, while the two guitarists rip through their pedal boards and throttle their strings in a frenzy of advanced melody. Epic is not the word. Imagine a black metal interpretation of a 1970s theme tune in the hands of John Barry filled with screaming pitch vocals that seldom reveal the shape of intelligible words. You can compare it to the hysterical noise rock onslaught of Oklahoma quartet, Chat Pile, but with a Darkthrone hostility. A clear Eastern-orientated resonance adds sparkle to the aggression as if scorching a Hong Kong garden with a blow torch. It reminds you that the orange splendour of burning flames can produce an immense beauty in the shadow of fear.
Whether Liturgy play black metal or incorporate its most visceral elements into an alternative rock setting is one of the most fascinating aspects of CD1. ‘Caela’ starts like a Smashing Pumpkins number from the Siamese Dream era but transitions into a violent storm of blast beats and unnerving screams before finding respite in a vicious Neurosis doom entanglement. How do they unearth such a sparkling melodic crust to their music when its dynamics aim to rip the skin off your face?
The experimental New York influence on Hunt-Hendrix is obvious in the nine-minute sweep of ‘Haelegen II’, where the transcendental self-hatred/misanthropy of early Swans sets the foundations for an alternating blast of blackened noise rock and neurotic introspection straight from Radiohead’s Kid A playbook. It offers great continuity from the last two records (2019’s HAQQ and 2020’s Origin of the Alimonies) and reminds you that contemporary artists, like Pupil Slicer, have already started to adopt a similar dynamic in their music as a direct result of Liturgy’s pioneering influence. But the true separation between the Brooklyn collective and their contemporaries is their determination to find the glory of unhindered expression through self-annihilation. Here, each musician sees the end in sight after a marathon performance and then aims for the next challenge after twenty-six miles of blood and sweat as if dissatisfied with a mere photo finish and personal best. This is the sound of a band pushing themselves to the extreme.
The second CD continues the mix of long compositions interspersed with mystical interlude pieces that makes 93696 impossible to understand unless you listen to it in chronological order. You might question the need for a primitive descant recorder composition at the end of CD1 (see ‘Red Crown II’), but it will make sense when ‘Angel of Emancipation’ continues the melody with a minimalist keyboard phrase. Now, you can hear the glory of Björk’s latest album in the mood of the music and throughout the rest of the record. ‘Ananon’ is more Sonic Youth than Satyricon with an enlivening surge of “oh-ah-ah” voice harmonies juxtaposing the blast beats and aggressive guitar fervour. The fourteen-minute thrill of the title track starts like the opening drum beat to ‘Sickman’ by Alice in Chains and soon switches to a visceral piece of harmonic minor post-metal with subtle offbeats and a Dillinger Escape Plan severance from its prison of claustrophobia. Didkovsky refuses to lower his sticks until Hunt-Hendrix sucks every last drop of adrenaline out of her body in a manic Wagnerian flourish. It makes the classical minimalism of ‘Angel of Individuation’ even more poignant as a requiem for the damaged mind.
Of course, an LP of one hour and twenty-two minutes presents many risks. Overindulgence and the inability to edit one’s art are two of the most obvious. Superfluous interludes such as ‘Angel of Hierarchy’ on CD1 could be removed with no detrimental impact on the flow of the album. The fourteen minutes of ‘Antigone II’ could be just as effective in less than ten, despite the admirable aim to plough through successive dynamic uplifts, each one more powerful than the last. More hysterical noise metal syncopation, like the outstanding title-track, would push this record even further towards the cycle of death and rebirth that it aims to capture in the listening experience.
Yet despite the overindulgence, Liturgy’s breath-taking artistic ambition triumphs over all considerations. This is a remarkable attempt to reinvent experimental rock with the urgency it needs to move forward. The days when people dismissed Liturgy as trendy imposters will make no sense once you absorb 93696 and grow to understand its spectacular emotional pull.
Release Date: 24/03/2023
Record Label: Thrill Jockey Records
Standout tracks: Djennaration, Haelegen II, 93696
Suggested Further Listening: Triptykon with the Metropole Orkest – Requiem (Live at Roadburn 2019) (2020), Björk – Fossora (2022), Chat Pile – God’s Country (2022)