What a marvellous contradiction, this thing we call metal. Is there any genre more closely associated with thuggish brutality, reactionary conservatism, and senseless misanthropy? And yet, where else in popular music is the standard for instrumental acumen so high that you practically need to be a virtuoso in order to be in even a mediocre black metal/death metal/grindcore band? What other subset of rock ’n’ roll has flirted more openly and audaciously with those high-end compositional prostitutes, classical, jazz, and avant-garde? Philosophically, morally, and aesthetically, it is mired in darkness, despair, and evil, and yet no one who’s ever approached a metal show with an open mind and heart can deny the euphoric kick of that bass drum pounding in her gut, the ecstatic (to borrow a word from tonight’s subjects) surge of body against body in the pit. It’s an intensely communal experience for an audience that prides itself on being radically individualistic, an experience that climaxes in a total loss of self, a cessation of identity to noise and throng.
I was initially loath to begin this review with an observation so self-evident, but it’s the conflicted heart of the metal beast that seems to fuel Liturgy front man Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. In an interview with Pitchfork, he stated that his attraction to black metal stems from the fact that, at its core, it participates “in nostalgia and nihilism simultaneously in an unresolved way.” And in another interview from Metal Sucks, he further expounded, “One thought I have is that black metal is absolutely pure, and yet at the same time it is absolutely corrupt. It is a space for honoring heritage and tradition, and also for the obliteration of all culture. For me the meaning of black metal has something to do with a longing for ecstatic annihilation, a perfect void. An obliteration that brings about purity. The absolute, impossible, contradictory limit.” Liturgy is an ideal illustration of the paradox he describes: a band steeped in the trappings of black metal, but incorporating the vernaculars of no wave and minimalism, a sound both punishing and expansive that threatens to rip down the heavens, even as it throws its arms wide to embrace them.
Everything from the band’s 2009 debut that caught our attention is present and amplified. Waves of high-pitched guitar form elegant arcs, rising and falling as if drawn back by the immense gravitational pull of Greg Fox’s frenetic drumming. Frequently alternating between ferocious blast beats and machine gun snare strikes, at times Fox seems to be operating independently of the rest of the band only to snap into sync with them at a moment’s notice. And just as with Renihilation, the end result is extreme, but beautiful in its extremity and breathtaking in its savage grandeur. The longer tracks on Aesthetica give the band a wider canvass to explore the twists and turns of their dynamic compositions, and sources of inspiration that were only hinted at before are woven more fully into the songs’ fabric, like the echoes of Terry Riley in droning guitar solo opening “Sun of Light.” Even the transitional tracks, such as the similarly minimalist “Helix Skull” or the a cappella vocal harmony “Glass Earth,” are blown out and expanded into creations unique and captivating in their own right.
In addition to further honing their signature moves, Liturgy also explore new territory that pushes them further into the mainstream. They peel back the sheen of shrieking guitar for a pair of bludgeoning, repetitive instrumentals that call to mind a more amped-up Swans. Fox leaps to the forefront of these tracks, trading in lightning-fast snare bursts for a more conventional, kick-heavy groove that perfectly punctuates Hunt-Hendrix’s riffs. In the extended bridge of “Generation,” it’s Fox who drives the song’s progress, shifting, doubling, and revising his rhythm while Hunt-Hendrix and fellow guitarist Bernard Gann gradually refine a simple note pattern for almost two minutes. The second instrumental, “Veins of God,” is a fleet-footed behemoth, lumbering along on leaden guitar figures and a carpet of ecstatic crashes and fills. Both songs are a conscious step outside of black metal that’ll do nothing to shore up cred with the kvlt purists, but taken together, the tracks are two of the most exhilarating musical moments of 2011. The fruits of these detours become fully realized in the closing track “Harmonia,” which throbs effortlessly between scalding tremolo guitar and more titanic, surgical riffs.
Romantic that he is, Hunt-Hendrix has successfully engineered his own marriage of heaven and hell, an elevation of the profane to the level of the sacred. The band’s aching for that contradictory limit can be felt quivering in every inch of Aesthetica. It is to their credit that one feels at peace through the record’s most violent and cataclysmic moments, a peace that comes from being absorbed by some transcendental power, with a promise of sweet obliteration ringing in one’s ears.