FEATURES ”93696” is Liturgy at Their Most Maximalist By Julian Towers · March 24, 2023
Photo by Jessica Hallock

The guitars on Liturgy songs proceed skyward. Beckoned forth by trumpeting blast beats, surrounded by strings, flutes, and bells that amplify a sense of awe, the gnarly riff is transformed into something divine, each tremolo-picked lead line a chariot for transcendental discovery and eschatological rumination. For black metal fans of unholy temperament, the searing, major-key tenderness of Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix’s vision will never qualify as trve kvlt (no matter the project’s endurance through 18 years and multiple lineups). What cannot be denied, though, is that Liturgy’s music remains one-of-one, and still offers a radical new potential for heavy rock: downtuned low enough, those waves of razor-sharp strumming might just carry us to heaven.

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“Is heaven, like, up?” I ask Hunt-Hendrix, somewhat sheepishly. Liturgy was famously born out of her time studying philosophy at Columbia, and Hunt-Hendrix is nearly as famous for her imposing theological scholarship as her compositional acuity (you could lose a whole week navigating the nesting diaristic manifestos of her old website). Asking her to channel all her genius towards confirming a simplistic and traditional concept of paradise…well, that’s pretty damn goofy. But is she literally aiming her music for vertical ascent?

“I think heaven is up,” Hunt-Hendrix offers, somewhat tentatively. “Certainly all Liturgy albums are supposed to sound like heaven. They have this celestial, beaming quality, very fierce and passionate. But, it’s important to Christianity, actually, that Heaven is embodied. You’re going upwards, but that doesn’t mean that the body goes away.”

Ever since 2011’s Aesthethica, Hunt-Hendrix has been alternating between statements that sum up her project’s core sound with what initially appear to be conspicuous sonic diversions. On 2015’s The Ark Work, whooping shrieks and a robust low-end gave way to trap-inspired electronics and zonked-out vocal intonation, with newly claustrophobic song structures. But when H.A.Q.Q arrived in 2019 as an exciting retrenchment of black metal strictures, the continued incorporation of glitch/MIDI experimentation clarified that Hunt-Hendrix’s detours will always be “reincorporated back into the Liturgy mothership.” So, a year later, after she followed that album up with an honest-to-God chamber-music opera (give or take the occasional 100,000 BPM blast beat), canny-but-confused fans realized they could wait on Liturgy LP6 as a belated clarification.

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“Sometimes I have this intense urge to break fresh ground, but there was no mystery about how this one was gonna be achieved,” Hunt-Hendrix laughs as she surveys the musical panorama Liturgy have assembled on 93696. Recorded with Steve Albini (for that “live performance sound”) at the end of 2020, 93696 was built out of a surplus of pandemic practice time that’s very much audible. Indeed, the band’s 83-minute, four-chapter exegesis of “Haelegen”—Hunt-Hendrix’s personal framework for heaven—plays like their attempt to stuff every baffling non-sequitur from Liturgy’s discography into one mammoth framing. Just about everything is here: the epic choir arrangements of Origin of the Alimonies, the song-unto-themselves interlude work of H.A.Q.Q, the thumping beats of The Ark Work. All of it’s kicked-off by a chant that calls back to the opening of Aesthethica.

“I kind of see it as the most thorough statement of Liturgy,” she adds. “Which is another way of saying there’s nothing new happening on this album.”

Nothing new? Perhaps. But when one considers the central aesthetic peril of Liturgy’s music—the desire to articulate overwhelming “muchness” without falling prey to indulgence—93696’s compendium approach and immense construction is, in fact, a tremendous risk. Also, there are two or three alt-metal-styled chug riffs present on this album. That’s definitely new, right?

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“That’s the struggle: how do I put as much into this as possible? Detail in every moment and these sort of formal puzzles that only reveal themselves over time, but never as information overload.” she explains. “And, yes, you’re right. Those riffs are maybe sort of a new thing. Siamese Dream was the first album I ever loved.”

When asked to ponder Liturgy’s own influence, it’s fair to say Hunt-Hendrix is a bit more evasive than Billy Corgan usually is when faced with the same question. “I think that Liturgy’s been ahead of its time for a long time. I think the black metal world has only recently become more a world that would be accepting of what Liturgy is,” she says, citing as evidence the recent publication of the essay collection Black Metal Rainbows. “But I have no clue if us sticking around means we’re responsible in some way or we were just early.”

What hasn’t changed for Hunt-Hendrix is that the music of Liturgy remains the zone where she’s “most comfortable being who [she is],” to the point where the musician mostly brushes off the importance of 93696 being the first album fully conceived and recorded in the full blush of her gender transition. “My life is generally better for sure, but in the album? Jeez, I don’t know,” she says. “The big flaw on The Ark Work is I didn’t really like how the singing came out, but I’ve gotten a good deal more comfortable with my voice since that transition. Not a huge deal.”

Hunt-Hendrix says she’s already at work parlaying that increased vocal confidence into a “Pink Moon-type” acoustic guitar singer/songwriter album. “My ultimate eye is on futurity, I guess. That’s why I’m willing to make albums that are so disruptive to Liturgy’s career in the present,” Hunt-Hendrix says. “It’s kinda a Nietzschean attitude. Like ‘this isn’t for now, it’s all for after my death…’ or, y’know, whatever.”

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