Depending on which subreddit or semi-defunct metal forum you’ve found yourself at the bottom of, you’ll no doubt be confronted by a drove of white rabbits in corpse paint arguing about art-artist separation, Deafheaven, or third-wave/fourth-wave semantics. If they’re arguing about which bands are trve or not, you’ve gone too far. The 2000s and 2010s saw black metal take on various new personas; rejecting traditions and stylistic conservatism. One of the most exciting bands to come out of this era was and still is Liturgy, for all the branches that grew out of the roots of the genre during this time theirs is one that hasn’t stopped growing.
Spearheaded by guitarist, singer and composer Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix, early on Liturgy showed signs of their unique and elating approach to black metal, taking the genre’s foundation of tremolo riffing further up the fretboard and to more divine heights. Over the course of five full-length releases, Liturgy proved again and again their ability to incorporate new sounds, venturing into more esoteric realms with every release; from math rock and art rock to orchestral arrangements and triumphant horn fanfare; from glitch to gospel, melody to cacophony; these trips out of black metal tradition and into sonic paradoxes have been self-described as ‘transcendental black metal’. One questions what Liturgy could possibly have left to explore, and their sixth album—and first double-length—93696, has more than just a few answers.
Volume I features some of Liturgy’s heaviest moments yet, the guitars taking frequent breaks from their tremolocity for more drawn-out crushing post-metal riffs, especially on ‘Caela’ and ‘Haelegen II’. A lot of Volume 1 brings everything that makes Liturgy so unique, and then some: the mathy madness, the glitches, the angelic furore; Hunt-Hendrix sounding like a mother wolf grieving the death of her young. Tracks like ‘Daily Bread’ and ‘Angel of Sovereignty’ take us to lush and haunting choral heights, while this first volume’s closer ‘Red Crown II’ ends on more sombre tones, with tinkling percussion and a surreal wind instrument section.
Volume 2 begins with a melancholy keyboard piece, ‘Angel of Emancipation’, that quickly breaks open into more glitchy territory, leading into ‘Anonon’, arguably the “heaviest” track on the album: the relentless percussive ordnance, Hunt-Hendrix’s despairing howls. It’s tracks like these that also give testament to the album’s production. With so much happening: the fury of the guitar and drums, the overlaying orchestrations, the utter and glorious cacophony, still, nothing is lost in the mix.
The fourteen-minute title track is unsurprisingly progressive, and never before have Liturgy showcased so much stylistic range with their guitar playing, the techy post-metal and even doomier riffs constantly interchanging with the evermore high-freq tremolo ringing, all of it crescendoing to a thunderous end.
‘Angel of Individuation’ is a beautiful postmodern classical piece, a beatific yet emotive composition that bleeds into ‘Antigone’, the other fourteen-minute track on the album, bringing some of that colosseum fanfare and triumph of 2015’s The Ark Work. Here is another time where the group afford us the sensation that we are not listening to a band but an orchestra, not an album but a score; the proggiest track of the record, bringing elements of math rock, symphonic prog, choral interludes, dizzying guitar and drum interplay and again, like the title track, it ends in an absolutely devastating and rapturous coda, as if angels themselves were tearing down the foundations the band had made for themselves.
93696 may well be Liturgy’s magnum opus, and for any band who can create a piece of work deserving of that title, many bands and fans alike worry that what goes up must come down. Liturgy, at least for now, do not raise that concern. Near the ashes of churches burnt by their stylistic ancestors, Liturgy have created another place of worship, a nebulous ecclesiastical structure, enigmatic and ever-expanding. 93696 cements their status as not just one of the most interesting black metal bands of recent times, but one of the most innovative metal bands of their generation.
93696 is out now via Thrill Jockey and can be purchased here.
Words: Rory Hughes