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By Joshua Phelps

Is it humility or hubris when Hunter Hunt-Hendrix says that he’s “not paying attention to metal in 2015”?

You can wrestle with that question on any number of metal publications, where the Liturgy frontman has remained alternately embattled and praised, but know this: The dissonance with the scene has allowed Liturgy to breach its walls and land with the genre-bending creative assault that is The Ark Work.

Eschewing the screaming-hiss vocals of Renihilation and Aesthetica – which Hunt-Hendrix admits were an afterthought – the Brooklyn band instead employs ritualistic chanting throughout its third record. The technique, like the album itself, connects much more closely to the ideas of philosophy, prophecy, and the occult that occupy Hunt-Hendrix. The Ark Work presents his most confident and honest vision yet – one that frequently finds him preaching over Greg Fox’s pummeling machine gun drums.

As the celebratory horns of opening salvo “Fanfare” reach a crescendo, Liturgy introduces a melody that weaves throughout the entire record – a string to follow throughout The Ark Work‘s winding path. It brings a welcome cohesiveness to a record that is difficult in the way that anything is difficult in today’s musical landscape: The Ark Work requires your full attention.

It took several listens to even wrap my head around the glitchy flourishes, bagpipes, and Baltimore club horns of “Kel Valhalla” – replete with the best Bone Thugs rapping since E. 1999 Eternal – before I was able to sit back and enjoy it on my own terms. Which is to say, turned up very loud. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the monotone mesmerization of an ominous track like “Vitriol” to the brutally victorious “Reign Array” without thinking too hard. But it’s a gift when you’re handed  music that offers you the chance to do so.

Liturgy kicks off a North American tour at DC9 on Thursday. It plays Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus on April 15. The Ark Work is out now on Thrill Jockey Records.

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How do you see the metal scene in 2015? Into what sort world in The Ark Work being born?

I am not paying all that much attention to metal in 2015.  I call Liturgy’s music “transcendental black metal,” but I don’t particularly expect The Ark Work to appeal to a metal audience more than any any other type of audience.

You’ve said that true black metal reflects “courage, honesty, and rupture.” Does it become more difficult to express those things – particularly honesty – when you know that there’s such an audience for Liturgy at this point – when you know that people are waiting to hear The Ark Work, and a certain portion will pick it apart?

I am incredibly grateful that there is some anticipation around this release.  There is so much music in the world, and only a limited amount of attention that audiences have to offer.  It feels good to know that people are spending time with the album. I hope it is liked right away, but whether it is or not, I’m glad it has legs, at least.

Has the experience of reconstituting Liturgy as a four-piece that’s more comfortable now with the non-musical, philosophical attributes of Liturgy assuaged any reservations that you might have with your goal of making black metal purists uncomfortable?

I definitely don’t see it as my task to make black metal purists uncomfortable! That is a goofy caricature.  I’m just trying to follow my intuition and make original music, and I’m OK with the fact that it might be challenging or turn some people away.  I try to err on the side of breaking new ground without thinking too much about people’s expectations.

It’s great playing with the full lineup, for sure.

You seem to have no interest in backpedaling or compromising with Liturgy, but is there a point where you take these ideas to a point where it becomes something else altogether? A solo project or different band?

Sure. If I wanted to make an album that was purely a rap record or something like that, I’d probably call it something else.

With The Ark Work, there are melodies that appear throughout, but they’re presented in wildly different ways, creating a sort of thread that ties everything together. Was that always the intention?

Yeah, a big part of the compositional process is weaving different elements throughout the album in different ways to give it coherence as a whole.   It’s a pretty intuitive process; I do a lot of revising and trying out different variations, so the end result is definitely always pretty different from my original materials.

With the US tour starting in two weeks, are there any limitations or advantages to bringing the album to life, considering the vast amount of electronic beats, horns, bagpipes, and synths?

For this tour, I’m using a MIDI guitar pickup and a laptop to play a lot of the synthetic elements simultaneously as I’m playing guitar.  It sounds a lot like the record, but definitely isn’t exactly the same.

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On first listen, I had an oh shit moment whenever I heard Bone Thugs-style rapping and chanting combined with frenetic horns that you might hear on a Baltimore club track,  especially on “Kel Valhalla”. As a group, Bone Thugs were as familiar with the top of MTV Top 20 countdown as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Was their inspiration a holdover from your fascination with MTV as a teenager?

Yeah, I was all about MTV as a kid. I loved the video for “Tha Crossroads” – thought it was the coolest thing ever. Even before that, I remember buying the cassette single of “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and just listening to it over and over.  It had this cool silver skull on the cover

What draws you to their style versus more traditional vocals?

Monotone rapping in that way is something that I’ve been yearning to do for years.  It is really powerful and magical, and I think it fits music that is so connected to occult states of awareness and ritual, like Liturgy.

You’re voice in the raps, chants is a much larger part of this record, or more on display than the vocals on past work – is that more confidence in yourself or in breaking from traditional black metal vocals?

Sure, and also they’re composed more carefully.  For older songs, the vocals were a total afterthought.  It was really satisfying and emotive to scream in that way, but I wouldn’t even think about it until we’d play a show, and I usually didn’t even set up a mic for rehearsals.  On this record the vocals are part of my composition.

“Veins of God” and “Generation” always seemed like they could have been Rick Rubin productions that were a little too intense for Jay-Z. I just hear people rapping when I listen to those songs. Does Rubin figure into your influences considering his inextricable link to MTV bands, rap origins, and bands like Slayer?

Interesting question.  You can definitely hear how much better Slayer and Red Hot Chili Peppers got after they started working with Rick Rubin, putting more variations on riffs and so on.  Maybe in some way Rick Rubin is an influence?

I agree with you that “Veins of God” and “Generation” could have been rap metal songs.  I wanted to put the [Bone Thugs] vocals on those songs back in the day, but didn’t quite have the courage to go for it at the time.

Did the checkered legacy of rap-rock in the late 90s give you any pause in exploring the combination of the two forms?

There’s something interesting to me about that checkered legacy, yeah.  It was like something had gone disastrously wrong – a high stakes alchemical experiment that could have yielded gold but blew up instead.  That’s part of why Death Grips moved me so much; they were doing this rap/punk thing that seemed to me like a reconsideration of the rap-rock connection in a new way.

What rap are you listening to now?

I like a lot of the newer Atlanta trap stuff: Young Thug, OG Maco etc.  Rap is getting so fucked up right now; it’s amazing. I have no idea why that stuff is so popular. It’s like people must not realize what they’re listening to.  I’ve also been getting into Ill Bill.

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What attracted you to studying about religion in the first place? At what point did it – and the occult – become something that fascinated you?

I’ve always kind of been in that zone.  When I was younger, I was more into Nietzsche, continental philosophy, and psychoanalysis, but over time, I’ve developed a less cerebral attitude, more open to ritual and mysticism.  I’ve spent most of my life in a terrible amount of pain, so it’s sort of forced me into spirituality just to survive; the intense music and visionary prophecies emanate from that.

Four years ago, you said “Culture ought to be a war…  Showing up as an abomination or a stain is much more interesting. I’m more interested in doing that than in garnering buzz.”  Is there still a rush in embracing the role of agitator?

This is like that earlier question.  I really am not interested in agitating or making people in a scene I’m not a part of unhappy.  I just mean there’s something false about bending over backwards to please people.

Almost without exception, my favorite records are ones that at first I didn’t like, but ended up changing the way I listen.  In the Nightside Eclipse did that for me, so did Jane Doe, so did The Rite of Spring.  It just comes down to originality – making something that takes time to appreciate, is even a little disturbing at first, rather than being the new popular thing for five seconds.

What was the last piece of culture that triggered a vehement reaction from you?

When Death Grips’ The Money Store came out I had one of those experiences; the world seemed a little different afterwards.  Seeing some of Ryan Trecartin’s videos at the new museum when he broke out was similar. It doesn’t happen very often.

Additional contributions by Philip Runco.

Press photos by Erez Avissar.

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