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Review: Liturgy grapples with the divine on the vast, grand 93696
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With the dust from the “hipster black metal” debacle settled, the merits of Liturgy have only continued to blossom. Regardless of how many metalheads were put off by the infamous “Transcendental Black Metal” manifesto, albums like Aesthetica (2010) have stood the test of time with a bombastic, cathartic amalgamation of black metal and modern classical. While The Ark Work (2015) may have over-indulged in experimentation, 2019’s H.A.Q.Q. came as a pure realisation for Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix’s drive to use her unorthodox songwriting to know and experience the person and essence of God. Even so, the operatic foray Origin of the Alimonies (2020) attested to the windy nature of the road toward the transcendent.
It’s really anyone’s guess where Liturgy’s latest LP could go in 82-minutes. Suffice to say, 93696 comprises a cavalcade of everything the band has to offer, and then some.
At this point, it’s easier to classify Liturgy as aggressive chamber music than metal or rock. Even when “Djennaration” brings rock instrumentation after the Gregorian chant-ish “Daily Bread,” in no way does it reflect rock structure. It’s also clear that Liturgy has only gotten more comfortable in this rejection of conformity over time. As drummer Leo Didkovsky pushes and pulls the tempo with the band’s signature “burst beat,” Hunt-Hendrix’s tremolo guitar leads soprano singing, strings, flutes and bells in a dizzying upward spiral of joyous melody. It’s really astounding that Steve Albini was able to balance out the brittle high-end guitar tones with a warm low-end within the fray, but his production lets the extended instrumentation shine within walls of euphoric sound. Hunt-Hendrix’s has also perfected an uncanny valley effect by purposely glitching the recorded takes. In this ambiguity between old-world and futurism, the song gets away with sampling its own central melody in a trap beat.
Liturgy revels in harshness and serenity, as displayed through “Caela” and the following “Angel of Sovereignty.” The former’s hypnotic guitar pluckings and tremolo melodies urge on the explosive percussion, but inexplicably indulges in a scronkey, syncopated groove more suited for mathcore. Beyond the fact this occurs while leaving room for delicate flutes, the curveballs keep coming as the latter track switches gears to a beautiful choral arrangement. Hunt-Hendrix treats holy music with the same attention to detail she brings to loud guitar music. Anything from harmonious tremolo to demure chants can weave its way explosive percussion of “Haelegen II,” but it takes real tact to restrain the song’s reprise to an almost mediaeval vibe with dancing acoustic guitar arpeggios.
Even for brief asides like the lonesome bells and vibraphones of “Angel of Hierarchy,” or the duetting ocarinas and flutes found on “Red Crown II,” Liturgy retains a unique atmospheric depth. Fans of ambient artists like Brian Eno or Coil will appreciate how “Angel of Emancipation” bides its time before filling in its minimalist synth lines with a collage of staccato clatterings, while the swelling strings and awe-inspiring crescendos “Angel of Individuation” find Hunt-Hendrix’s vision at its most extravagant. Liturgy achieves some of its most arresting moments to date by letting go of genre boundaries in fervent pursuit of the divine… and that’s without mentioning albums’ longest songs.
The more relaxed parts of 93696 almost feel merciful, considering how much Liturgy packs everywhere else. The title track focuses on a constantly-changing beat, where time signatures don’t matter and melodies never stop evolving. It gets strikingly heavy by Liturgy standards, with a Dillinger-style breakdown (yes, a breakdown) at the 4:30 mark primed for the pit pros. The disjointed riff puts Hunt-Hendrix’s chemistry with Didkovsky, guitarist Mario Miron and bassist Tia Vincent-Clark on full display, and merits extensive recontextualization over the course of 15 minutes. In contrast, “Antigone II” finds Liturgy embracing the non-rhythmic side of the “burst beat.” Non-linear percussive eruptions follow the long-winded melodies, letting emotion and dynamics take center stage. This song also realizes emotive potential of Hunt-Hendrix vocals, as she screams over spiraling guitar lines as gracefully as the soprano singing.
It’s not every day a cut like “Before I Knew the Truth” seems comparatively normal in its surging drums and unrelenting melodicism, but that’s just a testament to how much Liturgy throws into 93696. Returns to form like “Ananon” show that there’s more to this album than detours for their own sake, showing how Hunt-Hendrix cand distil the essentials of her sound after indulging in its eccentricities. It also goes to show how she’s only gotten more comfortable in her approach to writing riffs and melodies over time. In all its turbulent experimentation, Liturgy displays more confidence than ever in their niche.
93696 ebbs and flows as well could be expected from the sound of Hunt-Hendrix attempting to comprehend the nature of God. Arriving at “Immortal Life II” for a final sound bath of mandolin, piano and choir feels like a well-earned rest after a long, but fruitful journey. It may be a lot to digest in one sitting, but 93696 offers a distillation of everything that makes Liturgy important to modern music. It’s incredibly gratifying to hear a band with so much drive to push boundaries succeed in such a satisfying way.
Liturgy’s 93696 comes out on March 24 and is currently available for preorder via Thrill Jockey Records.
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