Liturgy have never opted for the path of least resistance or readiest acceptance. When they burst from Brooklyn nearly a dozen years ago, they were an exhilarating addition to an already promising U.S. black metal scene, aggressive enough to command and strange enough to captivate. They could have made a fine career in that image; instead, their firebrand inclinations prevailed. Founder Hunter Hunt-Hendrix raised hackles with a high-minded black metal manifesto. Aesthethica burrowed deeper into theology with post-rock muscle, while The Ark Work confounded through mystical chants that recalled Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Philip Glass. Last year’s H.A.Q.Q., made with a new lineup after an extended hiatus, went wild with symphonic flourishes and brittle electronic edits. Such provocation could sometimes feel glib and hollow, as though the wholly serious Hunt-Hendrix were tickling black metal just to see if it would flinch. Liturgy became troll bait, a punchline.
But Origin of the Alimonies, Liturgy’s second album in as many years, is as believable as it is provocative, as obvious as it is obscure. A rapturous synthesis of Hunt-Hendrix’s philosophical pontifications and musical enthusiasms, Origin finds a balance that has long proven elusive for Liturgy. Like Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady almost 60 years earlier, Origin of the Alimonies wrestles with ideas that can seem too grand for music to contain; throughout these seven tracks, it sounds as if Hunt-Hendrix were fighting to hold the reins enough to make the point once and for all. On Liturgy’s most compelling album in a decade, and arguably ever, she does.
Liturgy’s black metal core, built around Hunt-Hendrix’s time-stretching “burst beats,” remains intact, thanks to the return of the athletic quartet that debuted on H.A.Q.Q. But a gaggle of marquee New York improvisers—trumpeter Nate Wooley, flautist Eve Essex, bassist James Ilgenfritz, and so on—broaden Liturgy’s textures and techniques. Scraped violin strings chatter with tremolo guitars. Pounded piano figures complicate splenetic rhythms. At one point, during “The Fall of SIHEYMEN,” Liturgy sound like a symphony being led by John Zorn toward the Naked City.
This mix may seem off-putting at first. Despite the transgressive audacity of each previous Liturgy release, none has been so full of distinct ideas or different idioms. The record begins and ends with alternately tense or tender chamber-ensemble miniatures, delicate passages that suggest infinite ellipses. Between them, there are spans of yearning black metal, gyrating electroacoustic improvisation, and strutting electronic meters, all splintered, shaved, and spliced into uncanny mosaics. Origin—meticulously arranged, concisely edited for maximum impact—is by far the shortest Liturgy album. This brevity can feel disorienting, like watching a television that shuffles among several channels every few seconds.
“Apparition of the Eternal Church,” the record’s 14-minute climax, is an interpretation of Olivier Messiaen’s Apparition de l’eglise eternelle for a black metal band and pulsing piano. Messiaen’s piece is a beautiful but foreboding masterwork about the shock of encountering God for roaring organ. Liturgy’s version is equal parts ecstasy and terror. Hunt-Hendrix and Bernard Gann divide the melody between their guitars and a string section, a combination that foretells a glorious crescendo and a horrible calamity. Neither arrives. Instead, Liturgy collapse, as if falling prostrate before God in an overdue moment of acceptance and release.
Musical twists and spasms aside, Origin is the most approachable Liturgy album yet. It is, as billed, an origin story, an allegorical narrative for the mechanisms of our universe. The specifics get arcane, so start with this simplification: Light and dark want to coexist. In its pure form, light overpowers and destroys the dark. When light transforms into “ideas” and dark into “matter,” they not only interact but reproduce, birthing music, drama, and philosophy. In broader terms, it’s a high-stakes drama about wanting something you can’t have until you figure out how to evolve.
In May, Hunt-Hendrix announced she was transgender, a fact she had spent a lifetime fighting. “I am a woman. I’ve always been one,” Hunt-Hendrix wrote. “Through a long-developing process, I’ve finally broken free from some kind of compromise.” In the months since, Hunt-Hendrix has started hormone therapy and “watch[-ed] my body evolve into what it is supposed to be.” She has less shame and more empathy, she said in a recent statement, and years of suicidal thoughts have abated. A year ago, while explaining the indulgent H.A.Q.Q., Hunt-Hendrix seemed burdened by the need to make people understand; this year, explaining Origin as an opera, she was occasionally playful, intent for you to know her philosophical framework isn’t intended for everyone.
Origin of the Alimonies radiates this sense of liberation, the feeling that Hunt-Hendrix has found the other side. These songs affirm the rebirth pondered in Anohni’s “Another World,” a hymn that acknowledges personal frailty and collective folly while longing for some place more nurturing. Hunt-Hendrix doesn’t stop with a wish: She imagines the process that might produce another world and the promise it holds should we make it together. So long as we’re willing to understand what we can become, Hunt-Hendrix suggests, that other world might not be so far out of reach.
Buy: Rough Trade
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