Looking back on the influence of Liturgy's 'Aesthethica,' ten years later

15 May 2021 | 7:51 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

Everyone can agree that 'Aesthethica,' Liturgy’s second and most (in)famous album, is anything but mediocre.

Art school black metal, complex and powerful; Brooklyn hipster bullshit, breathtakingly original; Pitchfork bait, unbelievable musicianship. All of these things are true of 'Aesthethica,' Liturgy’s second and most (in)famous album, a 70-minute epic of avant-garde black metal. The only thing that everyone can agree on about this 2011 record is that it is anything but mediocre.

If you want purple prose about frontwoman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s “piercing shrieks” and Greg Fox’s phenomenal drumming, check out contemporaneous reviews on 'Aesthethica' from Pitchfork, The Quietus and Anthony Fantano instead. That’s not to say I don’t think this LP deserves the praise heaped upon it a decade ago - it does. In fact, I think I love it! But, as someone interested in the cultural politics of black metal, I’m not going to use this opportunity to tread over old ground. Instead, this is about the sizeable influence that Liturgy's second album has had upon black metal since its May 2011 release. I might prefer other records similarly maligned at the time (Altar of Plagues’ 'Teethed Glory and Injury' is in my top 5), and other black metal albums have had a larger impact ('Sunbather', duh), but Liturgy was arguably the first band that emerged during the internet’s turn towards explicit politics, the rise of anti-SJW culture warriors, and black metal’s movement away from traditional pre-modern European paganism and closer to the modernist United States. These things weren’t solely responsible for the intense reaction to Liturgy and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix then, but they certainly contributed. I don’t have the time or will to include much about those first two, but the latter one is my bread and butter.

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That comes later though. First, I have to talk about Liturgy’s musical influence. Considering just how endlessly talked about 'Aesthethica' was at release, its musical influence has been quite limited. Obviously, much of that has to do with the idiosyncrasies to Hunt-Hendrix’s musico-religio-philosophical project. Compare Liturgy’s transcendental black metal to post-black-metal and blackgaze, the two biggest genre trends in the early 2010s due to the success of Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, and Alcest. It’s much simpler, conceptually, to imagine combining black metal with post-rock or shoegaze – all emphasizing atmosphere – than it is to strategize an insurgent philosophy of black metal that aims to subvert the foundations of the genre itself. How would a potential copycat even begin such a project? I think it’s more in keeping with the spirit of Liturgy to compare them not necessarily to other black metal bands, but to metal bands that combine/subvert genres in inventive and purposeful ways.

[caption id="attachment_1109799" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, 2020.[/caption]

In the description of a YouTube video by Hunt-Hendrix on the nature of Liturgy’s description as a “metal” band, she writes that she “believe[s] that the highest respect you can show someone is to make contact with the essence of their art in a way that fractures their own beliefs about what is most important about it. I don't think metal is about having and upholding the status of heroes from previous generations.” Playing black metal shouldn’t be about endlessly paying homage to FenrizIhsahn or Euronymous, Hunt-Hendrix argues. Rather, it should be about appropriating what you like from these bands and combining it with other things in ways that are truly unique, that actually risk making a statement. As she says, “using metal as a material rather than a form”.

One such example is Imperial Triumphant. A group who combine the chaos and dissonance of avant-garde death metal like Portal and Mitochondrion with the splendour and decadence of early 20th-century jazz and art deco aesthetics, jarringly transitioning from one to the other, evoking the grandeur and underbelly of 1920’s New York City, as well as the catastrophic financial crash of the following decade. By doing so, funnily enough, their 2018 album 'Vile Luxury' is actually a more suitable adaptation of The Great Gatsby than Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film ever was.

Kristen Hayter (AKA Lingua Ignota) takes a similar position to Hunt-Hendrix, arguing that a diverse range of influences and essences should be robbed from the graves of any genres available. In an interview with Fantano, she describes her interest “in creating […] a specific sound world that took all of the things that I thought were powerful about different genres and taking a postmodern approach and appropriating all these different things that were part of black metal, part of powerviolence and power electronics, and […] Bulgarian folk music and classical music…”. Like how TS Eliot’s The Waste Land uses snippets of everything from Shakespeare and Sanskrit chants to an overheard conversation in a pub, Lingua Ignota pulls from a diverse series of musical styles and histories to craft a theatrical “sound world” where anything is possible. Lingua Ignota’s soaring and operatic music is all the better for its kaleidoscopic mix of influences and inspirations.

While Liturgy hasn’t been especially influential aesthetically, they’ve been incredibly influential discursively. Meaning there hasn’t been a significant upspring of bands following Liturgy’s specific style or concept, but their influence on black metal is evident in how we all now talk and think about the genre. Specifically, how black metal has been bifurcated into “real black metal” and its diabolical evil twin: “hipster black metal”. Oh, won't someone please think of the trve cvnts!?

In a book review of Jenny Hval’s Girls Against God that I published for Overland at the start of 2021, I compared 'Aesthethica' to Gamergate, though not just to be needlessly provocative by digging up ancient internet history. As what Gamergate did on a broader cultural level, as Angela Nagle writes in Kill All Normies, was become ‘the galvanizing issue that drew up the battle lines of the culture wars for a younger online generation’. Progressives, the media class and certain minority groups (especially women) were pitted against ‘apolitical gamers, South Park conservatives, 4channers, hardline anti-feminists and others. 'Aesthethica' similarly split the black metal fanbase into two semi-imagined camps: “real” black metal fans who like Darkthrone, corpse-paint, empty forests, conservatism, and the performative transgressions of the ’90s. Whereas “hipster” black metal fans like Alcest, urbanism, progressivism, and liberal inclusion. (These categories are fuzzier than what I’ve laid out here, but they're all semi-imagined).

While the latter quite like the music of the former – George Clark from Deafheaven has said that he likes Satyricon and Emperor – the feeling was not at all mutual. Many black metal fans, including myself at the time, I'm sorry to admit, saw Liturgy as an unwelcome intruder into their chosen fandom, and the term “hipster black metal” was invented to make sure they were never quite seen as legitimate. (Thank god I grew out of that juvenile mindset.) A student writer for Pop Music Cult, a blog made to supplement a university class on popular music, writes a good summary of the “hipster black metal” landscape and discourse, including some notes on Liturgy, but stumbles at the final stretch:

"Instead of perpetuating division, black metal fans should be wearily accepting of ‘blackgaze’ bands entering the relative mainstream. It’s not about the genre these bands operate in, it’s about what they offer to the musical repertoire of those who listen to them. Bands such as Deafheaven offer an easily digestible glimpse of black metal that may entice fans to delve deeper into the genre; one that is thoroughly rewarding when explored in full depth."

This passage misses the fact that division is the whole point. Dividing black metal into “real” and “hipster” renders the former style more exclusive, more unwelcoming, and more attractive to people whose subcultural capital comes from the transgressive, exclusive, and aristocratic nature of their listening habits. So much of black metal’s value to “real” fans come from its extremeness, its exclusivity. Listeners imagine that by embracing the most abrasive music they can find, they are pitting themselves against the world. Academic Paolo Ferrero says as much in a book chapter about black metal’s schism, writing that:

"[Black metal] fans and practitioners have always proudly been conscious of the unpopularity of the genre and have therefore revelled in the idea of being a part of a ‘secret society’ of like-minded individuals exclusively conscious of the inner workings of the genre."

If Alcest’s clean singing and twinkling guitars open doors for new fans that Peste Noire and Satanic Warmaster keep closed, the only way to secure the fortress of black metal’s exclusivity is to build up new walls: what is true black metal and what isn’t, based on the kinds of people that listen to it. My metaphor of “real” black metal as a fortress under siege might be doing a lot of heavy-lifting, but in her manifesto Transcendental Black Metal, Hunt-Hendrix uses the term “Fortification” to describe the imposition of genre limits and the constrained exploration that is allowed to occur within those limits. It’s not controversial to say this is how basically all-genre categories work: over time, a canon is created by genre purists who demand allegiance to that canon if a work is to be considered legitimately part of the genre. Literature might actually be a better comparison since literary studies have been evaluating its relationship to the “literary canon” for some time. This article in The Boar asks readers:

[W]ho really should judge whether Shakespeare’s Hamlet is better than Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Or whether Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe should be studied over Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?”

Excuse my brag, but I’ve read all those books, and had a much better time reading Garcia Marquez and Achebe than I did reading Shakespeare and Austen. Anyway, the former two have had a much more difficult time being included in the literary canon than the latter two; in part due to the historical legacy of the books, the class composition of the books’ characters, and the ethnic background of their authors. The problem with requiring a genre to stick to its canonical principles is obvious; over time, that genre begins to stagnate, and genres either adapt or die.

Ironically, in Hunt-Hendrix’s notorious manifesto outlining the techniques and philosophy of transcendental black metal, she diagnoses a certain stagnation in black metal due to the genre’s allegiance to traditional black metal techniques. She writes that extreme metal is always seeking an ideal peak of intensity, which traditional black metal maintains by relentless tremolo-picked riffs and unending, consistent blast beats, using 'Transylvanian Hunger' as the exemplar.

Yet she notes that there cannot be such a thing as a sustained peak, for a sustained peak is the same thing as a plateau. What the “burst beat” does, detailed in the manifesto, is introduce much-needed dynamism into the genre, with ebbs and flows of intensity, rather than remaining comfortable on familiar plateaus. Hunt-Hendrix’s aim was to negate black metal’s negation, blaspheme its blasphemy, and transgress the dead-end of black metal’s performatively transgressive orientation. I think much of the backlash from traditional black metal fans are in part a response to Hunt-Hendrix’s diagnosis being correct. To paraphrase this point, it's like someone claiming to be transgressive and anti-traditional, yet they've given themselves the job of Cerberus guarding black metal’s gates, kicking out anyone who doesn’t adhere to the genre’s traditions.

Anti-conformity becomes a new brand of conformity, and couples with an elitist self-satisfaction on the part of many a fan. Rather than embracing metal’s tendency towards “alternativity”, as David Burke writes in his essay “Metal is Radical”, Liturgy’s harshest critics preferred to act like the conservative culture warriors the 90’s bands were performatively striking out against. And have continued to do so since, lumping Liturgy, Deafheaven, Krallice, and Bosse-de-Nage together as some blasphemous genre, despite these bands not really sounding alike.

So that’s been the discourse influence of this truly unique album over the last ten years. While 'Aesthethica' hasn’t changed the way black metal is written, it has undeniably changed how black metal is discussed. 'Aesthethica' was a surprising album, revealing the potential in black metal that wasn’t thought to be there, certainly not by its many vocal critics. Potential for new heights, fresh dynamic intensity, and different approaches to thinking about the style. Even if Liturgy haven’t been successful in their attempt to crack open black metal and re-reveal its radical potential, the polarised response I've spent most of this piece describing suggests the promise the album had upon release and the likely response to other albums that came after.