Two months ago I thought I could actually finish reviewing every album I wanted to before it came time for the year-end lists. Then I got hooked on Diotima by Krallice again, bought Skyrim, and had finals. (Yes, I will be a student until I’m pushing 40 at this rate.) So much for writing the rest of the reviews I’d intended to. But there remains one band that’s just too loud to pass up, and I am not necessarily referring to their music.
In certain ways, Aesthethica is the triumphal conclusion to a seed I first noticed begin to sprout on Ulver’s Nattens madrigal, recorded back in 1996. Hymn VI: Of Wolf and Passion accomplished something completely unprecedented in the history of black metal up to that time. The song began with a frightfully fleeting glimpse at something beautiful; it wasn’t an “introduction” to the song, prefixed for the purpose of defilement. No, it was an ecstatic jubilation shouting out from the depths, proclaiming a profound sublimity hidden beneath this shroud of loathsome chaos. Almost a decade later, in 2005, Neige found himself transfixed upon a fleeting vision of a word of pure light and recorded Le Secret. This is, roughly, a description he himself has used in attempting to articulate his muse. Feeling that the original recording failed to capture this, he recently released a new version of the EP. It, like Souvenirs d’un autre monde and more so Écailles de Lune, has a tendency to overemphasize the aural light, with angelic vocals and an uplifting shoegaze fuzz drowning out the cold death of traditional black metal. He has turned to what you might regard as stereotypical representations of purity in order to recreate his vision.
But this sense of something whole and eternal falls on deaf ears. To me it is merely pretty, never spiritual, because it fails to capture what made the original Le Secret so profound. There, the black metal never made amends. It was an ever present, undeniable force, fulfilling its original purpose and not merely conforming to a new creative whim. The beauty rested within it, perpetually fleeting, not beyond it and eternal. Neige was never aware of his own masterpiece. Perhaps that sort of innocence is what made it possible in the first place. I applaud him for seeing through his own vision to completion and not settling for mine, but the future of Alcest is of no further relevance to the musical progression I have been anticipating these past few years.
For that I turn to Liturgy. On Aesthethica we hear one of the first conscious recognitions of that seed I detected in Ulver, which has been slowly blossoming in the darkness ever since.
In case the video to Returner did not suffice, Liturgy’s frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, made a complete fool of himself in an interview last year while attempting to explain the philosophy behind his music. I will make no apologies here; he deserves every ounce of ridicule he’s received from it. At one point he suggested that fans read his ‘manifesto’, which is free to download, and I did. It is crammed to the hilt with pomp and self-righteousness, amidst which the following constitutes, I believe, his main idea: He describes metal as a pursuit of maximum intensity. The closer music evolves towards that end, the more apparent it becomes that “totality is indistinguishable from nothingness” (Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I, 57). Black metal long embraced nihilism as the ultimate end, but nihilism is a hollow reward. The true apex of humanity lies in the penultimate, one step from the void, reveling in the finite.
What I find interesting here is not what he’s saying (well, I do find it interesting, but I’ll keep those thoughts to myself), but rather the fact that paradigms are beginning to emerge which attempt to define the sensation I expressed in terms of my experiences with Ulver and Alcest. I call Aesthethica a triumphal conclusion because it is the first thoroughly self-conscious result of a musical trend I’ve been following for quite some time now–triumphal because, well, it’s pretty damn good. It marks the end of an evolutionary process, from which a new cycle will begin. Transcendental black metal is going to happen whether we like it or not, and in the process we will witness a very peculiar clash of values. I mean, just look at these guys:
Aesthethica isn’t always this good. Some tracks bore me to tears. It’s in their intense moments that Liturgy really shine, and while these comprise the bulk of the album, the band seems to have little else to offer. Generation is a rhythmic plod which dreams of being post-metal but feels more like my cd is skipping. Glass Earth is a vocal chant that inspires only laughter; it sounds like something off a really bad indie rock album, and this amidst a genre as intimately connected to folk as metal. The intentional 60 seconds of silence at the end of Sun of Light is annoying, though forgivable in the wake of the album’s best track; but the three minute doodle filler track that follows seems to serve no purpose whatsoever.
Its finest moments though, such as High Gold, are amazing. I can’t say that the album is great, because it’s so inconsistent, but I will acknowledge that it contains some of the best songs written this year, and moreover, it is unique in what it attempts to accomplish. Perhaps a lot more could be said on its behalf had Hunter Hunt-Hendrix declined all interviews and published no ‘manifesto’, but I’m kind of glad he did what he did. It confirmed a message which I’ve been preaching for years now; not, that is, his precise philosophy, but at least a feeling. There has been something entirely positive and uplifting lurking out there in the black metal scene for a very long time. Liturgy are the first band I know of to not merely incorporate it but embrace it as the fundamental focus of their entire sound. Other bands have occasioned to evoke it in passing more effectively (Krallice for instance), or have consistently approximated it without ever fully cashing in (post-Le Secret Alcest and associated acts), but Liturgy provide me with something solid to point at and say unequivocally that is what I was talking about.