Liturgy – H​.​A​.​Q​.​Q.

For a six-year run leading up to and through The Ark Work (2015), Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s output as Liturgy made him public enemy number one in the black metal community. Some of this wasn’t entirely his fault, namely the unexpected “indie seal of approval” bestowed on Aesthethica (2011). The album’s response was essentially a lighter version of the Sunbather (2013) debacle that enraged the “tried and trve” crowd. It certainly didn’t help that Hunt-Hendrix published a manifesto titled Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism, because nothing impresses metal fans more than a hyper-pretentious, pseudo-intellectual analysis of their favorite genre, right?

Lost in all of this was an earnest discussion about the actual music Hunt-Hendrix was producing. Sure, there’s certainly been an abundance of words spilled over his back catalog. But Liturgy’s defenders always seemed to give equal or more focus to the controversy surrounding the band, all while insinuating that metal purists just didn’t “get” Hunt-Hendrix’s music. Meanwhile, detractors never appeared to have actually given Liturgy’s music more than a cursory listen, or at least enough of a listen to support their own preconceived biases.

I won’t claim to be the neutral arbiter in all of this, but I aimed to be as objective as possible with my review of The Ark Work. What I found was unrestrained and unfocused ambition, which manifested in a messy bricolage of ideas. Similar issues affected Aesthethica and its predecessor Renihilation (2009), which offered unique and mostly enjoyable takes on American black metal. But The Ark Work truly brought Hunt-Hendrick’s approach to new lows. The mash-up of the band’s signature frenetic, noisy black metal with cheap, synthetic orchestral arrangements and awkward trip-hop elements (including horrific “occult rapping”) was a complete miss for me.

With all this in mind, you can imagine my utter shock when I found myself finishing H​.​A​.​Q​.​Q. with an exponentially more positive conclusion. Hunt-Hendrix’s surprise return after a four-year hiatus is easily the strongest musical statement of his career, made more impressive by the absence of celebrated longtime drummer Greg Fox (Ex Eye, Uniform, Zs). While not a perfect album, H.A.Q.Q. takes bold strides towards effectively communicating Hunt-Hendrix’s vision. Perhaps more importantly, it’s leaps and bounds better than The Ark Work and should help to hopefully quell any non-musical discussion about Liturgy.

Put simply, the disparate elements of Hunt-Hendrix’s formula finally “click.” The band’s usual marriage of noisy experimental rock and post-black metal is better produced and more tightly performed than ever before. Opener “HAJJ” rockets into existence with a nonstop assault, featuring the band’s signature “burst beat” (which kind of sounds like a black metal gravity blast) and an onslaught of tremolos and arpeggios. Dispersed throughout are well-placed moments of melody and heaviness, including a quasi-orchestral swell and some bass-heavy guitar and kick drum syncopations.

The way “HAJJ” unravels proves not only that Hunt-Hendrix is focused on elevated songwriting, but that he’s regained his affinity for black metal as the forefront of his sound. Aided by some subtle harp and choral elements, “VIRGINITY” is a lighter take on the Krallice formula, with the modern black metal assault heavily accented with melancholic guitar melodies. However, the real belle of the ball is “GOD OF LOVE,” the surprise lead single that originally spurned my interest in H.A.Q.Q. It’s an eight-minute behemoth which sees Liturgy at their most energetic, ferocious, and complete. Flurries of burst beats, guitars, and bells surround mid-tempo passages which calls from the minimalist leanings of composers like Steve Reich.

The album also contains a handful of successful interludes. “EXACO I” is a glitchy piano sequence that sounds like Reich composing in the digital age. Later on, “EXACO II” presents the moans from a possessed church bell tower, while “EXACO III” delivers an expanded version of the trilogy’s opening salvo. Finally, “….” offers a fittingly melancholic send-off, akin to the noisy ambiance of a Planning for Burial drone.

Yet, as I mentioned above, H.A.Q.Q. isn’t flawless, despite all the progress Liturgy have made with their sound. Once again, it boils down to an excess of ambition. There are several moments throughout the album where there’s simply too much going on, which can be an issue given how chaotic the band’s take on black metal is. Sometimes the cacophony works, but on numerous occasions, certain elements serve only to detract from the rest of the composition. For instance, Hunt-Hendrix saw fit to include breathy flute and off-tune moaning on portions of “HAJJ,” which are poorly performed and clash with what the rest of the band is trying to accomplish. Similarly on “PASAQALIA,” the impact of a well-arranged string section is slightly undone by some incessant bells that are grating from the onset and only grow more tiresome the longer they appear.

This issue also partially affects one of the album’s strengths. Throughout the track list, Hunt-Hendrix splices the recording with glitches and intense bursts of feedback that makes the tracks feel more massive. “GOD OF LOVE” in particular benefits from a a paused, skipping effects at the back end of the track that subsequently explodes into a triumphant swell of black metal intensity. However, this device is used repeatedly on the album, including multiple times within most every track. While it never fully loses its impact to the point of overshadowing the actual music, it does lose its luster when experiencing the album in full and on subsequent listens. It’s very much a “too much of a good thing” scenario.

Fortunately, H.A.Q.Q. is defined more by its successes than its shortcomings, and it’s refreshing to see discussion of the album revolving around Liturgy’s music instead of their reputation. While Hunt-Hendrix’s weaknesses as a songwriter continue to plague the album’s compositions, he demonstrates considerable growth on what is easily the greatest accomplishment of Liturgy’s turbulent career. If you can put aside your pre-conceived (and likely justified) biases against the band, you’ll find a refreshing, dynamic black metal project that fearlessly experiments with its already ambitious foundation.

H.A.Q.Q. is available now via Bandcamp.

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