Origin of the Alimonies by Liturgy

Release date: November 20, 2020

If you think Deafheaven are a divisive act in the metal / black metal world, then just you wait. Try typing the name Liturgy on a message-board or such like and bear witness to the smoke suddenly starting to billow out from beneath your laptop. Utter the phrase ‘transcendental black metal’ and you ought to start to plan and collect supplies for your forced exile from the bosom of your heavy-music-loving friendship group. Liturgy and their frontwoman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix are, to say the least, polarising figures in extreme metal.

For those who are unaware of Liturgy or Hunter’s term ‘transcendental black metal’, let me explain. Liturgy are shunned by the majority of the extreme music scene because, quite honestly, they themselves seem largely uncomfortable with the status quo the metal, or perhaps more accurately, the “underground” insists on maintaining. It is only natural that an artist ill at ease with their contemporaries and actual potential fans are likely to be shunned. More to the crux of much of the distaste posited toward them is the fact that the quartet are seen as pretentious; a metal act wishing to incorporate and tackle heady philosophical treatise in a meaningful way (i.e. not appropriating it, but meeting it on the same intellectual level and willing to interrogate it) and eschewing genre ideals not only for experimentation sake but because they believe those structures to be outdated and stagnant, will always command ire from those that reject such inherent criticism to that which they profess to love.

With their fifth LP, Origin of the Alimonies, Liturgy will have done nothing to alter perceptions of their artistry. Indeed, it is their most overly lofty challenge to themselves and listeners yet. This new album is, quite literally, Hunter’s attempt to write an opera (or seria). An opera featuring the formal structure libretto as foundational text and featuring the structure of aria and more on the one hand, while incorporating all the increased experimentation that defined the 2015 fantasia The Ark Work and last year’s supreme H.A.Q.Q.. In other words, as well as the new elements of classical instrumentation that most closely correlate their sound to 19th Century Romanticism, Hunter and company also reunite the sounds of black metal (with their own signature ‘burstbeat’), trap music, gabber, electronica, noise, glitch, hip-hop production effects and much, much more.

This is also an opera whose subject is presenting an alternate creation myth of Hunter’s own design, no less. Liturgy, in other words, are not fucking around.

This is music that owes as much to extreme metal as it does to rap and pop – the idea that in the 21st Century presenting a piece of music as simply an album and statement in and of itself is no longer viable and that it must be accompanied by art, by video, by extended text, by lecture, by other media or artistic endeavour. Origin of the Alimonies is therefore, breathtakingly ambitious, as only Liturgy can be. It is a fully realised whole and it is fair to say that the album is probably the ‘truest’ representation of what Liturgy is – at least right now. That proves, as I will expand upon later, to be somewhat of an issue, as it does feel the band, and particular Hunter, are in a transitory moment, not quite ‘fixed’ or still currently, meaning sometimes the album feels blurred or somehow ill-defined, despite its clear focus.

Forgive the long introduction, but it seems only right to further meditate on the concept of the piece, before we enter into a more formal and typical album review…

Origin of the Alimonies tells the story of creation. In the beginning there was nothing except a lonesome surplus of light. Unable to bear the loneliness she wished to divest herself of her rays. In so doing the light became OIOION and the darkness into which she burst was SHIEYMN. Moments following this SHIEYMN was gravely wounded as OIOION’s light undid his darkness and he became shattered, fragmented. Appalled at her own power, OIOION retreated, horrified by the disaster she had wrought so early in time. Both, due to their mutual, natural love for one another, sought resolution, and created two barriers between one another. OIOION created the first ideas, weaving them into a protective cushion and she named their being ANANON, while SHIEYMN constructed matter itself, a barrier he named that YLYLCYN. OIOION began beaming her light back to SHIEYMN to demonstrate her love, but this time her light was parsed through ANANON, the layer of ideas. SHIEYMN continued to configure the very matter of YLYLCYN more and more to receive the light of ideas effectively. In so doing the four alimonies, four irreducible layers of being and of creation, began their eternal dance: OIOION, ANANON, YLYLCYN and SHIEYMN. As such, music, philosophy and drama were born, and world history could unfold through the triad of their impression.

Comparing the latter to the Western, Christian religious doctrine of God the father, Christ the Son and the Holy Ghost, we see music, philosophy and drama respectively. Why is this important? Because Hunter also posits that the idea of enactment (in other words, creating music) for Liturgy is governed by the term perichoresis. This is a term almost uniformly used when discussing deep Abrahamic – particularly Christian orthodox – theology. The idea here is fusing these three interlinked but often separate figureheads back; to re-substantiate them into a whole (music, philosophy and drama becoming one liturgical art-form).

The ultimate goal is love and understanding, as is the vast majority of every creation and religious triad, of every mythos explaining the beginnings of everything. A creation myth can also show the path to escape for a system of being constrained by its own structure and rules, and surely the perfect metaphor for Liturgy’s own raison d’être. The fiery central question resulting from this is surely what gives Liturgy ultimate legitimacy but also angers or proves problematic for so many; the “underground” metal scene is no longer subversive or questioning enough, no longer willing to rattle the cage, not happy to break down boundaries, and – perhaps most challenging – not prepared to lead from the front in the musical cannon (not brave enough to become the leading artistry in what has now become capitalist “industry”).

This all leads me, as reviewer, to two points before we dig down into the music itself. Firstly, I am reminded of an example Marx uses in his early work, which I think I’ve read Hunter mention before in a previous interview. Marx uses an image of a conductor constantly, consistently struggling to complete a work, his ultimate composition. This conductor and his tireless focus, for Marx, proves to be the ultimate metaphor for what freedom looks like is a post-capitalist society (which is, after all, a utopia, or – for want of a better word – ‘heaven’, or what Hunter this this creation myth will call HAELEGEN). Freedom to create something unique and with the potential to inspire others to do likewise or to use such freedom of thought in aspects of their own (free) lives. It does not eschew societal norms, nor does it reject the foundation of the arts, but it thoroughly subjugates the constraints away from the composition of something new. Liturgy, if nothing else, follow this doctrine.

Secondly, Hunter seems to use the above in a way to undo the Platonic notion many of us have for what ‘Opera’ represents. It is true that the foundational elements are there: classical instrumentation, the concept of an aria, and so on. However, Liturgy posit a Wagnerian approach to the medium. I can only imagine, given how well read the band clearly are, that they are very aware and purposeful in this regard. Wagner viewed opera as more concept than media constraint. Opera, in that 19th Century Germanic vision of the form, meant “a synthesis of the arts” and attempting to supplant religion with this new thought process and ‘culture’, no less. Music, in new forms and with other inventive artistic addendums, would point civilisation to a greater understanding of themselves and toward which future would be possible and indeed desirable. In this way music interacted with the arts, with philosophy and was an active social tool. Music was, potentially, the sculptor of new societal conceptual doctrine. Opera, in that sense, could be the ultimate transgressor and inquisitor. It seems entirely apt that Liturgy would employ opera at some point, and with Origin of the Alimonies wishing to exalt a new creation myth and exhibit a new stage in Liturgy’s creativeness and musical journey, the time was clearly right. Liturgy create, as Wagner would put it, gesamtkunstwerk.

Time – this year, 2020 – and the idea of transformation is also central to where Liturgy are as a band right now. Despite being a quartet, the focus of the band has always been Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. Coming out as a trans woman earlier in the year, the sense of transformation for Liturgy becomes all the deeper and emotionally tied. The sense of emotional journey and discovery is tightly woven into the very fabric of this fifth album.

Origin of the Alimonies is the fifth album from Brooklyn, New York quartet Liturgy. Previously on 20 Buck Spin and then Thrill Jockey, the band are now self-releasing their own records, and while this does, surely, limit their reach (despite prior notoriety) it does seem entirely fitting with their aesthetic, or rather their requirement or surely need, to present their art as perfectly and fully-realised as they can possibly do.

The album is notably the shortest in their discography to date; seven tracks and a run-time of well under forty minutes. It does well to be concise, despite the opera definition, as the band pack in so many ideas, often conflicting in terms of traditional view, that to have been a double LP would have quite honestly been too much for even the staunchest lover of experimental and abstract heavy music to digest. Even at thirty-seven minutes, Origin of the Alimonies, is a lot to ruminate on.

The album opens with ‘The Separation from HAQQ to HAEL’, which, for any listener unaware that Liturgy were planning to use classical instrumentation, will surely have made them question whether they were listening to the correct album. It’s gorgeous and, in case you were questioning how far Liturgy have taken the classical element, this is not just a bit of violin here or some trumpet there. The opening track takes in violin, viola, ‘cello, double bass, piano, organ, trumpet, flute, saxophone and even harp. Immediately one is struck by the ambitious nature of the piece and the deft juxtaposition and interpolation of the extreme heaviness of Liturgy’s back catalogue interacting with classical scoring; two seas parted crashing together once more. Despite the power and the violence of such a union, the result is surprisingly consistent and pleasing to the (well-aware and prepared) ear.

Following this blustering, blooming introduction, we transition into the short ‘OIOION’s Birth’, a sub two-minute atypical intermezzo that slowly begins to incorporate the signature glitch that has becoming increasingly prevalent since The Ark Work, while the classical instrumentation signals the strain of birth and the beginnings of the epic nature the creation myth that we are about to bear witness to.

‘Lonely OIOION’ is what many will consider the first true ‘song’ on Origin of the Alimonies, although, if this is your way of thinking, I can already guess how much you will enjoy the album as a whole… It is immediately far more densely packed than anything that has come before, connecting far more to last year’s H.A.Q.Q., albeit with greater moments of classical instrumentation surfacing, than there was on the 2019 opus. It’s positively cinematic in its scope, especially its denouement, where the woodwind gives way to the strings that ultimately back up the throttling guitars in an awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping way. The skittering glitching, the verbose production and the transcendental guitars create a sense of euphoria, while the harp becomes the perfect instrument to mimic light beaming, jittering out into the void.

‘The Fall of SHIEYMN’ is perhaps the most challenging piece of the whole opera; incorporating genres Hunter, Bernard, Tia and Leo have touched upon before, but not in so much of a deep dive. Here we jumble between passive and harsh noise, a peculiar rock template and then the wild abandon yet musical exactingness of jazz. It is a mind-bending journey taken in a little under five minutes, and, if nothing else proves the extraordinary musical ability of the members of Liturgy. ‘The Fall of SHIEYMN’ serves as precursor to ‘SHIEYMN’s Lament’, another piece of music that defies classification. On this track the band continue their wanton destruction of expectation while also pulling from the learnings and loves of their back catalogue, with the most overt use of MIDI on a piece of music pertaining to the Liturgy name in a long time. The rhythmic switch-ups on ‘SHIEYMN’s Lament’ are also staggering and make me wonder how on earth the band play this live. It would (and I hope will) be something to behold.

‘Apparition of the Eternal Church’ is a huge part of Origin of the Alimonies, contributing to over a third of the opera’s total length. Composed by Olivier Messiaen (b. 1908, d. 1992), a French composer and viewed by many as of the most significant of the 20th Century, the fourteen minute track is still unmistakably Liturgy, with Hunter having altered, expanded and arranged it for her and Liturgy’s purposes. The drums in particular, with the signature burstbeat, as well as the excellent vibrant recording of them, transmogrify the epic spine of the opera into something far more challenging and unmistakable extreme in the heavier music world Liturgy do still continue to operate (or at least ecstatically burst forth from).

If there is a criticism I would give to this track and to parts of the rest of the composition, it would be that the guitars – of all things – are the element that could have done with more work. They become a minor character in the arrangements, even when front and centre, and although this may very well be intentional, some of the tremolo fury and off-kilter riffs bear perhaps a too uncanny resemblance to some heard before on previous albums. If Hunter and company are going to push everything else forward relentlessly, surely the guitars should follow in the wake? The guitars do sound incredible throughout, however, and having them bludgeon through to add a crunching layer of bite on the compositions at hand is always welcome throughout Origin of the Alimonies running time. The bass also sounds thundering on the album, consistently proving to be a star, both at underpinning the extremely complex music whirling above, while also being creative in its own right.

The opera closes with ‘The Armistice’, a curious track, but potentially my favourite. The song almost offers a new conceptual approach to what Liturgy have so far been doing; sounding like a collapsing ruin whereby an orchestra and post-rock band and a screamo band are jamming together at the end of the world as the building begins to fall down around them. It points to ever more possibilities for the band. The harp player on the record is Marilu Donovan, one half of the deeply intriguing LEYA duo, whom Liturgy collaborated with on the most excellent track ‘Antigone’. I hope the sound exhibited on that and the closing chapter of Origin of the Alimonies is something Hunter lingers on a little more, before doubtlessly taking the quartet on another vastly different, much debated existential journey.

Liturgy’s opera is both gorgeous and transcendent, as well as being heavy, atonal and crushing. Much the same result as their previous efforts but having come from a very different approach.

Origin of the Alimonies concept perhaps weighs to heavily upon it at times. Hunter doesn’t seem like quite the finished article as a composer of something as ambitious as an opera, even if we decide to reject the majority of assumptions of form and structure. As someone challenging metal, extreme metal or what the base form of rock can or even should do, she is a figure to be venerated, but there is something to be said (as she herself has acknowledged) for having the formal knowledge and, more to the point, experience of the art form. To challenge and essentially undermine it is fine, but some needs to intimately known the internal mechanisms of that artform to be wholly successful.  In this regard, Liturgy perhaps fall a little short. And, as aforementioned, the focus on the classical and operatic elements of the piece seem to have distracted the genius, challenging guitar work exhibited on earlier works like Reannihilation and Aesthethica, as well as more recent material. That pushing of the envelope seems to have stopped short, while all other elements fired on all thrusters.  It creates a distracting dichotomy throughout.

The recording of the album is superb, with Seth Manchester once again proving he’s one of the finest in the game right now. The envious ability to not only record experimental, abstract metal and extreme music very well, but now the fact that the recording of classical instrumentation seems to be very much within his wheel-house is testament of his incredible ability. Further elements pertaining to the album fall short in my opinion. The album artwork as well as the videos (both for ‘songs’ and Hunter’s ‘lectures’) don’t have the same grand ambitious appeal as they should. Or rather, their ‘professional realisation’ seems rather under par, compared to the music on offer. One can perhaps forgive this, though, given we are in the midst of a pandemic and the ability to both communicate, collaborate and invest in such extraneous other artistic approaches have been severely limited.

What is pretentious? And how and why do we view things as such in 2020?  From my brief outline of Origin of the Alimonies subject as well as its goals, it will undoubtedly be classified as ‘pretentious’ by many in and outside of the metal world. But what is wrong with being ambitious?  What is wrong with creating and incorporating lore and mythology in your music, or having a very real belief system structuring your musical and lyrical approach? If indeed it is to be labelled pretentious, then pretentiousness is no longer necessarily a bad word in my lexicon. Art in earlier centuries made lofty statements, had particular life or indeed society-changing purpose at its core, or was inspired by some of the greatest concepts or questions we as individuals and/or collectives can possibly ask.

Commercial rock and metal are, pretty much, dead. Time is a circle – I have no doubt at some point those genres will reassert themselves or evolve into something new to be popularised and treasured. For now, they are at the periphery, so – with no desire for financial success (and certainly no guarantee or real possibility of attaining it), why shouldn’t rock and metal attempt high art? In that and so much more, I applaud Liturgy. There are other artists doing this too, not necessarily in the same way, and perhaps Liturgy and Hunter are particularly singled-out because they are far more overt in their mission.

Extreme metal has a lot in common with classical music (and opera), I believe. They are meticulously composed and are both the most visceral in the reality of playing the music live. Liturgy have created an opera that, while imperfect and potentially will be seen as a transformative, transitory moment in their discography with hindsight, is a bold statement of intent and something to sit down to and solely focus upon. In that regard and so many more, they and certainly Origin of the Alimonies will be appreciated by fans of LINGUA IGNOTA, Kayo Dot, The Body and Uboa.

As Kant said, amidst ontological trials and inconsistency; “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.” So, too, is Liturgy. Boundless.

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