Being Original

Chris Grigg’s letter to Hunter Hunt-Hendrix offers a satisfying and provocative read. It focuses on the arrogant persona the Liturgy frontman has made for himself, and though packaged as a piece of friendly advice, was clearly born of the same sense of repulsion shared by many metalheads towards the guy’s posturing and self-importance. Chris really hits the nail on the head, and his letter reveals – in a much clearer way than I ever could – why a metal fan like me finds it so hard to approach Liturgy’s music with equanimity, without hating it before you’ve even heard it. As much as I agreed with it, the letter also stirred me to defend some of the more admirable aspects to the band’s approach. Don’t worry: in what follows, I won’t be proclaiming Liturgy as the great new hopes of metal – not even fucking close – but despite all their off-putting antics, there’s something about Liturgy that wins my respect more than 90% of the old-school revivalist bands. Nor is what follows just about Liturgy: there are much more important and exciting bands that take the same approach to creativity, the only approach, as far as I can see, that can guarantee the survival or metal as a force to be reckoned with.

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Whatever your genre, if you want to write an innovative record  (or at least one that sets you apart from the main trends of the day), you’ve got three options, as far as I can see:

(1) Resurrect a style of music that once had some currency, but has been dead for a while. Many bands have made a name for themselves over the last few years as part of the old-school death revival. Like a lot of you, I’ve enjoyed a load of these bands, particularly those who combine their traditionalism with a knack for penning memorable songs (like Cruciamentum). But setting aside those bands that are letting their sounds evolve, I’m growing less and less sympathetic to this stuff. Sometimes I dig out all the records I used to love as a kid, and for about a week I’m totally convinced that every one is an unappreciated masterpiece. Then it wears off. Old school revivals are destined to the same fate. Sure, you can keep recycling the long list of forgotten subgenres, but unless you can come up with some unforgettable tunes, it won’t be long before you’re consigned to obscurity along with the rest of your scene.

(2) Combine your preferred style of music with features of another genre. Psychedelic rock, post rock, shoegaze, and now krautrock have all been pounced upon by prospective metal musicians hoping to deliver something fresh. Sometimes, a band will come along who live and breathe all of the kinds of music they have chosen (or better, just happened) to combine. Then the result is totally natural and convincing (Hateful Abandon and Terzij de Horde spring to mind). But the vast majority of projects are doomed to an artificial sound, or to be branded as rip-offs. Besides, what could be more definitive of ‘hipster’ music than irresponsibly co-opting features from a genre that you haven’t properly engaged with?

(3) Thinking long and hard about what you take to be the advantages and problems in the music you listen to, and writing a record that lives up to the former while trying to fix the latter. Now, any band that does this thoughtfully is guaranteed to win my respect, even if I can’t stand the result. This is the essence of rebellion in music, and what gave metal its voice in the first place. Some records are great because they manage to perfect a pre-existing art form, but nothing beats a conscious revolt. Burzum is a great example, and has proved to be one of the most influential artists in the last two decades of metal. Having grown sick of Death Metal’s constant rhythm-changes and lack of natural progression within songs, Varg crafted a form of metal that placed a higher value on repetition and gradual development. True, he may have been inspired to do so by his love of techno and house music (he claims that as a teenager he used to lurk in the back of clubs, totally sober, just listening to the dance tunes), but Burzum is about as far away from being a house/metal crossover as you can get. It came out of a thoughtful examination of what he liked and disliked in music, regardless of its genre.

As stomach-churning as it is, Hunt-Hendrix’ “manifesto” reveals exactly the same kind of concerns. Once you scrape off all the bullshit and unnecessary deprecation of BM, you’re left with a pretty clear vision: he feels that unvaried bast-beats are too static, he thinks the upper registers of the guitar are wrongly neglected, and likes triumphant-sounding melodies. Fair enough. But I’d have approached his music with a much more generous mind if he’d said so in as many words, and without shitting on the music I love. The other embarassing thing about the manifesto is his hijacking of the word ‘transcendental’. There’s a lot that I enjoy in Liturgy’s music, but the one thing it’s not is transcendental. Completely to the contrary of what Hunt-Hendrix claims, one of the real appeals of genuine black metal is that it really is transcendental. It takes you outside of your mundane surroundings. The more you let your metal sound like spazzy, Three One G hardcore, the less it’s going to do that for me.

There’s a more tactful way of achieving (3), and that’s quietly getting on with it and (sorry for the clichĂ©) letting the music speak for itself. Look at Mayhem’s Ordo ad Chao, or Deathspell Omega’s Fas. They too eschewed repetitious drumming and conventional approaches to the guitar while hanging on to the most potent aspects of Black Metal. These are two of my favourite records from the last decade. Neither came bundled with a pamphlet about how it was the future of metal and ever-so-jolly-fucking-clever. If it had, I’d have struggled – to say the least – to give it a fair shot.

Everyone loves Burzum but hates Liturgy. Why? Varg has embarassed himself on far more occasions by writing equally obnoxious and self-glorifying rubbish. How has he got away with it? Perhaps he managed to give his music a sense of mystery that distances it from the man himself. There is no such mystery, unfortunately, to come to the aid of Hunt-Hendrix, who has made too much of a public figure of himself to let listeners separate the music from the musician. His face pops distractingly into my head when I hear those high screams. When I hear the high screams of ‘Det Som En Gang Var’, it’s cold, dusk-lit fields that come to mind, not the irritating persona of its creator. If Hunt-Hendrix wants his music to be truly transcendental, he needs to find a way to cut the listener off from the real-life figure of the artist, with all its flaws and pretences.

13 Comments

  • Reply June 10, 2011

    That's How Kids Die

    Excellent read. You’re absolutely right, I don’t think about Varg Vikernes and all his tomfoolery when I listen to Burzum, rather I am pulled into the world he seeks to create with his music. When I hear Liturgy, all I can think of is HHH making a complete ass of himself. This because Liturgy’s music (unlike Burzum’s) simply isn’t compelling enough to distract from the idiocy of its creator. To me Liturgy sounds like a band that should still be woodshedding in a garage somewhere, getting it’s shit together and maybe working on a demo, not a band that’s on their second album. Their music/sound is so painfully underdeveloped, uninteresting and anemic that it amazes me they’re signed to a label or that anyone has bothered paying attention to them, in fact I can’t help but think they’d be totally ignored if it weren’t for all the nauseating bravado and false glory-seeking of their frontman. The sooner this band is forgotten, the better.

    Ordo ad Chao is such an underrated album. Thanks for bringing it up!

  • Reply June 10, 2011

    mattack

    I think a big difference between Varg and Hunter is attitude. It’s obvious to me Varg cares about his art, I mean he fucking *killed* for it, right? Hunter comes off as non-caring, pretentious, and bored. I’ll be surprised if he’s still playing “extreme metal” when he’s 30.

  • Reply June 11, 2011

    Johan

    If Hunt-Hendrix wants his music to be truly transcendental, he needs to find a way to cut the listener off from the real-life figure of the artist, with all its flaws and pretences.

    Even though I find the HHH-bashing an insult to the underground itself, I do fully agree with this last statement. He’s taking it steps too far, but the all-out condemnation of this “NOT BEING TR000000″ is childish and saddening. Attack the guy on his concepts, on his music, not on the looks.

    THKD, how do you find the music underdeveloped? You think they’re still searching for a sound?

  • Reply June 11, 2011

    That's How Kids Die

    @ Johan – I hate to come off as self-promoting on someone else’s site, but if you really want to know my thoughts on Liturgy, it’s probably easier if you just check out this link: http://spinaltapdance.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/spinal-tapdance-vs-thats-how-kids-die-the-liturgy-smackdown/

  • Reply June 12, 2011

    Johan

    It’s a good read! But basically it boils down to Liturgy not concurring with your vision on black metal, right? The word “underdeveloped” still doesn’t feel explained to me. The anemic and uninteresting, although not in my opinion, I can fully respect, but I do find they have a fully developed sense of how they want to sound. But because you haven’t heard how they developed into their sound, you find them underdeveloped? Be glad you haven’t heard it I guess.
    If you’d heard how we (Terzij de Horde) sounded 4 years ago, and we’d have released a demo, NO ONE WOULD LISTEN TO US NOW. I’m glad Joost cut his hair and buys blouses made by little children in Asia. Now we have something to fight about.

  • Reply June 12, 2011

    Rob

    Josh: Thanks for the kind words. Glad to come across another appreciator of Ordo Ad Chao! While I don’t like every aspect of Liturgy by a long stretch, I’m glad there’s a band like them around to ruffle my feathers and make me think a bit harder about what I appreciate most in music. Maybe that sounds a bit wankerish, but I’ve given their latest record a lot of time and while I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I’ve learned quite a lot from it. I still can’t sit through more than a few songs at once, but I definitely appreciate what they’re trying to do with the drumming/unusual tempo shifts.

    Matt: We’ll have to wait and see, but I suspect you’re right.

    Johan: I hope you didn’t read my post as more hate against the guy, or about how he dresses. Plenty of the musicians I enjoy, “tr00″ or otherwise, dress in ways that aren’t to my taste, but that doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the music. And in a perfect world I’d be able to listen to and judge Liturgy without any prejudice regarding the way the singer talks about his band. But I can’t. Memories of that fucking manifesto just keep flooding back.

  • Reply June 12, 2011

    Johan

    Rob, this wasn’t directed at you at all! You’re one of the first negative manifestos against HHH which is written with respect and balance of judgement. It’s the more general comments on sites like metalreview which I truly despise. And as I tried to tell Josh, he does have valid points, and I respect those. Lurker seems to collect the people who can look at things from a distance and analyse them before passing judgement. :)

    I tried Ordo Ad Chao again, though it still doesn’t really do it for me, I could trace some inklings of good songwriting. Perhaps, over time, I’ll truly appreciate it.

  • Reply June 17, 2011

    UA

    There are lots of other ways to write original, interesting music. Some guys out there are just completely original no matter what they do. They can’t help it. It helps to not think of other bands when you’re writing.

    RE: HHH, I really don’t know why people get so upset about him. To me it has, from the very beginning, sounded like absolute boredom on the part of critics, etc. Some people attack things just to do so…I don’t like Liturgy’s music at all, but, you know…’nuff said. There are so many other bands out there worth listening to…one just moves on to the next.

  • Reply June 21, 2011

    Angry Metal Guy

    I think, too, that Varg has a really potent weapon in his arsenal: he did it first. I mean, you can’t take anything away from Burzum or Emperor or Mayhem because those guys were really doing it when it was fucking novel. Any black metal dude who’s coming out today and claiming that they’re doing something genuinely novel is basically full of shit.

  • Reply July 7, 2011

    J

    When I read about this topic, the comments, and liturgy (which by the way virtually nobody in the US gives a shit about, or even heard about)I keep visualizing Cronos (circa 83) cracking a bottle Jack Daniels over all of your heads and telling you to get fucked. You guys give this little douche bag way too much attention. As far as I can tell, the only people in the US, or in the NYC area that pay any attention to this liturgy cunt, are pseudo-intellectual hipsters who first about Black Metal about a year ago.

    The best thing I’ve heard from all this horseshit was Imperial from Krieg say: “Oh I like Liturgy because they’re handsome and strong”.

  • Reply July 9, 2011

    Invisible Oranges

    A very even-handed read – kudos.

  • Reply September 20, 2011

    Shawn

    I read this article quite a while ago, but as I sit here listening to the classic Burzum albums, I felt inclined to revisit and comment. I agree that Rob did a great job voicing his opinion about HHH. I couldn’t make it through the new Liturgy album in one sitting, and never went back. All the pretension is enough to keep me away for good, too. But, they did at least make a marked effort to do something different with the genre.

  • Reply November 29, 2011

    DjTypist

    Probably the best article i’ve read about either of these bands in quite some time. The whole thing with music in general these days is pissing on old shit to make new shit that usually struggles to do more then offend people who love the old shit. Varg vs. HHH… Whether you give a shit about Burzum or not, Vargs story is infatuating which really proves in blood his artistry… Part of the reason i started listening to metal again… HHH is basically the Odd Future/Tyler the Creator 2011 version of whats happening in music, the rise of the non-celebrity. The Youtube Generations claim over all things art… Were coming out of the 00′s which is basically the most commercial and contrived media we’ve experienced in North America since the 2nd world war… It lasted 10 years and fell apart now and everything is existing in this mutant copycat internet land where every possible incest of all art forms is happing every second… Passer-bys will stop giving a shit about BM, and Metal heads will continue to argue over Burzum, Liturgy, Cascadia, transcendental or what ever until their hands get laptop cancer.

    Theres going to be a movement against the internet and even recording or documenting certain shows oe music… that my prediction… Thats Black Metal, fuck all this gossip youtube rhetoric….

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