Let's say you're an aspiring cult leader. No matter how pure your intentions, you're up against a serious PR problem: distancing yourself from all the Mansons and Jim Joneses that preceded you. If black metal is your game, you're faced with much the same issue: getting around the fact that members of some of the style's pioneering groups—Varg Vikernes of Mayhem and Burzum, Emperor's Brd G. Eithun and others in the early-'90s Norwegian scene—are convicted arsonists and/or murderers.
Over the past few years, innovative American bands have helped shift the focus away from the sensationalism (not just criminal activity but also the Kiss-sans-camp face-paint--and-spikes image) that has dogged black metal for more than a decade. San Francisco's gritty Ludicra and Chicago's eclectic Nachtmystium wave the flags for their respective communities. Now, two local outfits—Liturgy and Krallice, each of which has just unveiled an epic and enveloping record—are currently making a compelling case for NYC as the new black-metal capital of the world, reclaiming the genre from those who continue to fetishize its unfortunate extramusical associations.
As you can hear on Liturgy's Aesthethica and Krallice's Diotima, both bands proudly favor ornate long-form structures, fueled by tightly orchestrated twin-guitar swarms. Liturgy stirs in an extra element of chaos via what frontman-songwriter Hunter Hunt-Hendrix calls the "burst beat," a free-jazzy abstraction of black metal's signature blast beat; Krallice devotes itself to an uncommonly evocative sonic majesty that can make the listener feel like the protagonist in a bleak fantasy tale.
Though the bands mine similar aesthetics, their self-conceptions are near mirror images. Liturgy consciously inverts old-school black-metal nihilism, complete with theoretical undergirding—Hunt-Hendrix, a former philosophy student at Columbia, has even published a treatise on the subject, Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism.
"I think that to the degree that anyone involved in underground music has an anti-intellectual attitude, they are making a mistake," Hunt-Hendrix writes via e-mail between European tour stops. "I guess it's just difficult to a lot of people to see that music, philosophy and art share a living common root—in the 19th century everyone knew that." This high-minded rhetoric has attracted its share of critics—"[Transcendental Black Metal] belongs to a rich, collegiate tradition of taking a movement or piece of art that you enjoy and writing about it in a way that suggests you take no enjoyment from it whatsoever," Vice quipped—but anyone attempting to brand Aesthethica as passionless will rapidly dead-end. The record's most memorable tracks ("Generation," "Veins of God") come off like high-fives between Black Sabbath and Lightning Bolt: undiluted collisions of volume and intricate groove.
Krallice guitarist Colin Marston—also a renowned sound engineer—recorded both Aesthethica and the prior Liturgy full-length, and he enthusiastically describes Hunt-Hendrix & Co. as "fuckin' brutal" during an interview at his Woodhaven, Queens, studio. All the same, you won't find him penning any philosophical tracts to complement his own work. "I am very rarely interested in the parts of music that aren't the music itself," he asserts, conveying a devotion to pure craft that he shares with his bandmate Mick Barr (also of Orthrelm, Ocrilim and other bizarre, hyperexacting projects). It's no surprise, then, to find Marston pointing out the absurdity of characterizing an entire musical movement based on the hateful actions of a few bad apples.
"I think it's kind of funny that people think about that side of black metal so much," he retorts good-naturedly. "You say that there's a history of people doing these fucked-up things, but there's way more of a history of people not doing these fucked-up things in black metal. There's probably just as many cases of people doing equally fucked-up things in thrash metal or indie rock or classical music."
It might be unrealistic to expect black metal to distance itself entirely from extramusical controversy, but Aesthethica and Diotima are the kinds of statements that can help drown out the noise. "What I'm interested in most is the immediate connection of sound to emotional reaction," says Marston—a humble personal statement that could double as the redefinition of a worldwide movement.
Diotima is out now on Profound Lore; Aesthethica comes out on Thrill Jockey May 10. Krallice plays The Studio at Webster Hall Mon 2; Liturgy plays Saint Vitus May 6 and the Knitting Factory June 2. Check out our complete Q&A with Liturgy's Hunter Hunt-Hendrix here.