Let’s take a moment to talk about opera.
If you believe what liner notes and press releases tell you, opera has been integral to popular music since the late 60s. Over the past half a century there have been countless rock operas and hip-hoperas. Hell, this year irreverent punks The Hell even released a hardcore opera about the plight of a disgruntled hardware store employee.
But are ‘Tommy’ and ‘The Wall’ really operas? Does Queensrÿche’s ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ share DNA with Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’? Does Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ evoke the majesty of Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’? Do R Kelly’s ‘Trapped In A Closet’ and Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ hold anything in common besides the problematic nature of their creators? Sure, these albums may have concepts or plots or reoccurring characters, but they are only ‘operas’ in the sense that space operas are operas (a.k.a. not really).
So when I say ‘Origin Of The Alimonies’, the latest creation from Brooklyn experimentalists Liturgy, is a black metal opera, I don’t mean it tells a story through song. I don’t mean it features a charming assortment of characters who each have their own theme. I mean it’s a goddamn black metal opera. It starts with an overture that sounds like the birth of the universe and only gets bigger from there. Honestly, if someone resurrected Richard Strauss and commissioned him to write a piece for Darkthrone, it would probably sound like this.
Composing an opera requires a very different skillset to writing your average rock (or even metal) album. Thankfully Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Liturgy’s creative lynchpin, is anything but average. Hailed as a genius by some, reviled as a pretentious poser by others, Hunt-Hendrix has been a divisive figure in the mistrustful BM community since Liturgy’s debut album was accompanied by a pretty wild essay she wrote on the need for the genre to evolve away from its ‘Hyborian’ (that’s ‘Scandinavian’ to you and me) roots.
Over the intervening years she has used Liturgy as an outlet for some fairly high-brow musings on philosophy, metaphysics and the nature of god, writing concept albums based wholly on her own philosophical theory of transcendental qabala (which she explains in some depth on her Youtube channel). Some might call it pretentious, yes, but Liturgy operate in a genre that thrives off pretention. Black metallers are always going off and writing albums with names like ‘IX Equilibrium’ that are set to the poetry of William Blake or some shit. It’s great, and Liturgy are great at doing it.
On this album Hunt-Hendrix has set out to create nothing less than “an opera that addresses the origin of all things”. It’s a creation myth of sorts, built around the birth and deaths of ideological concepts that manifest as divine beings. The huge Wagnerian crescendos of ‘Lonely OIOION’ and ‘Apparition of the Eternal Church’ genuinely sound like a war in heaven, with Hunt-Hendrix and longtime bandmember Bernard Gann’s ever-ascending tremolo guitars channelling the same grandness as Holst’s ‘The Planets’.
But, for all the bombast, there is tenderness here too. ‘Origin’ isn’t just a bunch of heady metaethical concepts wrapped up in blast beats and strings, it’s also heavily based on Hunt-Hendrix’s experience transitioning gender over the past year. The theme of metamorphosis is evident in the way songs writhe and evolve, how quiet woodwind passages work their way up into apocalyptic sonic assaults, how gentle piano chords give way to unexpected trap beats and electronic stutters. Honestly, the dynamics at play here make PIXIES sound like The Ramones.
There’s a jaw-jutted courage to this album’s release, from Hunt-Hendrix’s decision to bare her recently formed breasts on the cover (twice!) to her decision to self-direct and star in it’s accompanying feature length film. Many creators are described as being ‘fearless’ in their non- conformity, but more often than not they just don’t care. Hunt-Hendrix cares about everything – the state of black metal, the nature of the universe, the meaning of life… the whole shebang. You can hear the size of her thoughts and desires on this truly stunning record, this genuine opera. They are as big as the universe and everything in it.
Words: Josh Gray
– – –
– – –