In discussing their 2015 record The Ark Work, Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix told Pitchfork, “I wanted to make the most important thing possible, to invent a new philosophy that goes with a new music and a new way of making art and living life.” With goals that lofty, what could he do but fail? Hunt-Hendrix set out to expand the possibilities of heavy metal. Armed with digital production software Ableton Live, he piled every song on the album with artificial trumpets, bells, chimes, and bagpipes until the thing buckled in on itself and collapsed. The chintzy post-production sat on top of his band’s winding, triumphant compositions like a greasy oil spill, while Hunt-Hendrix himself monotoned his way through the strange convolutions of his personal mythology. The Ark Work was an album of singular, uncompromising vision. It just so happened to also be nearly unlistenable.
Hunt-Hendrix’s solo electronic project Kel Valhaal seeks to build upon the philosophical and aesthetic vocabulary he has been weaving through Liturgy’s history, the name itself taken from one of the key figures in The Ark Work‘s pantheon. Unburdened by Liturgy’s bastard black metal assault, these peculiar compositions are able to take on a life of their own, and give hints of brilliance where once there appeared folly.
The best tracks on new album New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala transpose metal’s labyrinthine structures into the sphere of electronic music. “Tense Stage” is an absolute show-stopper. The crux of the track is the sinuous interplay between its pounding bass beat and an urgent synth pattern. For nearly eight minutes, Hunt-Hendrix creates a staggering amount of drama by introducing minute variations into each polarized element, forcing them into a complex and unpredictable dance. As the track hurtles towards its climax, Hunt-Hendrix chops up and pitch-shifts his vocals, rendering his narrative of divine encounter unintelligible. While it’s still a good deal removed from the angelic shrieks of Renihilation and Aesthetica, it helps to restore a palatable sense of mystique that Ark Work peeled away.
At over ten minutes, lead single “Ontological Love” is the other heavy hitter. The song is split evenly (down to the second) between its hypnotic instrumental opening passage and its second half featuring Hunt-Hendrix’s rap. Over a swelling, swirling maelstrom of artificial strings, he fires off a litany of jarring collisions between the sacred and the profane, “I do cocaine with the clergy/ I teach peace to jihadis/ I show my tits to a leper.” Unlike “Tense Stage”, Hunt-Hendrix doesn’t buck against the beat here, but submits to its considerable momentum to create a rare instance of harmony, one that perhaps serves to embody the titular principal of the song.
Most of the remaining tracks are brief, stripped down, and more single-minded in their explorations. “NMWE” pairs an improvised-sounding synth solo with Hendrix’s multi-tracked vocalizations. “Bezel” creates a canvas of glassy percussion and a repetitive organ-like figure upon which to scrawl a heavily distorted and impressionistic guitar solo reminiscent of the intro for Liturgy’s “High Gold”. Hendrix steps up the complexity on “Kairos,” which reveals itself halfway through to be a tense excursion into John Carpenter-esque adventurism. The album closes down with the lengthier “Bezel II”, which makes use of the distended rapping and pounding, irregular bass beats of the lengthier tracks as a background for chiptune noodling.
New Introductory Lectures is a brisk, exhilarating listening experience, and one that helps to clarify Liturgy’s divisive creative arc. The album bears the unmistakable signs of its creator’s metal pedigree, without the added baggage of having to make room in its serpentine compositions for three guitars and a live drummer. Even Hendrix’s voice, which is admittedly a bit of an acquired taste, feels more at home in these tracks. While Kel Valhaal may still fall short of offering “a new way of living life,” the project has cast a revelatory light on the “new music” its creator envisioned.
Essential Tracks: “Tense Stage”, “Ontological Love”