With His Electronic Project Kel Valhaal, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix Is Making Music for the End of Days
The composer best known for his work with the metal experimenters in Liturgy has made an electronic album as an act of faith.
Photo courtesy of the artist
On a sunny early June afternoon, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is sitting in a coffee shop just a short walk from his Brooklyn home, contemplating the role that Christian signifiers have played in his conceptual metal band Liturgy and his solo electronic efforts as Kel Valhaal. This isn't our first conversation about religion: a year ago, when we met up to discuss the latest Liturgy album, he told me that in our "fractured and confusing time" it can be hard to consider religion—or any of society's longheld narratives—with any degree of seriousness. Still, he'd named his band after the practice of public worship, and over the past few years, he's written and spoken repeatedly about music's "Messianic" politics and potential. In other words, it's clear that his feelings on the matter are a little more complicated than he'd initially let on to me.
Sitting back in his chair, swirling the remains of an iced latte in a plastic cup, he pauses, looks me in directly in the eyes, and evaluates the state of 21st century life. "It's so obvious that we're in an apocalyptic place," he says in a near whisper.
The New York-based multi-instrumentalist has a way of making these sorts of grand statements as if he's letting you in on a secret, leaning in conspiratorially before he gets to the punchline. But on this latter point, it's hard to disagree. Between the careening pace of internet-era capitalism, the rise of comic book villains to prominent roles in national politics, and the fire and pestilence rained down by American-owned technology on foreign lands, it can certainly feel like the end times. And though organized religion is little comfort for Hunt-Hendrix—as you might expect for someone with a philosophy degree from Columbia University—he explains that he's finding a way to cope by building something else.
Hunt-Hendrix's body of work might be seen as an ongoing exercise in making a religion out of art, just like his idols—Richard Wagner and William Blake—did back in the 19th century. He envisions both Liturgy and Kel Valhaal as part of a sort of gesamtkunstwerk—a German word that basically translates to a "total work of art". Seeded within the album and track titles of his work, and even the serpentine structure of his compositions, he's created a grand, overarching mythology and cosmology that's basically only ever been entirely legible to him; it includes a few named characters, like Reign Array and Kel Valhaal. But with each musical release, you start to understand a bit more of the picture. And even if you don't always quite get it, he speaks with such conviction and intensity that you want to believe what he says anyway. Such is the strength of a powerful preacher.
Last year, Liturgy released The Ark Work, their most adventurous album to date, folding in 808 drum hits and stuttering, rhythmic vocals in an attempt to bridge heretofore unseen common ground between black metal and hip-hop. "Vitriol," one of that's record's standouts, stripped away the band's usual trappings of roiling guitar, bass, and drums in favor of curdled electronic arrangements and staccato quasi-rapping. It was an outlier on an album full of outliers, a reality Hunt-Hendrix attributes to the fact that the song originally was conceived as part of the Kel Valhaal project—nominally his "electronic project," but mostly just a place for him to further meld his disparate—some might say irreconcilable—musical impulses.
A year later, he's returning with his first proper release under that moniker—bearing the tongue-twisting title New Introductory Lectures On The System Of Transcendental Qabala—and it largely picks up the aesthetic threads hinted at in "Vitriol." Lead single "Tense Stage" winds brain-bending synth bass around Hunt-Hendrix's dizzying chanting in a manner that feels indebted to 70s prog rock, IDM, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony all at once. The record's sub-30-minute runtime makes it feel brief, but its dramatic whirlwind of reference points and high-speed glitchiness is overwhelming anyway. It's dark, busy, and fragmented—a humbling mirror for the end of days. Below, Hunt-Hendrix explains the "faith" at the roots of the project, as well as electronic music's potential as a political force.
THUMP: Tell me about your relationship to electronic music. Most people know you for your metal band, but you've said that electronic music is the most politically exciting music right now.
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: There's something really powerful happening politically with electronic music. It's something I've never seen in my lifetime. There's something about the amount of originality that's possible and the democratization of the means of making the music that's making it possible to have good, weird music be politically efficacious.
Are there any particular scenes or movements where you see that happening especially?
I don't know—I don't like talking about it in terms of that. I think maybe it's a positive effect of the collapse of the industry. It seemed like the internet was going to destroy the ability to have a scene in a way, that it'd paste over everything and there'd be no more scenes. But it seems like it's [played out] in a way where you just have these non-localized scenes.
You think of the NON people, or the whole scene around Rabit's Halcyon Veil label—they're so geographically dispersed.
It's a global underground or something like that. Politics is a weird thing. Political movements kind of always fail. But it's rad that's going on.
It's also interesting to me that the sort of mutant electronic music that's happening right now is the most abstract that political music has ever been, at least in the pop music era.
There's so much continuity between experimental electronic music and the types of themes that really well-educated and old avant-garde composers in the 50s were playing with.
But as you point out, now it's so much more accessible.
Right: you can do these things without having to be able to read or write [music]. That's a big part of it. You can look at a screen or have a MIDI controller and you can make recordings by pushing buttons. Composing music with a pencil is really time-consuming; you have to break yourself to learn how to do it.
So tell me about the roots of this project, then: obviously Kel Valhaal was the title of a song on the last Liturgy album, but I've heard you'd been working under the name since 2010.
Originally it was purely a rap project. With a character. I was really into [20th century German performance and multi-discplinary artist] Joseph Beuys five years ago. I really wanted to have this sort of art shaman character—a rapping art shaman. I've played shows as Kel Velhaal once every year or two since. It was more of a side project. I meant to do more with it, but never really did until now. The music is more composed. There is some rapping on it and it is connected with this whole nexus of archetypal characters, but I'm putting more into the music now. Reign Array is another figure in the cosmology of The Ark Work, so sometimes I want to release tracks under that name, too.
What are the differences between the characters?
Well, Kel Valhaal is more of a figure of faith, or of a spontaneous unfolding that happens in a surprising way. Reign Array is more a figure of order or discipline. So maybe they'd be different in those ways. I don't know—I change my mind about what to call things, and then I just start doing it.
I'm interested in the idea of "faith" as it relates to your music. you've used that word before in essays. What does that mean in an art context?
It's faith in the sense of pressing forward with something with the best of intentions, despite not knowing what's going to happen. That's a fundamental vehicle for freedom. You're not free if you're not doing that.
Reality is very powerful. Nothing constrains it. It's important to me to step back and really existentially feel that—to feel the monstrous power of reality. To understand that it's so unrestrained, to stand in awe of it and also to ask for something from it. To hope for the best. I think that [making] music can foster that attitude.
How does music do that for you?
It's more specifically an attitude of astonishment. I like music and I like to make music that makes you feel a sense of awe and has a certain amount of discomfort in it. It's the awe of striving and becoming and confusion, as opposed to peace or enjoyment. I work to create that state in myself when I'm writing music.
You want to shake people.
Yeah. And to be shaken. It's a practice as much as an experience. It's something that unfolds that you have to contribute to.
That makes sense, especially if you're using religion as an analogy. Making music is something that you constantly commit yourself to.
The religious version of faith is placed in something specific, but this is faith in [and of] itself. It's similar experientially, but this is faith in the yawning void of potentiality.
In that sense, is continuing to exist an act of faith?
Definitely. Everyone has this void that if you stop moving; it all starts collapsing in on you. There's no good reason to continue to exist, right?
Is there any way this striving plays out on record?
I'm very interested in crossing thresholds between different kinds of time and also different genres—that has a faith-inducing effect on me. To be sorting out one of these compositions, there's sort of a sweet spot where what I've arrived at doesn't feel recognizable and I start to have my doubts about whether anyone will like it anymore. And then I feel like that's making a gesture of a faith. It's really easy to make music that people will really like.
Especially when you're talking about electronic music. A consistent kick drum makes people dance without fail.
Totally. I have a lot of stuff that people may like a lot more than what I'm actually releasing. But there's a certain dignity in finding that place, a little corner that you're devoted to. Any compositional process should be like that. Bringing in tropes from different styles and...it's not like every single is up for grabs or something like that. I'm interested in different sorts of progressive metal and anything that comes from IDM. The entire history of classical music is always in there, too—I'm pulling things from those. I think genres are really existing things. But I'm putting them in a particle collider together. Or putting them in tension with one another.
What does that mean in a practical sense?
Wanting to explore rap metal, but always being aware that would be a very "in bad taste" thing to do and something that's impossible to totally justify. To make those kinds of moves in a way that creates questions about what identification is.
Alongside those ideas about faith, can you tell me why you talk about so much of your work in Christian terminology?
There's no one thing that Christianity is. A lot of different people put different claims on Christianity and then place on it different social commitments and group stereotypes. I think that the experiences that mystics and saints describe are as real as anything else. There's a sliver of what people call Christianity that is the same germ that drives both underground music and radical politics and things like psychoanalysis. And that's a very important germ.
You wrote an essay about the potential of music to bring about a sort of messianic second coming—that God might return to deliver us from our collapsing world. Did you mean that literally—is this album going to cause the second coming?
Who knows? I don't know exactly what I mean. Those essays are poetry. What art can do is get you to vibrate at a high enough level of intensity that the field of possibility is a lot wider than it seems otherwise. That's pretty much all there is to it.