When Brooklyn post-black metal band Liturgy signed to Thrill Jockey for its 2011 album, Aesthethica, the decision raised some eyebrows. Thrill Jockey is by no means a metal label; in spite of the wide variety of music it’s championed over the years, it’s best known as a home for the arty, nerdy sounds of post-rock. Now the label has released the self-titled debut by Survival, another project led by Liturgy’s singer-guitarist, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. And the working relationship between him and Thrill Jockey begins to make more sense: Unlike Aesthethica’s high-concept mutation of black metal, Survival is a high-concept mutation of post-rock.
Fortunately for Survival, post-rock is more forgiving than black metal. BM purists have been vocal about their loathing for Hunt-Hendrix and his cross-pollinating of the genre. Purity, though, is antithetical to post-rock. Survival gets that. On the album’s opener, “Tragedy Of The Mind,” torque is applied to jerky, Chavez-like riffs as Hunt-Hendrix’s voice drifts melodically overhead. It’s a shock to hear him sing pretty rather than screech, as he does in Liturgy—and it’s just as bracing to hear him and his bandmates open up space rather than crowd every square inch of it with blurred distortion and blastbeats, which is Liturgy’s relentless methodology. There are grooves to Survival, as algebraic as they are. “Original Pain” is suffused with an aching melancholy that’s overcome by a stomping, Sabbathian break. Only it’s filled with colored light instead of gloom.
But it’s during Survival’s lone acoustic track, “Since Sun,” that the album fully takes wing. An interlude of hymnal harmonization and sparingly plucked strings, the song cracks post-rock’s barrier of cryptic abstraction and unleashes a mood that’s downright spiritual. Hunt-Hendrix has made no bones about the philosophy behind Liturgy—which involves an entire manifesto based on ecstatic romanticism. Grim is not in this dude’s lexicon. By the time the disc culminates in the atmospheric, upward-spiraling “Triumph Of The Good,” it’s clear that Hunt-Hendrix is extolling an ideal few musicians dare to touch: heroism. The damnedest thing is, Survival’s genre-transcending grace is actually majestic enough to make that seem doable.