As Kel Valhaal, Liturgy’s Frontman Crafts a Mythos as Heady as His Music

Kel Valhaal

Kel Valhaal. (Photo: Courtesy of Kel Valhaal.)

If who’ve read my stuff before you know I’m fascinated with philosophy and myth in music. While most musicians turn the focus of their work inward, to comment on themselves and meditate on their place in the world, the truly intrepid turn outward instead—searching for meaning and value in the universe and fortifying their work with a sense of history and knowledge.

That idea of mythology is important to me, not in the sense that a prog band evokes maidens or dragons, but as a storytelling device.

Look at something as seemingly innocuous as a summer movie franchise—we’re invested in these long story arcs that play out over several films and several hours, when a bombshell development in the saga happens just before the credits roll and we’re left on a cliffhanger until the next episode. Part of this is marketing, of course—the Marvel and Star Wars franchises fit right in with Disney’s knack for cultivating mythologies into franchises. But in their most creatively elemental sense, those franchises work because people identify with the alternate universe that’s been fleshed out and made real for the fans, an alternate reality that they can escape into.

Franchises never come up when talking to Hunter Hunt Hendrix, frontman of the revered ‘Black Metal’ band Liturgy.

Though the words “black metal” have stuck to the band since their beginning, there’s always been much more happening in their music than that title might suggest. Last year, Liturgy released The Ark Work, a genre-crossing symphony that mixed the medieval sounds of glockenspiel and organ into the noise. Its tune “Kel Valhaal” introduced Litrugy fans to the name of Hendrix’s alias, which he tells me is just one of the four “figures of subjectivity” in his “syncretic system of thought.”

This is Hendrix’s mythopoeia, a fictitious mythology of his creation that seeks to connect all of the philosophies and spiritual exchanges that inspire him.

Adopting the Kel Valhaal moniker for a solo exploration of The Ark Work, Hendrix explores this mythopoeia with the bold, brave debut album New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala. The sounds here are even denser and more confounding than the title, weaving in industrial noise, electronica and Southern rap to an often woozy, disassociated effect. What’s not imminently aurally pleasing still has value here, the longer you sit with it. These are sounds we’re meant to sit with.

“Kel Valhaal is an arcanum or a character of transcendental law—hermaphroditic, missing a golden helmet, which is made of the shell in which s/he was born, searching for it at first in the forests of ANANON and then in Greenpoint.”

Hendrix says that this record seeks to explain the “Perichoresis”—the term he’s given to the relationship between music, thought and drama—that combines to form The Ark Work. I’m familiar with some of the thinkers and philosopher’s he’s incorporated into this mythopoeia, while others allude me.

Though there’s much to be explained in Hendrix’s world of arcanum and transcendence, my interest is piqued by the clarity and internal logic that he applies toward connecting even the most esoteric of inspirations into his own understanding of creation.

My conversation with Hendrix only began to unpack the value system he’s cultivating, but reminded me that the eccentric and ambitious are worth spending time with.

We talked about why more musicians aren’t exploring philosophy, how understanding the relationships between thought and action lead to creation, and how mapping out trajectories of creative exchange can quickly become a spiritual endeavor. “I feel like that today we have so much power, with technology, gene editing, so much sophisticated coordination making the economy run, but there’s this sort of fracture, this inability to see,” he tells me. “It always gets glazed over with terms that become cliched, whether it is ‘posthumanism’ or ‘spirituality’ or whatever.”

He speaks simply about the Perichoresis as a relationship between music, thought and drama. “Somehow when any of these three aspects of culture is not in communication with the other two, something is wasted,” he says. I’m inclined to believe him.

I’m really interested in artists, musicians especially, who consciously strive to cultivate a mythology with their work. That’s what fascinates me most about your solo stuff, and I was hoping we could get into some of that. With regard to the title, I’ve always thought of the spheres of Qabalah on the tree of life as mirroring our human circulatory system, so when we talk about energy traveling through us up to our mind “the crown” we’re talking about attaining a state of buddha just the same, right? Is that what you refer to when you mention transcendence? 

For me “transcendental” is sort of a technical term. The Ark Work is an art-life-ethics system, and its most fundamental coordinates are The Transcendental and The Hyperborean, which are opposed modes of conduct and awareness. Each of these modes is characterized by its distinctive law and object—the Hyperborean Law is known before it is obeyed. The Hyperborean object is consumed by the subject, which has the effect of weakening it.

On the other hand, Transcendental Law is a law that is only articulated after it is obeyed, rather than existing beforehand. Somehow it is known even though it is not articulated. The transcendental object is an object that is never consumed—on the contrary it consumes and transforms its subject. Sort of a dynamics of freedom.

The System of Transcendental Qabala is a syncretic system of thought. And yes, I’m interested in the correspondences between the scientific picture of the nervous system, the vedic Chakras and the Jewish Sefirot in the Tree of Life.

In the traditions of Kabbalah and Yoga obviously there are a huge amount of aesthetic and conceptual tools and practices that shape the psyche. However, it is important to me for it to all of that to be undercut and augmented by traditions of rationalist philosophy and fine art as well as DIY.

For me the transcendental refers to a few moments in the Western philosophy tradition—the medieval conception of the transcendental as that which is true, good, beautiful, that has a special status above ordinary things in the world; the American transcendentalist identification of creative destruction with divinity—that the transcendental isn’t just a peaceful state or a state of moral superiority but that it also includes a certain violence towards established values.

Meditation and kindness are great, but ultimately the transcendental has to be a sort of controlled detonation, an ongoing enterprise in the name of an object that does not exist, which I call OLOLON.

"New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala"

New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala by Kel Valhaal. (Hunter Hunt Hendriz"

How did you arrive at the philosophies you explore on the record? Are they all based on the “Kel Valhaal” Liturgy tune? Was The Ark Work laying the ground for this solo exploration, or just the inspiration for these philosophies? And are they, like the variety of sounds on this album, a merging of your sources of personal interest and spiritual/mythological education? 

This system of philosophy / task / cast of characters has been developing alongside Liturgy from the very beginning. Ever since reading Nietzsche in high school I’ve been working to develop a philosophy and practice that would expand on his vision for my generation and particularly with reference to underground music.

German idealism and French poststructuralism are the main influences, Deleuze above all, though I like to situate the project in terms of American transcendentalism, which I think is an important forerunner of Nietzschean thought that often gets left out of the conversation. William Blake’s mythopoeia was an influence, too.

Kel Valhaal, Reign Array, The Genesis Caul and Haelegen are four “figures” of freedom or subjectivity. The world is divided into Four Alimonies: 01010n, ANANON, YLYLCYN, S/HE/IM. There are other arcana representing activities distinctive of Transcendental Law like EFRAYN, RENIHILATION, AESTHETHICA.

Kel Valhaal is an arcanum or a character of transcendental law—hermaphroditic, missing a golden helmet which is made of the shell in which s/he was born, searching for it at first in the forests of ANANON and then in Greenpoint. S/he’s the protagonist of an unfinished screenplay called “01010n” that I’ve been working on forever. I don’t know if it will ever be a real screenplay—I love the idea of it staying unfinished or even amounting to a failure. Almost as though that would be a way of keeping it alive, avoiding the true failure of being stuck with a finished product, a mere representation. A reincarnated William Blake is a character in some versions of the narrative, more recently Alexander Scriabin is playing a decisive role.

Hunter Hunt Hendrix performs with Liturgy.

Hunter Hunt Hendrix performs with Liturgy. (Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Can you describe the Perichoresis a bit? Is it the diagram I’m looking at on the cover? 

The Perichoresis is a dynamic relationship between the three wings of the Ark Work, which are music, thought and drama. There is only one wing, however—each of these is the same and eternally one, but under different aspects.

Music is the pure One, needing nothing, unrepresentable. Thought takes music as its source because it is astonished by it, even as it fails at every effort to begin to describe it. Nevertheless thought generates transcendental law, which makes drama possible. I consider drama to be the only form of authentic art, though any medium or style of art is in fact drama if it is successful. Drama always pushes towards truth, death and love, it is always engaged socially and politically—whether it is a sculpture, a poem, an action.

But all drama does in the end is make music possible—even though music was always possible from the start. But we are so rarely ever aware that music is possible. Without thought and drama we are unable to access music. That’s basically what the Perichoresis is.

“Ever since reading Nietzsche in high school I’ve been working to develop a philosophy and practice that would expand on his vision for my generation and particularly with reference to underground music.”

I’ve been developing the idea of the Perichoresis for a while, because I’m really passionate about these three activities, but I always feel like they belong together in an auto-catalyzing system—that somehow when any of these three aspects of culture is not in communication with the other two, something is wasted. I can’t put it any better than that—something is wasted. Each generates something, but it gets wasted. But if these three wings could all flap together maybe a kind of awakening would be possible.

I always think about Blake’s mythology, the idea that Albion is the universal human, but he’s asleep, or he’s in a sort of hypnagogic state and he’s confused about what’s good for him, so he’s letting these forces of self-will and so on feed on him. I feel like that today we have so much power, with technology, gene editing, so much sophisticated coordination making the economy run, but there’s this sort of fracture, this inability to see—it always gets glazed over with terms that become clichéd, whether it is “posthumanism” or “spirituality” or whatever.

My efforts at actually performing the Perichoresis have mostly been, much like my 01010n screenplay, a failure. It is very difficult to deal with the music industry. The aim of NLOTSOTQ is to be a sort of musical deposit for the Perichoresis. The accompanying arkwork.org website is a philosophical companion piece. I’m planning to present all this in a solo show early next year.  Who knows, maybe I’ll shirk it and not have the courage, though.

Hunter Hunt Hendrix.

Hunter Hunt Hendrix. (Photo: Courtesy of Liturgy.)

This cover diagram implies a trajectory, or at least different pathways that our minds might travel down while listening to Lectures. Am I reading it right? What’s the trajectory about? What’s arrived at, where is it gong?

The diagram represents the Four Alimonies and a sort of metaphysical logic of creation. On the top is 01010n, who is made of ports—music is good for accessing this level. 01010n sends rays into ANANON, which is the world the Platonists associated with forms and medieval philosophers associated with Jesus Christ: the immaterial, invisible idea that spawns material things, whether they are bodies, art works, endeavors of any kinds—these individuals and particulars spawned by the Shells are what populate YLYLCYN, which interact with one another, forming Gates or assemblages.

But there is always something wrong, something missing, something that was not allowed to show itself—these are the valves in S/HE/IM, which have a certain relationship to the ports in 01010n. Sometimes it seems to me that the two are the same place. Valves are hard to distinguish entirely from ports.

Most of the action takes place between ANANON and YLYLCYN, and most materialist philosophies today would agree with this contention—that the virtual and the actual are mutually determining—but I think it is really important to emphasize that 01010n and S/HE/IM are always there in the background: the world is not just some kind of value-neutral orgy of becoming that exists for no reason and will never change.

“Failure, madness, shame—insofar as I think of my music career as a gesamtkunstwerk it includes these things, too.”

Philosophers today really shy away from this question. It’s hard to even clearly ask the question—why does the world exist? On the one hand we have to take the question in the terms with which we described philosophy’s relationship to music—that which inspires philosophy—something is wrong, or something is astonishing: why? But at the same time there is a much more literal or un-reflexive version of the question—why is there a contingent nature, a world of pure mathematics and a world of subjectivity?

I’m interested in trying to identify the origin of pure mathematics and nature in terms of Lurianic Kabbalah—that there was a primordial shattering, that something went wrong at a cosmic level—and that there is an interplay between an excessive light and vessels that can only bear certain levels of intensity.

Two folks you reference in that Paper interview stuck out as very interesting to me, Joseph Bueys and Rudolph Steiner. I’ve written about them both in different capacities. Bueys came up while talking with Prince Rama, as his making up his own travels and backstory for the sake of his work really serves the idea of an artist creating their own truth and creating an internal logic behind it. I think the nature of his social sculptures and performance work as something that depends on communal engagement and discussion. Is that the aim here?

Yeah, the idea is to release records and do music performances as one stream or thread but also to intervene as a human, through interviews and things like that, to connect the music to an end that pushes things forward—that isn’t just new or cool or beautiful, but that is coordinated with or connected to a perspective that is world-historical. That was much easier for Beuys because he was part of a fine art scene—very closely connected to Fluxus, which had a very powerful awareness of history, even if they were seeking to break with it.

Right now what is of the most interest to me is the idea that the real totally outstrips what we can conceive, but that also our power in coordination with it—mostly through science but also through gnostic practice—also to a degree outstrips what we can conceive as at all likely.

Our expectations are very low, because it is safer that way, psychodynamically speaking, if you will—but our expectations are very fragile—things like resurrection of the dead, eternal life, a new life for everyone that is played out in an entirely or mostly computer-generated system of coordinates—the only thing between us and these things is time, and actually not that much of it. We need modes of awareness like astonishment and fervor to be equal to these transformations, and I see the arts as a tool for generating this astonishment.

But yeah, to return to Beuys—his whole aesthetic, his use of narrative and self-mythologizing, his social praxis, his cross between shamanism and fine art and theories of society and economics…this kind of project is worth continuing.

I learned about Steiner from my farmer friends upstate while I was in Hudson, N.Y., covering Basilica Soundscape. Anthroposophy fascinates me not only as the philosophy behind biodynamic farming, but also as an all-inclusive, sustainable means with which to live. One could argue that having a spiritual center fulfills the same purpose maybe? How does Steiner’s work/writings/philosophies inform your own?

Steiner was a huge influence for Beuys obviously, so there’s indirect influence, and there are a few lectures of his that I return to pretty often actually—this effort to synthesize religion and turn it into a sort of practical science is very much an interest of mine. He’s a philosopher in a way, but one for whom spiritual practice is essential—both epistemologically, to be able to access truth—and as the ultimate end of philosophy itself—not knowledge but health.

I am also very interested however in holding Steiner together with its opposite—with all things punk, profane, even humiliating, the critique of representation. There is something too fluffy about Waldorf Schools and theosophical societies, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff—they are closing themselves off from something vital, horrifying, inspiring—what you might call “the real,” whether that manifests itself as the immigration crisis or as new trends in underground youth culture.

Failure, madness, shame—insofar as I think of my music career as a gesamtkunstwerk it includes these things, too. To include Kippinberger and Melgaard as antidotes to the excesses of Beuys and Byars. And more generally, though, disenchantment.

I hate when people identify a moment of “re-enchantment” of the world. Radical politics is only possible in the context of ruthless rationalism and disenchantment. I don’t know if people think Zizek is a joke, but his project is totally legit. In my view disenchantment is already re-enchantment, as long as one is resolute in pursuing it.

All of this is being said, why aren’t more musicians engaged in dialogue about heady stuff like this? Why isn’t philosophy something that artists get out in front of much anymore? I reckon that when an album is written from a single frame of mind, from a specific emotion or point in somone’s life, there’s an undercurrent of philosophy already there, or at least worldview. Why aren’t more musicians taking that self-awareness to the next level and cultivating a value system around it?

I think is has to do with compulsory education—people hate to read and write because they’re taught to do it in the wrong way, they associate it with submitting to the very structure that the whole point of music is to not submit to. But also maybe it’s just been that we also grew up with TV and more recently the internet, but education is mostly found in books.

Deleuze said in the introduction to Difference and Repetition that soon it wouldn’t be possible to do philosophy in books any longer. I think he was right—and that with our generation philosophy can more and more be done using video, images, podcasts, and so on. Again, I think Beuys was prescient there.

That is why I see thought as part of The Perichoresis with music and drama. Figures like Socrates, Pythagoras, Diogenes—they didn’t even write.

Kel Valhaal Celebrates “Lectures” with a release show at Sunnyvale Brooklyn on  August 6

As Kel Valhaal, Liturgy’s Frontman Crafts a Mythos as Heady as His Music