Behemoth is a great and strange band. They take some of heavy metal’s darkest and deepest impulses and shape them into glorious clarity that remains essential rock and roll throughout. Their masterpiece The Satanist gives expression to something that has been important to black metal since it started in Norway and that has roots in earlier death metal like Morbid Angel and still earlier metal all the way back to Black Sabbath. The followup to those ideas in I Loved You at Your Darkest continues this brilliantly with a broader soundscape. Satanism is an eternal topic for metal, and it takes a lot of guises. Some of them are performance art, some just silly self references for rock and roll fun, some more a part of rebellion, and some are occultist. It doesn’t really matter which form it takes though, because it’s become such a part of metal that the idea of Satan is part of a creative palette that’s very important to being subversive in music. Behemoth have managed to take that entire collection of themes and distill it into a clear and pure vision of Satanic life as a rebellion against god and injustice, and they have turned it into pure and great rock and roll.
I Loved You at Your Darkest expands the range of those considerations where The Satanist seemed like a distillation of those ideas into heavy clarity. Behemoth’s new album is like an atmospheric whirlwind. Where The Satanist brought clarity to their sound with a remarkably accessible, subversive, and pure black metal sound, the newest album offers strange thick sounds and sludgy atmosphere that sounds like Nergal’s band wandered into hell where they are on holiday with martinis and north European beer. It’s a much weirder album that might be a celebration of their success, but it’s just as fun and enlightening as the one before it. Part of the importance of Behemoth’s achievements has to do with the status of heavy metal today. It underwent a real crisis more than 20 years ago when it was out of favor, during which time it went underground. Sub-genres of metal developed well out of that underground status, and it allowed for much more creativity to take hold. Today metal is not only strong but is one of the purest, most creative and subversive styles of music. The love for metal brings people together and builds a unique culture with a true way of life and fierce approach to creation, and Behemoth embodies that in such a full way that it’s hard to believe what you are seeing when they play.
For the Love of Satan
Nergal, aka Adam Darski, has an odd way of being incredibly articulate about his advocacy of Satan, and what makes it so interesting is that his status as a spokesperson is almost as important as his work as a musician, and that’s saying a lot, because Behemoth is undeniably the most important black metal band. So we have excellent musicianship alongside clear thinking and solid inspiration with a provocative message. When the drums and the bass attack with a brutal backing rhythm, it seems like a chasm is being ripped open under the earth to let the guitar shred its way to some new light that Nergal’s lyrics will somehow accompany. It’s a brilliant guise for a band to take on, and it never becomes repetitive. The divine blasphemy sets us up for enlightenment, and Nergal’s Satanic message is that we should free our minds. He really is an intellectual as much as a musician, and given the creative impetus of art and music, that takes a different form than scholarly academia, but it is highly intelligent and shows a worldview that is confronting deep aspects of western culture in a critical way that goes beyond great albums into perhaps the most solid rock and roll shows available now.
Behemoth have taken the idea of Satanic themes and perfected them in their sounds, imagery, lyrics, and persona. Far from being negative, they find light and positivity in the idea. Nergal is an inspiring person. He survived a devastating form of cancer and is a health guru who tries to inspire other people. The band has decided that there is a dark occult landscape that is part of creative arts to be found in metal’s idea of Satan, and they have tried to perfect that better than anyone else ever has. They’ve succeeded. The band’s Satanism is authentic and well intentioned as a rejection of corrupt power, dogmatism, and lies. To much of heavy metal, Satan is the ultimate rebel, the denier of illusions and a representation of freedom.
Satanism is also wrapped up in creative arts beyond music. The Church of Satan and related organizations have cast a long shadow in Hollywood with film stars and musicians being associated with it, and it’s generally turned into a larger creative place. There are various subgroups and related groups, and not everyone is as positive, but generally it’s more a part of the creative world than the mass media has tended to suggest. Lots of Satanists want to see a better world by getting past things that hold people back. Some have occult views, and some are simply individualists. Some are problematic on occasion, but it’s fair to blame this more on bad individuals and a proliferation of subgroups than the general idea. Interpretations and intentions behind Satanism really vary, but the genius of Behemoth is that they have taken that whole landscape and shaped it into a perfect musical form that really completes the idea. They also stay with pure rock and roll and musical art without resorting to some of the extreme theatricality that some black metal has needed to use.
Their stage show is beautiful, but it stays basic enough to emphasize their prowess with instruments and raw rock performance. Playing at the Ogden in Denver for November of last year, the lights went into beautiful extreme shades of red and darkness that capture the idea well, and the restrained choices keep the band from being so over the top or conceptual as to lose the beauty of what their sounds are capable of. Nergal is one of the best singers in rock. He is able to amplify the sections of his lyrics in just the right places and can send the audience into a frenzy with little effort. He doesn’t jump around the stage like Alissa White-Gluz (who has an amazing talent for that), but standing with his guitar he has a stable majesty to his presence that is irreplaceable and fits the insane heaviness of the band’s compositions. Being at eye level with him for much of the show, he seemed like a friendly heavy metal warrior with a lot to say. Everyone in Behemoth plays like a tightly knit unit in perfect time with each other, and there is a deep sense of inspiration being at work with the band. They are accompanied by an altar with snakes, and it’s basic and beautiful, representing the infernal illumination that is part of Behemoth’s musical vision.
The occult background of the kind of ideas that are found in Behemoth is best seen in Aleister Crowley. He has been an important influence on rock for a long time. An advocate of occult mysticism, love, and personal freedom, Crowley’s ideas have been shaped into a way of life that is an intrinsic part of music. While he advocates magic, plenty of his ideas have obvious mundane importance to people in clubs. He was a serious advocate of creativity and doing things for oneself. It’s hard to be very creative by accepting what everyone already says, and Crowley uses mysticism to reach beyond that. While he turns that into a new occult movement and claims magical revelation in The Book of the Law and other works, mysticism has great similarities to his ideas and is found throughout mainstream religions all over the world, generally as a quieter, smaller, and more personal trend than public outer aspects of religion. Crowley is also a strong advocate of love, and one of his most central formulations of his ideas was stated as, “Love is the law. Love under will.” Put simply, one should pursue one’s passions and one’s love and apply the will to this, a statement of individualism which took off in various views of Satanism proclaiming that a person should be their own god, strive to accomplish, and take control of their own existence.
Black metal started in Norway with inspiration in death metal, occultism, and the rejection of popular religion in favor of something more primal and in some cases something viewed as an earlier set of pagan beliefs. That artistic movement spread throughout Europe, and Behemoth is from Poland, which has an active dark metal scene. It’s not the biggest dark metal scene in Europe even though the country is geographically enormous by European standards, and Behemoth became established as a top international band from drawing influences for their sounds from all over the place as they toured. Part of what makes them a great band is that they are so self made. All those grueling years of hard touring at first on very little budget taught them a lot, and they continued to grow, learn, and get better. Heavy metal has strong ideas about fighting on and overcoming obstacles, and living that life to the fullest made them increasingly unique under their own vision. They have a strong claim of being perhaps the best heavy metal band working today, with the clearest vision, and they give perfect expression to something that many musicians have tried to state for decades. I find their rise to be supporting evidence that people who genuinely love art should spend a lot of time in smaller experimental music clubs, because that is what Behemoth’s perfection grew out of.
Occultism refers to hiddenness, and Behemoth songs point towards hidden truths but also manage to succeed at putting them front and center. Every note coming from every instrument carries their ideas in perfect harmony, even when they are creating sounds of primeval chaos. The band is mostly angry at things that are worth being unhappy about, and they see Satan as a way out from those obstacles, a chaotic force crashing through the chains that hold people down. In a nonreligious world, their music would simply be considered positive, because while Christianity wouldn’t like the things they praise, everything that’s normally considered positive or good, in many respects even moral, gets tied to Satan. So rather than praising the opposite of goodness, they are changing its name. There are many advantages to doing so, because whatever good might be in Christianity has been mixed so heavily with power, politics, and money that it’s hard to imagine its moral or spiritual ideas being intact or serious. So the band’s interest in Satan is a positive thing because of the way they express that in music and performance.
Behemoth being from Poland is important. The size of the country and the borders it shares have made Poland an important place for East European art, but the unfortunate instability in East Europe has led to a great deal of chaos and social difficulty at varying times that has had a sad dampening effect on the arts. A great movement will get going and then fall apart. Poland produced one of cinema’s most luminous directors in Andrzej Wajda, and his beautiful poetic film Ashes and Diamonds shows this problem well. It’s an antiwar film about World War II, and Wajda shows an entire generation having its abilities and aspirations lost in the gory fog of war. Wajda is a distinctly Polish director with mystical imagery shown throughout his films which capture a sense of that predilection being much stronger in East European art than in Western Europe. Wajda later fought against communism and makes the case for how important Poland is capable of being for art when given the chance, and I find it fascinating that this fertile and conflicted place is the land that has given us Behemoth.
The country has seen so much sad chaos and has gone and produced the world’s best band at praising chaos. Behemoth started in the 1990s, as the end of the Cold War brought an opening up to Poland that made the rise of its dark music scene possible. This band is one of the best expressions of that freedom, and Nergal has been an important critic of ways in which Poland has been closing down and moving away from those freedoms in movements towards autocracy. His sane and reasonable political views towards basically a well functioning liberal democracy that respects personal freedom are a good reason to take his Satanism seriously as something valuable. While politicians and religious clergy keep getting in trouble for stealing things and abusing young people, Behemoth has been a professional musical outfit that brings rock and roll bliss and inspiration to music venues. So it appears that Satan may have more class than god these days.
Behemoth also deserves to be situated within a larger collapse and criticism of hegemony in the West. That is to say simply, a lot is very wrong with the West and its imperial power structures. Western institutions have frequently proven to be corrupt (a Catholic cardinal recently indicted, the American public horrified by both Trump and Hillary). The political ideas have resulted in failure while false talk about equality really produced economic inequality, with rhetoric about freedom producing the opposite as people are tracked and controlled by electronic devices. The planet has been destroyed by environmental harm caused by western industry and religious views of man being the center of the world with nature left as a thing to be used and exploited. Other parts of the world have been enslaved. It’s a large mess in need of critique, and Behemoth are criticizing religious views at the core of that flawed civilization. Friedrich Nietzsche also offered a powerful rebuke of god in the 19th century, with his prophetic claim that god is dead and that culture would thus undergo severe change, and Nergal is educated enough to know this cultural history as he criticizes the Christian world. Rather than just promoting Satanism, the reality of the band is that they are so open minded that what someone chooses to take from Behemoth is going to depend on who they are. Nergal is someone who wants to make people think for themselves and criticize more than a person who wants to preach, and to some Satanists, that’s the whole point of Satan anyway, a rebellious spirit and an individual rather than a sheep (another idea that echoes Nietzsche).
What they have achieved with the entire grand Satanic adventure though is musical perfection for heavy metal. Like the clearly great albums such as Paranoid by Black Sabbath, Reign in Blood by Slayer, and Altars of Madness by Morbid Angel, people are likely to listen to The Satanist and I Loved You at Your Darkest and take them apart piece by piece for the next 30 years as perfect and masterful metal sounds. They aren’t the albums every band will want to make, because they are so odd and so distinct, but they perfect their genre with such a clear and intricate vision that they can’t be surpassed and can only be equalled, and even then only by the very best of bands. Because of musical acts like Behemoth metal will likely have great bands for decades to come, and it makes the mainstream rock press look like a joke for not taking the genre seriously back when it was a new movement with the likes of Judas Priest developing it. Anyone with a sincere interest in rock is inclined to hail Satan, Behemoth, and metal for good ideas and rock and roll fun that are all inventive enough to show people new ways to think and live while many other musical genres turn out predictable commercialism with no soul.
I Loved You at Your Darkest
I Loved You at Your Darkest opens with a bold challenge to god in the form of children singing and making fun of Christ, as though Behemoth is telling us that the future does not belong to Christianity and that we are all Satan’s children rather than Christ’s. Then things quickly become brutal with the pounding song Wolves ov Siberia that really does sound a lot like angry wolves circling in a pack as the guitars rise into shredding ecstasy that blends with grinding rhythms the way only Behemoth seem to position their guitar right into those rhythms so the lead instrument and the bass seem to be in some crazy hellacious dance together. Then things get even more pounding with God = Dog, an equation that is not devout, but with music that might as well be divine as it has even more insane drumming. Things approach beauty on Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica where we see an interesting side to the band. All of the dislike of Christianity is housed alongside a fascination both with its past and with the history of the West. So in spite of the sincere Satanism, I wouldn’t call Behemoth hateful of what they criticize, and Nergal has made friendly comments about Pope Francis trying to right some of the church’s wrongs.
Bartzabel invokes a demon with guitar parts that actually sound beautiful and are more ornate than most metal bands can achieve. If Crucifixion Was Not Enough… is definitely not a song praising Jesus. For the millions of people around the world who are sick of listening to Christians yell crazy and angry things though, it’s a relief to hear Nergal take apart Jesus with his screaming metal as the guitar and bass sound like a twisted church burning down. Orion is a hell of a good bass player and no doubt contributes a lot of the band’s signature sound of dramatic heaviness with a fast grinding tempo. This album is much more of a whirlwind than the previous one and some speed and ornateness is taking over from the previous emphasis on primordial heaviness with very complicated arrangements that leave me with suspicions the band’s great success got them a lot of studio time that they used very well. A nice thing about metal being a successful subgenera is that resources are there with labels like Nuclear Blast to support their most successful artists well enough, but without a lot of commercial pressure as would have happened in commercial rock of 20 years ago. Halfway through the album I feel like Glenn Danzig had a child with the demoness in his classic song Her Black Wings, and it seems to be Nergal.
We Are the Next 1000 Years is a savage attack on the world that was and proclaims a new world without god. Lines like, “We are the ending of all days,” suggest genuine artistic potential in the imagery that Christianity has tied to Satan, with its overcoming of everything that is supposed to be normal, which is often a goal for the arts. To make the point well, the line, “We are the deportees from the promised land,” suggests real moral problems with the way Christ is conceived as saving some while god condemns others to hell. PIG makes the same point as Raymond Watts sings on Diamond Sinners and other industrial songs about the many people who are left out of heaven. Well, morally one should presumably care about the well being of all human beings and not some chosen few. So again Satan represents something good. It’s a brilliantly conceived turn of sin into rock thematics and aesthetics with big ideas and fine musicianship, and the album and the live performance are both so good that it’s hard to choose which version of the band is better, but it’s hard to find a better live rock band now than Behemoth.
For all the controversy that Satan may cause, in some ways, the future that Nergal wants is the one that started with Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and democratic revolutions around the world under the Enlightenment. It’s a world where people are free to think and decide things for themselves and a world in which rationality is more important than myth. Christianity is tied deeply to the kings of Europe, to imperial Rome, and to dogmatic oppression of human beings by other people who are not really godly but are often corrupt. Alongside the rise of Behemoth as such an important band with such powerful criticisms against western institutions, we have also seen the rise of a disturbing authoritarianism around the world. Clearly something is wrong with mainstream society and its values, and the mainstream press is a joke for not taking underground art and music more seriously for rejecting so much that is broken. Behemoth want to be our saviors by rejecting corruption, abuses of power, dogmatism, and illegitimate authority over other people. Those seem like noble artistic goals.