It’s strange how the pieces have finally fallen into place for Behemoth. A decade after putting themselves on the extreme metal map with the revelatory Demigod, the Poles are poised for a different kind of breakthrough altogether, via extraordinary circumstances no one could possibly have written. Behemoth’s star has always been on the rise, but it’s been more baby steps than giant leaps. 2007’s The Apostasy notched a decent 5,000 in first-week US sales, while the 2009 follow-up Evangelion improved with a debut week of 8,500. While a top five-charting band in their home country, they were still a top 40 act at best in the rest of Europe, not exactly dominant on a continent where metal is mainstream. Then came the notoriety, and then the illness. Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Adam “Nergal” Darski was put on trial in Catholic-dominated Poland for publicly denouncing religion after he ripped a Bible at a concert, which became a popular topic among metal fans and media, becoming somewhat of a cause célèbre. Not long after, Darski was diagnosed with leukemia, requiring a bone marrow transplant. Word about his situation spread fast, more and more casual metal fans became aware of Behemoth’s music when reading about Darski’s situation, and by the time he and the band made a triumphant return after beating the disease, Behemoth was suddenly an upper-tier metal act, headlining major European festivals, let alone a highly successful US tour with Watain. By the time 2013 rolled around demand for a new album was ridiculously high, but that summer drummer Inferno fell ill, the band dropped off the Mayhem tour – which had been a real coup for them – and the new record was pushed back to 2014.
Well, it’s 2014, and The Satanist is finally out for everyone to devour, and it is one hell of a statement. For a band that knows full well how poised it is for a major breakthrough, The Satanist is remarkably, impressively uncompromising. Aside from the cunning placement of the record’s lone “accessible” track “Blow Your Trumpets, Gabriel” at the beginning of the album – the similar “Lucifer” closed Evangelion – not a whit has changed in Behemoth’s approach. Formulaically it is the same death metal laced with black metal that Nergal and his mates have been plying for years, constructed around colossal lead riffs, throttling, blastbeat-driven drumming, and that massive vocal roar of Nergal.
What has changed, crucially, is how the band has created more space for the music to breathe. Behemoth’s music has always been awesome in every sense of the word, but if it had a fault it was that it was too impenetrable, a challenge for listeners to fully immerse themselves in its dense, loudly mastered sounds. While the songs and instrumentation are still very much unrelenting, the production by Behemoth, Daniel Bergstrand, and Wojciech and Sławomir Wiesławski clears away a good deal of clutter, which highlights some extraordinary, dynamic songwriting by Darski on such ornate, towering highlights as “Messe Noire”, “Amen”, and the stunning, dramatic finale “O Father O Satan O Sun!”. Couple that with some inspired use of horns and Darski’s incredible ability to enunciate while delivering a death metal growl – his lyrics are indomitable, not to mention deliciously blasphemous – and you’ve got an album that leaves an immediate impression, one that’s difficult to shake. The wait has been worth it. Darski and Behemoth have returned better than they’ve ever sounded, with the triumphant album so many people had been hoping for. Welcome to the big leagues, guys.
Behemoth’s The Satanist is out now on Metal Blade.
Also out this week:
Abyssal, Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius (Iron Bonehead): With Grave Miasma and now Abyssal, it seems as though the danker, stenchier side of death metal is really starting to percolate in the UK. This second album by Abyssal, originally self-released a year ago, has been reissued as a double LP by Iron Bonehead, and upon listening you can hear why. Technically adept and claustrophobic as hell, song craft is never overwhelmed, making for a harrowing experience on such tracks as “Under the Wretched Sun of Hattin” and “A Malthusian Epoch”. This is an all-too rare example of an extreme metal band setting out to embody evil, and actually succeeding for once.
Battle Beast, Battle Beast (Nuclear Blast): So what we have here is a Finnish band trying desperately to sound like Lordi, but instead of dressing up in silly costumes they have a woman singer who sounds so much like Udo Dirkschneider that it’s disturbing. Synth-adorned arrangements, cock rock riffs, dance beats, and truly dumb song ideas (“Black Ninja”?) dominate an album so thin and hollow you expect to find a Kinder toy inside. But there is none, it's not yummy, and there's just deplorable music.
Corpsessed, Abysmal Thresholds (Dark Descent): Formulaic but very, very dark, doom-tinged death metal that vividly evokes winter darkness, hellacious cold, bleak outlooks on life, and that disgusting vodka-Fisherman’s Friend concoction Finns drink.
Exmortus, Slave To The Sword (Prosthetic): It’s a shame this California band didn’t become any bigger during that thrash revival of the late-2000s, but they’re still plugging away, and their third album is more of the shred-centric thrash that drew me to them six years ago. Rampaging, but with a keen ear for neoclassical melody (check out the performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”), the kind of ferocity, flamboyance, and discipline you don’t see enough of in American thrash.
For Today, Fight the Silence (Razor & Tie): Tokyo Blade Rule invoked.
Grand Magus, Triumph and Power (Nuclear Blast): It’s steady as she goes for the ever-reliable Swedes, and that’s all their fans expect of them. Typical of a heavy metal band that stubbornly sticks to a simple, straightforward formula, the alterations from album to album are very subtle, and Grand Magus’s seventh album is a slight tweak of what folks heard on 2012’s excellent The Hunt. While that record channeled the band’s Rainbow fandom to delightful effect, this time around the melodies, while still plenty contagious, are offset by a heavier side more reminiscent of 2010’s Hammer of the North. Accentuated by moody Viking themed instrumentals and bolstered by such hooky fist-bangers as “Steel Versus Steel”, “Dominator”, and “Holmgang” – with JB Christoffersson’s robust singing front and center – this is yet another successful record by a band that deserved to be much more popular than it is. And oh my, the artwork. Don’t sleep on this one.
MaYan, Antagonise (Nuclear Blast): There are times when you can sense Mark Jansen’s band zeroing on a cool symphonic death metal sound, but like the worst moments of his old band After Forever, the music often sinks into a mess of operatic melodrama and arbitrarily arranged, overlong songs masquerading as “progressive”. Simplify, man!
Metal Noam, Avram (Mountastic): Part whimsical, part serious, this Noam Chomsky-inspired project juxtaposes speeches by the philosopher and activist with various forms of heavy music in an attempt to accentuate the message musically. And strangely, it actually works, as the Portland trio creates an effective, complementary backdrop for the soundbites rather than drowning out the spoken word with arbitrary metal racket. I’d like to hear more of this project.
Prostitute Disfigurement, From Crotch To Crown (Willowtip): Grisly artwork and all – what do you expect from a band called Prostitute Disfigurement? – this is a tremendous fifth album by the Dutch band that gives Cannibal Corpse a serious run for its money: catchy songs, technical wizardry, unrelenting death metal, graphic lyrics. My bud and fellow prom dress metal sympathizer Jeff Treppel premiered the album yesterday, and it’s totally worth hearing, not to mention buying.
Within Temptation, Hydra (Nuclear Blast): When it comes to girly prom dress metal, no band is classier and more tasteful than Within Temptation. While other symphonic bands either lose themselves in a riptide of musical bombast or pull off awkward attempts at active rock crossover, the Dutch band does everything with grace, from the songwriting to the beautifully restrained singing of Sharon den Adel. So it comes as a bit troubling to find their latest album is laden with guest appearances, ranging from Tarja Turunen, to Howard Jones (the former Killswitch guy, not the ‘80s synthpop guy), to Dave Pirner (?), to rapper Xzibit. Consequently it feels as though Within Temptation is overshooting its target just a touch, the out-of-date rap/metal/power ballad hybrid “And We Run” a glaring, overbearing example. Make no mistake, there’s some tremendous material here when it’s just Sharon and the band (instant classic “Let Us Burn”, “Silver Moonlight”, “Roses”, “Tell Me Why”), but compared to the last two albums, which were simply stellar, this feels unfocused in comparison.