“I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend…” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost
You often hear accounts of people who have stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale, whether after freak accidents or life-threatening illnesses. These stories often speak of a new appreciation for what really counts in the life of that person. It’s as if coming close to the one thing that no one on this earth can explain and turning your back on it to carry on living removes the fear that exists within most of us regardless of our religious/non-religious beliefs. The survivor sees with a renewed sense of purpose, and life is never really the same again. That’s something the rest of us may never understand because we’re wrapped in trivialities that blind our focus and take away our strength as well as our ability to live each day as if it was our last.
This February the metal world’s focus is firmly placed on one band: Behemoth. The Polish band’s leader Adam “Nergal” Darski’s battle with leukaemia, which demanded a bone marrow transplant to save his life, has been much publicized since he was diagnosed with the disease in 2010. And so too has the success of his eventual recovery in late 2011. The most significant point to be taken from the time spanning Nergal’s diagnosis to his defeat of the disease is how this staunch Satanist refused to renounce his beliefs even when death’s scythe was scraping at his door. For an individual who has also faced and evaded the litigious hammer swinging from charges of blasphemy in his homeland, Nergal’s continued (public) dedication to his complex faith is impressive. Not only that, since he made his first appearance post-illness as a guest at a Fields of the Nephilim gig in May of 2011 to sing “Penetration”, Nergal’s determination to push Behemoth’s music and ideologies even further into the consciousness of metal’s mainstream is indicative of the clarity of vision only understood by a survivor.
The Satanist is a definitive statement for the individual and for renewed strength resulting from waging war against adversity, and it is by far the most focused, ruthless and powerful album of the band’s 23-year existence. For a band perched at the precipice of total metal domination, The Satanist is also an extremely uncompromising and uncommercial album that sees Behemoth draw heavily from the black metal side of their sound while maintaining the imperial death metal that began to take shape around the time of 1999’s Satanica. This album’s grandiose expanse recalls 2009’s Evangelion but with the added viciousness that has being missing from Behemoth since the triumphant Demigod conquered all back in 2004. Yet, most noticeably, there is a tangible air of defiance that exudes tremendous strength throughout each of the nine songs, both thematically and musically, that no other Behemoth album holds so emphatically from beginning to end.
“Lucifer”, the final song from Evangelion, whether intentionally or not, acts as a gateway between the Behemoth of old and the band that stands a dominant figure before us now. The four-piece—rounded out by drummer Inferno, guitarist Seth and bassist Orion—learned a valuable lesson from that song: that musical complexity does not necessarily equate to power, and that power can exist in slower tempos and simpler instrumentation once played with passion. This passion and understanding of pairing a song back to its vital base elements has carried through to The Satanist, and this songwriting direction is one of the reasons why this album is a resounding success.
It has been reported that while writing the music for The Satanist, Inferno mentioned to Nergal that he could hear the leukaemia in his riffs. From the instance you are hit with the strident riffs of opener, and first single, “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, you have to concede to this evocative statement. This song marches at a deliberate, confident pace and Nergal’s blasphemous lyrics are delivered with devilry wrought with humanity—an important change from his blunt, guttural bark of yore. Nergal’s raw humanity is an interesting contrast when introduced to the elevated black metal that howls across “Furor Divinus” and “Messe Noire”, as the past percussiveness of his vocals is replaced by a relatable anguish that permeates the entire album, giving each song an energy that’s breathtaking in its fluency.
Interestingly, the Poles’ modus operandi for The Satanist is to finally separate Behemoth from the bands they have been weighed against in the past; Morbid Angel, Vader and Nile being inescapable comparisons. And even though you can hear certain influences—for example, the Dissection-esque riffs that storm through “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” and stomp of Gojira during the surprisingly hook-laden title-track—Behemoth achieve their ambitious aspirations through ravenous self-confidence and controlled chaos. From the stalking beginnings of “Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel” to the superior orchestration of “In the Absense Ov Light”, and the emotional highpoint that is the ferocious, regal and cinematic closer “O Father O Satan O Sun!” there is not an ounce of excess on this album, symptomatic of the meticulous song-craft on show. This year you will be presented with hundreds of metal albums, some worth your devotion and some not, but you will be hard pressed to find another album that is as essential and equal parts human and inhuman as The Satanist, a world-beating return from near death for Behemoth’s enigmatic emperor.