Extreme metal is rarely ever this classy.
Vader have long been regarded as the finest metal band to come out of the healthy Polish heavy metal scene, but over the past few years, Behemoth have amassed a catalogue that's become every bit as impressive. Plying their trade since 1991, the black metal trio turned heads with their 2001 album Thelema 6 and 2003's Zos Kia Kultus (Here and Beyond), the increased attention in the metal community due in part to the band's signing to Olympic Records, allowing North and South American audiences to find out for themselves just what the big deal was. Now, with the release of their seventh album, Demigod, Behemoth not only stake their claim as the finest metal outfit in Eastern Europe, but they now stand as one of the best bands in the genre today, period.
As opposed to the highly theatrical, symphonic, over-the-top satanic antics of the two most popular purveyors of black metal in the world, Norway's Dimmu Borgir and England's Cradle of Filth, Behemoth simplify things, downplaying the ostentatiousness of it all, and focus on nothing more than crisply produced, immaculately executed, and surprisingly accessible aggressive music. Sure, many of the characteristics of black metal are present: the rapid-fire rat-tat-tats of drummer Inferno, the guttural spewage of vocalist/guitarist Nergal (which, quite frankly, is more impressive than your usual extreme metal vocals), some great song titles such as "Mysterium Coniunctionis (Hermanubis)", and band members named Inferno and Nergal. However, underneath the cacophony lurk plenty of sly guitar harmonies that snake in and around the songs, and riffs that sound more indebted to late 1980s underground acts like Death and Kreator. In fact, Demigod, as brutally relentless as it is, is actually one of the most pleasant black metal albums you'll ever hear.
The fact that Nergal plays down the whole devil worshiping shtick in favor of more thought-provoking themes is bound to please anyone who easily tires of the same old thing from such bands, and that refreshing lyrical depth, combined with the simplicity and economy of the songs (which rarely go over four minutes), is what ultimately wins the listener over. The majestic opening track "Sculpting the Throne ov Seth" has Nergal musing that all people are gods themselves (perhaps an indictment of the Catholic Church's influence in their homeland), while the song careens at a pace that rivals the late, great underground metal progenitors Death. The blindingly fast "XUL" combines a spectacular performance by the band (and guest soloist Karl Sanders, from Nile) with a compelling theme centered around ancient Sumerian mythology, and if that weren't enough, "Before Aeons Came" is a terrific, midtempo metal reading of 19th Century English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Atlanta in Calydon". The instantly memorable "Conquer All" is the album's finest track, constructed around a contagious riff that sounds lifted from Anthrax's 1989 tune "Be All End All", the lyrics an interpretation of text by Alistair Crowley that border on sounding like a demonic motivational speech: "I am the pure flame that burns . . . I am the infinite space / I am the most conquering One."
Although Demigod zips along at a fresh, 40-minute pace, there's still room for one epic track, and the eight and a half minute album closer "The Reign ov Shemsu-Hor" brings the festivities to a fitting climax. Presented in three movements, the song delves headlong into Egyptology; the first movement ("The Forgiven Legacy ov a Forbidden Race") a simple, thunderous thrash metal instrumental, the second ("Invocation ov the Watch Gods") an explosion of Meshuggah-style syncopation and tightly wound riffs, and the third ("The Splendourous Return") a dramatic outro containing that mix of black and death metal that the band does so well.
Superbly mixed by Daniel Bergstrand, who has worked with such luminaries as Strapping Young Lad, Meshuggah, and In Flames, Demigod is everything one would want from a metal album; it's aggressive enough to take chances, but grounded by enough harmonies and well-read lyrical content to prevent it from either becoming too lofty, or stumbling towards self-parody for casual listeners. We're barely into 2005, yet we've already heard one of the year's standout metal releases.