(BadWolf reviews the new album by Poland’s Behemoth.)
Behemoth’s The Satanist is, without a doubt, the first highly-anticipated 2014 metal release by any band, in any sub-genre. Metal writers have been salivating over its impending release for years, and I am no exception—the NCS crew actually squabbled a bit over who would have the privilege of reviewing it. In light of this, the most important thing I can say about The Satanist is that even if it were another record, by a different band, I would still be listening to it daily.
Many people will listen to The Satanist on repeat, and write volumes about it. Most of those reviews and think pieces will fail to capture the album. Instead, they will be lost in the maelstrom of rich narrative history surrounding the creation of the record and the life of Behemoth’s frontman Nergal during the past few years.
For those unaware, a quick recap of those circumstances: Nergal got engaged to the biggest pop star in his native Poland, faced blasphemy charges in his native Poland, was acquitted of said charges in his native Poland, contracted leukemia in his native Poland, beat leukemia in his native Poland, broke things off with the biggest pop star in his native Poland, judged an American Idol-style singing show in his native Poland, was fired from said show in his native Poland, faced even more blasphemy charges in his native Poland, headlined the inaugural Decibel Magazine tour albeit not in his native Poland, made the cover of Newsweek in his native Poland, and was also acquitted of that last round of blasphemy charges in his native Poland.
The takeaway from all this drama: nothing Nergal has recently done has any relation to making music with Behemoth.
Keeping that in mind, I did not expect The Satanist to be any good at all. Without the rose-tinted glasses, I see Nergal as an excellent showman who wrote one grand-slam album (2004’s essential Demigod) and then a series of sometimes-awesome-sometimes-lazy followups (The Apostasy did not try hard enough, Evangelion tried entirely too hard).
First single “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” did not assuage my fears. The song took too long to reach any complexity, and spent most of its run time sounding like three guys just downstroking an open guitar and letting it ring over and over. It’s a fine tune, but not the imperial battle cry that an album like The Satanist needs. Thankfully, it turns out “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” opens the record, and it’s the only half-baked tune on the disc. In fact, taken in context, I like the song more.
Nergal’s first album in five years is not lazy at all—it is relaxed, by Nergal’s standards. The songs on The Satanist are eager to please, but don’t showboat. On the one hand, it feels like a worthy successor to Demigod and on the other it feels like a pivot in Nergal’s songwriting. It’s less interested in battering the listener over the head than it is in getting inside your head.
The Satanist exercises great sensibilities and presentation—the little pieces of Behemoth’s music that make it exceptional each received an individual spit-and-polish. Nergal has a talent for great guitar solos which frequently wind up buried under the rest of his songs, but The Satanist puts his leads front and center, such as the standout solo that closes “Messe Noire.” Behemoth has also long-toyed with big, slow groove bits (see “Shemhamforash” on the last album), but too often they felt like the ritual slamming on “Blow…” No longer.
“Ben Sahar,” for example, rides a Bolt Thrower-esque rumble for much of its run time. Nergal bellows through it all with a conviction that he too often hid with studio trickery. There was something intimidating about his blast-furnace double-takes on previous Behemoth records, but Behemoth’s music has never been about the inhuman horror of spirituality. Rather, Nergal celebrates individuality and the ascendant nature of free will. These more organic vocals suit that theme better.
But the MVP on The Satanist is bassist Orion. He’s dialed in a fat tone clearly distinct from Nergal and Seth’s guitar, and frequently plays counterpoint to the remaining string section. For the first time, I can hear his fills and melodic sensibility. He actually carries the title track more than the guitar does. Drummer Inferno has needed to switch-up his (quite predictable) game just to keep up. There’s fewer blasts and more arena-rock drum bits.
The Satanist is going to make a lot of money by death metal standards. That was the case before we heard a single note of music—Nergal’s narrative is a powerful enough selling point to push the record. However, all this refinement means that The Satanist might be the sort of record that people refer to for years; it’s going to make a spectacular gateway album for listeners just beginning the journey into extreme metal. Put another way: all the bandying about Watain’s last album being ‘the Black Album of blackened death metal’ would have been more appropriate for this album.
The Satanist is going to turn people on to this culture, and it’s going to do it without any obvious platitudes, like symphonies or clean-singing ballads (which is not a diss on ballads, I love them, but that’s just not Behemoth). The album does have its flirtations with both—there’s a few snatches of trumpets on several songs, and even a snippet of clean sung/spoken word poetry on the penultimate track “In the Absence ov Light.” These additions seem decorative, as opposed to talking points—The Satanist isn’t the kind of cake you eat just to have a face full of frosting, there’s substance in the dough, the primary building blocks of it.
“This universe has never been enough,” Nergal sings. His ambition has always been the ultimate point of any Behemoth record, more so than any fallen angel, mythological or not. Too often he’s let lack of musical ideas and questionable production choices stand in the way of that ambition. The Satanist, however, presents an album that lives up to its creator’s charisma.
The Satanist will be released in North America on February 4 by Metal Blade. Videos are below, and at least for the moment, the entire album is now streaming on Spotify (player link below, though you’ll have to sign up to hear it).