Behemoth is undoubtedly one of the most popular and one of the most divisive bands in extreme metal today. Lead vocalist Adam “Nergal” Darski is a celebrity in his homeland of Poland, having appeared on their version of The Voice and yet having also been charged by the Polish Supreme Court of violating hate speech laws. The band as a whole is embraced by fans and yet derided by metal purists who regard Behemoth’s albums as shallow. All this, combined with Nergal’s much publicized near-death experience with leukemia back in 2010, ensured that The Satanist – the first Behemoth album since 2009’s Evangelion – was going to be one of the most anticipated extreme metal releases of 2014.
Does The Satanist, which was released in February of this year, live up to five years of anticipation?
Behemoth is a band that has gone through numerous musical evolutions throughout their 23-year career, starting out as black metal, gradually moving on to a black metal/death metal hybrid, and ultimately shifting to a predominantly death metal style. 2009’s Evangelion was essentially a continuation of this latter style, the sound of which was codified by Behemoth’s 2002 album Zos Kia Cultus (Here and Beyond), but that album also contained some unique elements of its own. Evangelion was rife with numerous slower, atmospheric passages, best exemplified by album closer “Lucifer,” an 8-minute-and-change dirge designed seemingly to grind the listener into submission. It is from that track that The Satanist derives much of its sound; compared to a majority of Behemoth’s 2000s output, the tempo is slower, the songwriting more dynamic, and there is a distinct sense of viciousness throughout that is lacking in prior albums.
Take, for instance, album opener (and advance single) “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel.” Past Behemoth openers have charged ahead with the energy and fury of a conquering army right from the start, but “Blow Your Trumpets…” is content to sit in duple meter for its first half, steadily building around a massive riff, a surprisingly prominent bass line, and straightforward, militaristic drumming. But then Nergal utters the line “Nations fall prey, hail my return” and the guitar drops out a moment later, letting the bass and drums lead for a bit before the song erupts into a bludgeoning maelstrom. It is at that moment that the band sounds more vital and alive than they perhaps ever have before.
This varied, almost progressive sense of songwriting is present everywhere throughout The Satanist. “In the Absence ov Light” blitzes right out of the gate but changes gears a minute or so in, shifting to a bizarre spoken word passage with accompaniment by acoustic guitar and saxophone. “O Father O Satan O Sun!” is one of the most ambitious songs Behemoth has ever performed – Nergal’s voice is backed throughout by choir vocals and orchestral flourishes, and musically the song moves between driving riffs, bluesy solos, and a spoken word outro. The song sounds truly Apocalyptic, as though Behemoth has moved on from slaying the prophets and is now at war with God himself. Even more straightforward songs like “Furor Divinus” or “Amen” contain enough variety in riffing and tempo to ensure that The Satanist never becomes repetitive.
Musically, Behemoth is in top form as usual. Nergal’s vocals are not multi-tracked as they had been for the past several albums, giving his voice more clarity, and the style of his vocals is more a black metal growl than a death metal bark. He, along with session musician and unofficial member Seth, are responsible for the guitar work, and both men provide a swathe of crushing riffs and atmospheric solos. Bassist Orion is usually the odd man out on Behemoth recordings but on The Satanist he is allowed to shine; the bass has a solid, deep presence on every song, and there are numerous sections where a bass line leads or otherwise drives a song forward, rather than just simply providing a bottom-end for the guitars. Drummer Inferno reins in his usual technical frenzy a bit, providing some more subtle fills and rhythms, but for the most part still plays as though he has eight arms, which is never a bad thing for extreme metal. The production style of the album allows each musician to shine without ever coming off as overly clean or sterile.
It is rare for a band to release their magnum opus 20 years after formation, but with The Satanist, Behemoth has done just that. It is accessible yet complex, bombastic yet incredibly listenable. It is an affirmation of over two decades of musical output, and yet also forges ahead in new directions. The Satanist is, in short, the best album Behemoth has released to date, and is strongly recommended for any extreme metal fan. Satan has been revered in metal music for quite some time, but it is rare than an offering to him is this accomplished.