I hadn’t intended to review The Satanist; Behemoth has long been a favorite band of mine and I had planned to enjoy their first new recording in five years purely as a fan. Sometimes it’s good to just kick back and blast an album at top volume without having to analyze its every nook and cranny, and I was looking forward to doing just that. But the thing is, while I certainly didn’t expect Behemoth to disappoint, I also didn’t expect them to take such a stunning turn, releasing one of their best albums to date a full twenty-three years deep into their career.
Behemoth’s evolution from traditional corpsepaint-clad black metal to full-on bulldozing death metal has been well documented, and by the time The Apostasy manifested itself back in 2007, it felt like the Polish madmen had taken that sound to its logical conclusion. A more pronounced emphasis on atmosphere and slower tempos began to creep in on 2009’s Evangelion, but even that couldn’t prepare fans for what Behemoth has achieved with The Satanist. It is evident that vocalist/guitarist/mastermind Nergal has looked to the band’s pure black metal past in order to move forward, imbuing the music with a truly malevolent feeling while at the same time sacrificing none of the power and intensity of the last few albums.
Speaking of Nergal, the man has become something of an iconoclast in the past few years, fronting one of the most popular current extreme metal bands while at the same time dating a platinum selling pop star and appearing on the Polish version of The Voice. This supposedly contradictory behavior has lead to some derision in metal circles, but I honestly can’t think of anything more satanic than appearing on a top-rated television show and dating someone who’s been dubbed one of the most influential women in your country. Somewhere in Hell, Anton LaVey is surely looking up at Nergal and smiling.
No surprise then that Nergal’s interpretation of Satanism is integral to The Satanist (yes folks, it’s more than just a snappy title), twisting and inverting passages taken directly from the Roman Catholic Mass (as of 2007, 88.4% of Poland’s population belonged to the church) to his own ends, writing lyrics around them that energize the music with a very real sense of empowerment. In fact, this might be the most lyrically mature and interesting album in Behemoth’s catalog. While those unfamiliar with Catholicism will likely see this as just more of the usual heavy metal Satanism, those of us that grew up with or have an interest in the religion will find so much to dig into and dissect that it practically warrants a review unto itself. It’s often said that lyrics don’t matter in extreme metal, but every word lurking within The Satanist‘s shadowy confines begs to differ.
Of course, the lyrics are only the tip of the iceberg, and I’m happy to report that the album is just as compelling musically as it is lyrically. The Satanist is arguably Behemoth’s darkest album to date, thanks to the expert synthesis of the band’s 2nd wave-style blackened roots with the bludgeoning death metal of they’ve been churning out since 2004’s Demigod. The thing one immediately notices is the amount of space in the mix; recent Behemoth albums have largely been claustrophobic mazes of riffs and relentless blastbeats, as dense as a wall of solid concrete and as punishing as having your face repeatedly bashed into said wall, but this is not the case with The Satanist. Even when the band are in all-guns-blazing mode, there is breathing room for each instrument (you can hear the bass!) and an atmosphere far more nuanced than simply being beaten down by sheer volume.
The album begins with “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel,” a slower piece that perfectly showcases Behemoth’s newly honed sense of subtlety and dynamics, going almost a full two-and-a-half minutes before the blasting carnage begins. The track builds to an epic climax, setting the stage for “Furor Divinus,” which is a down ‘n’ dirty traditional black metal track loaded with killer riffs. This opening pair of songs sets the stage for an album that fits together beautifully as a whole, its ebb and flow from moody dirges such as “Messe Noir” and the title track to the blinding rage of “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” “Amen” and “Ben Sahar” to the strangely uplifting finale that is “O Father O Satan O Sun!” a testament to Behemoth’s off-the-charts level of songwriting acumen and attention to detail. The Satanist is a pleasure to listen to not just because it gets the ol’ head a-banging, but because it’s such a finely-crafted album in every respect.
Behemoth have returned with an album that is truly stellar on all fronts; lyrically, conceptually and musically they have quite simply set the bar for major league extreme metal in 2014. Hard to believe that this is the work of a band that was very nearly derailed by Nergal’s highly publicized battle with leukemia; in listening to it you’d never think for even a second that it was born of near tragedy as Behemoth move from strength to strength throughout its forty-five minute running time. Indeed, The Satanist is a triumph that already has a place on my year end list.