One of the greatest drummers in the history of metal died Friday. Thanks for the great tunes, Sean — hope you’re enjoying things on the other side of the Veil.
Like you don’t know who Behemoth is. What, you’re here because you thought this was a science blog? Okay, sorry…
Behemoth is a 4-piece death metal coven from Poland. They’ve been around forever. The band was formed in 1991, back when I was screwing around in my first band playing crappy rip-offs of Celtic Frost and Slayer. Of course, that’s probably what Nergal was doing too, at the time, but hey, it worked for him, and I ended up as a scruffy scientist. Go figure.
Behemoth exuded a number of solid necro-strength black metal records in the 90’s and then graduated to fancy studio-quality death metal in the aughties, resulting in American tours and substantial financial success. I saw them at some point around 2004 (the Demigod tour, I believe) at the Masquerade in Atlanta. My recollection is that they had very creepy Polynesian masks or something. It was definitely their image that stuck with me more than their music. Behemoth definitely has a unique, and unignorable, fashion sense:
Their latest album, The Satanist, is definitely worth a listen or 5. It’s got all the elements that make me seethe with pleasant hatred. It alternates between head-bobbing moshy bits and blast-beating air-drumming sections — check out the dynamic range between tracks 4 (“Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer”, the best single track on the record), 5, and 6. It’s got a bunch of those 8va wheedly-wheedly riffs that cut through the bassy chaos like the screams of pitchforked sinners. There are some great hooks on this record, bits that will stick in your head and have you singing lyrics like
over and over around your unsuspecting work friends. The drums are distinct but not too triggery — the individual toms are distinguishable from time to time, and you can even hear what appear to be actual cymbals here and there. And there are synths that are cleverly and effectively worked into the music, adding atmosphere and depth. For instance, there are “horns” in track 6 — the title track, “The Satanist” — that sound quite solid. The obvious comparison is the horns in Emperor’s “Alsvartr” — an otherwise spectacular track, but when the horns pop in, first-time listeners have a tendency to sit up and say “What the fuck is that shit?” No, Behemoths’ horns work, and the synths return in the epic final track “O Father O Satan O Sun” to produce a many-layered, vocoded choir praising the Adversary. It works. Hail Satan, dude.
You can’t talk about Behemoth without talking about Nergal, the vocalist/lead guitarist. He’s the only permanent member, and based on the liner notes he literally wrote everything on this record, lyrics and music. Never mind that he was incapacitated for a year or so by a well-publicized bout of leukemia. I suppose he’s a very motivated guy, and he’s certainly open to voicing his opinions. But as I look at the lyrics, and the art, and everything about Nergal’s band, I find myself asking, “What does this guy actually believe?”
First, I’ve got to give him credit for writing lyrics in reasonably well-assembled English. That’s a rarity even amongst English-as-a-first-language death metal bands.
But where is he going with some of this stuff? I get it that Behemoth is all about “the occult” whatever that means. Sort of moving backwards from the rest of the metal world, they’ve moved from Heathen-inspired themes in their old work to “Satanic” themes on their later records. Sometimes I look at Nergal’s stuff and I wonder if he’s serious, or if he’s subtly making fun of people like me. There’s a lot of Bible-inspired antichristian crap in there, all swallowed up with fancy words to make it seem more high-brow than “Hell Awaits“. There’s also a lot of occulty buzzwords that pop up — “Zos Kia” and “Thelema” and all that. There’s a lot of penis imagery and solar ideolatry — not sure whether David Wong or Louis Farrakhan is a stronger influence for some of these ideas, but hey, if you’re going to start a cult, might as well do it with swastikas and giant dongs.
So who is “The Satanist” in this record? If I give up my idea that I’m being made fun of by Nergal, I might believe that he sees the image of Satan as I do — the “Adversary” of, well, whatever. In Heathen philosophy, this entity would be the embodiment of the “utangard“, the lawless realms outside of society. In this incarnation, Satan is the “God of the Middle Finger”, the eternal fly in the ointment, and the Reason We Can’t Have Nice Things. Here’s a great line from the title track:
I am the fly that flew forth from the ark
Yeah, cause the Noah myth is all in the news now, with big Russell Crowe biceps and all. Jehovah’s awesome genocidal plan to fix the world was screwed from the beginning, because all the corruption of reality followed along with whatever life “He” sought to preserve. Decay and horror and conflict are inevitable products of natural systems.
So that urge to say “No, you are fucking wrong” is the embodiment of Satanism. Scientists, every time you peer-review your colleagues’ work and say, “This is total shit,” you are doing the work of the Devil. You ought to say, “Oh, we’re all the same, I feel your pain, it’s hard to get a job, here’s a publication, I hope things work out for you.” But instead you say, “Your ANOVA was calculated wrong. Go back to grad school, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.” SATAN.
Really, guys. Quit trying to cozy up to the christers and play nice, like you’d be on their side but for the evolution thing. No, there’s an insuperable void separating us. We scientists aren’t just doing Satan’s work, our whole system is the living embodiment of Satanism, and in fact only works because of our absolute philosophical devotion to Satan and his ideals. \m/
Moving on: all in all, this is my favorite Behemoth record so far. All their earlier albums have toyed with ideas and musical motifs that had the sort of suggestion that sort of maybe they would be awesome at some point in the future, but on The Satanist those elements are finally starting to come together. Behemoth isn’t going to become my favorite band any time soon, but this is a strong album and further cements their position in the canon of extreme metal.
*** I can’t comment on The Satanist‘s packaging because my CD got lost in the mail. Fortunately, I was able to download it thanks to Amazon’s cloud player service. But still, the shoddy delivery service we get from UPS etc. makes my mission of lauding physical music substantially more difficult.
Fleshgod Apocalypse is a 5-piece technical death metal band from Italy. Their latest effort, Labyrinth, is a full-on concept album telling the epic story of the Labyrinth of Crete and the tragic figures surrounding it. Tracks 2 and 7 are told from the perspective of Asterion, the Minotaur, the unnatural and hated offspring of the Queen of Crete’s affair with a particularly gorgeous bull. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her husband the king doesn’t like having evidence of her bizarre proclivities hanging about, and so the monster is imprisoned in a marvelous prison, the Labyrinth. Incidentally, the Labyrinth was constructed by none other than Daedalus, father of ill-fated Icarus (Track 4); Daedalus was also responsible for arranging the queen’s tryst with the bull, and in general is probably the first example in history of a scientist with serious ethical problems.
Most of the album, however, tells the story of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and eventual king of Athens. After Athens was subjugated by Crete, the Athenians were compelled every nine years to send 14 tributes — 7 boys and 7 girls — to Crete to face the man-eating Minotaur for the pleasure of the Cretan king. Perhaps seeing 2500 years into the future and channeling the power of Katniss Everdeen, Theseus went to Crete as a tribute and, rather than humbly going to his doom, killed the Minotaur, freed the other tributes, and escaped from Crete. But since nobody in a Greek story can be happy, his failure to take down the black sails from his ship as he returned home resulted in his father’s suicide (Tracks 9 and 10). Thus, Theseus returned home victorious to find himself king, but at the cost of losing his father. Brutal.
Labyrinth tells a great story, and it does it with dynamics worthy of a classical Greek tragedy. The album starts kind of slow; the first two tracks come off as a bit overdone and all-over-the-place, but by track 3 you’re starting to get used to Fleshgod’s unique operatic style. The music continues to develop, reaching a peak with track 6, “Pathfinder”, which I consider to be the best song on the album:
This track is huge, both lyrically and musically, and really captures the internal struggle of a hero against impossible odds. In a classic tragedy, the highest emotional point is right at the middle, and “Pathfinder” serves that purpose well. Fleshgod keeps building the power, and even if you were a little dubious about the record at first, they’ve really won you over by the end. “Epilogue”, which covers Theseus’ father’s suicide, is pure pathos, and really is the album’s denouement. Seriously, the record feels like a play, which I think was probably the band’s intent, so kudos, guys. They should invite you to write a soundtrack for Antigone. If the scumbags in Hollywood keep remaking all my favorite movies from the 70’s and 80’s, Fleshgod has to do the soundtrack for Suspiria.
Fleshgod’s last record, Agony, was one of my favorite albums of the past few years. Their drummer, Francesco Paolini, totally slays, and even if every other aspect of their music was complete shit they’d be worth listening to just for his skills. But what I really love about this band is their willingness to take risks with their music while still staying withing their genre. I love the incorporation of wacky musical gizmos into metal, and the explosion of pagan folk metal bands over the last decade has been really fun.
But there’s only so many didgeridoo solos you can take before you want to get back to the basics — drums, guitars, vocals, and maybe a keyboard. Fleshgod pushes those instruments to their extreme limits. Their use of operatic male vocals is (to my knowledge) unique in metal. Sure, there are lots of virtuoso, classically-trained singers in metal and always have been, and indeed sometimes Paolo Rossi’s melodramatic crooning reminds me of a Geoff Tate or even King Diamond. But for the most part, actual opera-style singing has been limited to female-fronted D&D-bait bands. In this regard, Fleshgod Apocalypse is sort of like the unholy Minotaur offspring you’d get if Nightwish‘s Tarja Turunen climbed into a wooden bull and banged all the guys from Pestilence.
I also love how Fleshgod makes the keyboard a frontline instrument without sacrificing brutality. Usually keys are only in the atmospheric bits of a song — the old “intro” effect. The keyboardist is crammed into the back of the stage somewhere, or sometimes the keys are just a backing track — an afterthought. No doubt, keys and orchestration are both important and well-executed on Labyrinth and all of Fleshgod’s albums. And on Agony, it worked, godsdammit, and unfortunately it worked better than it works on Labyrinth. Probably the reason that keys aren’t featured more prominently in metal is the difficulty of mixing them with the guitars and vocals. There’s only so many sounds you can pack into the mid registers before it just turns into a jumbled mess. The engineering on Agony was exquisite — everything was crystal clear — but the guitars are just gone in most of Labyrinth‘s tracks. “Epilogue” is honestly the only song on the album where the guitars are prominent outside of the solos. And while all the background choirs contribute greatly to the epic atmosphere of the album, sometimes you kind of wish you could hear what those voices are saying… it’s all just a reverby mess down in there. It would really be wonderful to hear Fleshgod record with an engineer who really knows how to meld electronic instruments with metal — maybe Peter Tägtgren, if I might be so bold as to suggest…
But that muddiness is really a generic problem with progressive metal, and really with elaborate music in general. Real orchestras spend fortunes on acoustics to prevent it. For a band with a sub-million-dollar recording budget, it’s rare that the mix gets done right, and sometimes the deep layering is really the goal in itself. You shouldn’t go into Fleshgod’s music expecting mosh-pit ready riffs; it’s all about the epic experience. Listen to the record from start to finish, let it tell its story. And dig those fuckin’ drums, man.