Death metal, like any other mature genre, has regional variations. Scandinavian bands—Entombed, Grave, Unleashed et al.—tend to embrace a fuzzed-out guitar tone and a loose, rock ‘n’ rolling (at times even swinging) approach to rhythm. Bands from America’s East Coast—Suffocation, Pyrexia, Incantation—blend their death metal with doom and hardcore, for a bouncing, moshpit-aimed groove. Francophone Canada breeds mind-warpingly technical, science-fictional bands—Voivod, Gorguts, Neuraxis, Martyr. Poland has produced four bands of note, each with their own unique style, but all offering a density of riffage and a bludgeoning drum attack that marks them as clearly as the denizens of any other death metal region.
Vader are the granddaddies of the scene, having formed in 1983 (though they didn’t release their first album, The Ultimate Incantation, until 1992). Muscular and dense, their basic sound is a bulldozer, all blast beats and downtuned riffs, with guitarist/singer Piotr Pawel Wiwczarek roaring on top. If you’re not familiar with their work, the best starting point might be 2008’s XXV, a double disc compilation of crushingly heavy re-recordings of tracks from their first six albums. Lost Soul came in Vader‘s wake (formed in 1991, released first album in 2000), and they’re just as heavy, with a little more of a technical/progressive edge to their sound. Their last full-length, Immerse in Infinity, was released in 2009, though last year’s compilation of re-recordings, Genesis: XX Years of Chaoz, was great and is well worth investigation. The youngsters of the Polish scene, Decapitated, are easily the most musically adventurous of the bunch. Befitting a band who got signed as teenagers, their songcraft evolved almost absurdly fast from their earnest-but-imitative (it even included a Slayer cover) debut, Winds of Creation, to the follow-up, Nihility, and only grew more gnarled and brilliant on The Negation and Organic Hallucinosis. But then a tragic accident cost them their drummer and vocalist, and guitarist Vogg was forced to rebuild the band from the ground up on 2011’s fractured, fitfully inspired Carnival is Forever. It’s still hard to say whether Decapitated Mark II will ever be what the first iteration of the band was on albums two through four.
Then there’s Behemoth. The brainchild of singer/guitarist Adam “Nergal” Darski, they’ve gone through multiple lineup changes since forming in 1991, and evolved stylistically quite a bit as well. For their first six years, they were a black metal band, gradually incorporating death metal influences beginning with their third album, 1998’s Pandemonic Incantations. On this album and its two follow-ups, 1999’s Satanica and 2000’s Thelema 6, they were flailing a bit aesthetically, unsure of their path. (Darski seems to rely on cover tunes as markers when he’s in creative flux; he’s recorded such decidedly non-death metal tracks as Nine Inch Nails‘ “Wish,” Danzig‘s “Until You Call On the Dark,” and the Ramones‘ “I’m Not Jesus,” and one of the bonus tracks on the reissue of Thelema 6 is a version of David Bowie‘s “Hello Spaceboy.”) Behemoth finally found their zone on 2002’s Zos Kia Cultus (Here and Beyond). The guitars still retained a dash of black metal tremolo picking, and the occasional Middle Eastern melody bubbled up, but for the most part the music was like an avalanche crashing through a forest fire—drummer Zbigniew “Inferno” Promiński is one of the most relentless players in the genre, on a level with Pete Sandoval (ex-Morbid Angel), Jade Simonetto (ex-Hate Eternal) or Kevin Talley (ex-Dååth, ex-Dying Fetus, ex-a million other bands), and he just didn’t let up here, slamming out one concussive blast beat after another. Darski’s vocals were (and are) astonishing, too. His lyrics are comprehensible, because his vocal tone isn’t the guttural roar of many death metal frontmen—instead, he somehow manages to sound like a human blast furnace; his voice comes at you like a jet of heat that’ll take your face off if you don’t duck or turn away fast enough. He and his bandmates had arrived at their mature style on Zos Kia Cultus, and it was a mighty impressive one. This was the album that would launch Behemoth‘s decade-long rise to death metal prominence.
On the albums that followed—2004’s Demigod, 2007’s The Apostasy, and 2009’s Evangelion—they refined this style, getting a little heavier here, adding a little more acoustic guitar or keyboard there. There was growth, and each album was a little better than the one before, Evangelion in particular, but no more major leaps forward seemed to be forthcoming. Behemoth were gearing up to be one of those bands that knew what they were good at, and entered the studio to do that thing every couple of years, rewarding loyal fans with a heaping plate of more of the same but never surprising anybody. Then, in August 2010, Darski was diagnosed with leukemia.
The multi-year absence from the studio and stage imposed by his diagnosis and treatment, as well as drummer Promiński’s appendix surgery in 2013, has allowed Behemoth to grow, creatively, to a degree that would have been impossible to predict in 2009. The Satanist, out this week, is the band’s most musically ambitious, and welcoming, album. (Buy it from Amazon) The songs, while still very much death metal, are the most melodic the band has ever written, and they’re produced and mixed in a way that showcases that quality. The guitars and bass have their own clearly demarcated spaces; at one point in “Amen,” and again on the album’s closing track, “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, the bass is revealed as a postpunkish grind, rather than the usual throbbing, one-octave-down mirror of the guitar. Promiński’s drumming isn’t all blast, all the time, either; he locks into midtempo grooves repeatedly here, most notably on “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” and “Messe Noire.” Orchestral trumpets augment several songs, and “In the Absence ov Light” stops dead about a minute in, for a dramatic recitation (in Polish) over acoustic guitar and cello(?). Perhaps the two most striking aspects of The Satanist, though, are the guitar solos and Darski’s vocals. The solos on something like half the tracks on this album are among the most conventionally hard rock/metal ever heard on a Behemoth album; the shredtastic final 90 seconds of “Messe Noire” could have come off a mid ’80s Dio album. And the vocals, while retaining much of the blasting power of previous records, are more human than they’ve ever been. Darski sounds like a cross between Laibach‘s Milan Fras and Amon Amarth‘s Johan Hegg. It’s possible that the lyrics he’s singing are in some way a reflection of his experiences of the last five years, though on the surface they seem to be the same anti-Christian, pro-Satanic blah blah they’ve always been, which makes it even more important and gratifying that the music is so gripping and powerful.
Watch the video for “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”: