Heavy metal and reality may not appear to be the most natural bedfellows. Much of the appeal of the music we love exists in the shadowy spaces between our everyday lives and that sense that something else, something other, lurks just beyond our grasp.
To truly embrace the spirit of metal is to welcome the notion that life can be more than our own simplistic perception of the world around us; the best metal music offers a grandeur, a gravity and a power that transcends our mortality. Metal is life. Metal is death.
Metal is the blood in our veins.
If one man embodies the true spirit of metal in 2014, it’s Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski, frontman with Behemoth for the past 23 years and the one significant figure in our world who can truly claim to have stared into the void and felt the breath of oblivion on his face. Back in August 2010, Nergal was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with leukaemia. Initial prognoses were bleak, and the band’s global army of admirers braced themselves for the worst. But several months later, after extensive treatment and a bone marrow transplant, Nergal left hospital and embarked on the long, gruelling road to recovery.
Several years on, Behemoth are poised to unleash what is unquestionably the most potent and important album in their illustrious career. It is called The Satanist and it is more defiant, life-affirming and devastating than anything else you will hear this year. Death can get fucked: Nergal is extreme metal’s true phoenix, reborn in flames of creativity and passion.
“At first I was worried that it would take me a long time to get back to full strength,” he recalls. “It did take a long time, but I was so determined. Facing death made me embrace life in a much more purposeful and motivated way, and although after the bone marrow transplant it took me many weeks to rebuild my muscles and to become healthy again, I never stopped looking forward. There is so much to be done, you know?
“The first shows we did were a challenge, because I will never play a show with Behemoth if I am not sure that I can deliver 100 per cent and play with integrity and deliver the full experience. But I believe that the experiences I’ve gone through have made me much stronger. I had to work hard to regain my strength but now I am playing with more intensity than ever before. I think that is reflected in The Satanist.”
Despite being one of the metal underground’s most driven and dynamic characters, Nergal has plainly been through the kind of traumatic and challenging experience that could quite easily have had a detrimental effect on his desire to make music for a living. However, his response to defeating a potentially terminal condition has not only thrilled and cheered his fanbase but seems to have brought his enthusiasm for artistic endeavour into sharper focus than ever before.
The Satanist is an absolutely fucking stunning piece of work: every bit as vicious, punishing and intense as any previous Behemoth album, but somehow more powerful and mesmerising. As much as it pains this writer to wheel out the exhausted old cliché that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, it is simply impossible to deny that Nergal is returning to active service with renewed vigour and vitality, his band’s trademark unrelenting bluster now infused with an overwhelming emotional heft and refined sincerity that makes every last moment on The Satanist thrum and crackle with meaning and portentous punch.
“We could not have made The Satanist if I hadn’t had this near-death experience,” he states. “It’s had a profound effect on the music I create and the way I think about everything. Beating leukaemia made me realise that there is so much that I want to do. I am more determined than ever to be stronger physically and mentally. I work hard in everything that I do; I have dedicated my life to this, but now I found that my desire to live and to be an artist has become more powerful than ever before.”
The title of the new Behemoth album could hardly be more direct. Nergal has never been afraid to proclaim his fascination and kinship with Satanic philosophy and practice, and yet it is equally true that Behemoth have often taken the traditional extreme metal route of shrouding their paeans to Luciferian doctrine in a haze of metaphors and mystique. On the new album, most of that distracting clangour has been stripped away, leaving both the band’s music and the sentiments within it exposed; raw and uncompromising but also audibly heartfelt and newly incisive.
From the opening squall of Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel (make sure you check out the simply astonishing video the band have made to accompany it) to its pulverising, cataclysmic denouement, The Satanist is a fearsome proposition on every level: invigorating and unsettling in equal measure, but also startlingly honest, as only a man who has stared death in the face can truly be.
“The Satanist is a very simple title but it is also very complex and multi-dimensional, too,” Nergal explains. “On the surface it appears to be very primitive and raw but it is also very meaningful and complex. In a sense, I don’t want or need to explain it to people because everyone can find their own interpretation. I think the music on The Satanist is enough. In a way I have no need to talk about it. I wanted to make an honest statement about who I am and what life means to me through this music.
“Satan is the most misunderstood figure in the world. He represents the truth and the spirit of man, the freedom and the honesty of who we are. I was raised as a Catholic and so I was told a lot about Satan, but it wasn’t the truth. Satanism is about life and liberation and love for freedom. I have Satan in me, flowing through my veins and flowing through the music.”
Of course, extreme metal and Satan have been in cahoots for as long as the genre has existed in any meaningful form, and yet moments when the evoking of hellish imagery has amounted to more than a straight-forward harnessing of compelling ideas and simple statements of contempt for organised religion and its perennially hollow promise have been few and far between.
Perhaps surprisingly for a band that have avowedly pursued the traditional rock’n’roll route over the years, Behemoth have been transformed by their leader’s brush with death and now sound far more than just a band with some songs to play. The Satanist wields irresistible power, as if Nergal’s triumph over a lethal disease has manifested itself in tangible form, imbuing every barbaric riff and feral atmospheric blitzkrieg with the very life-force that led their creator back to the light and back to fight another day.
“When we began to rehearse the songs for The Satanist a very powerful thing happened in the rehearsal studio,” he recalls. “I was playing the song Messe Noire and Inferno, our drummer, came across to me and said that he could actually hear the leukaemia in the riffs, like it was living inside the music and he could feel the sickness when he heard the riff. It was a very strange thing, but it was also a very emotional moment for me. Inferno has been with the band for a long time and he has a unique perspective and he will always be honest. And I believe that what he said is true. These songs are a true artistic expression and I have poured my heart and soul into this.”
Aside from the story behind its genesis, gestation and execution, The Satanist offers something gloriously unique to metal fans in 2014. As healthy as the metal scene continues to be, it is hard to deny the troubling reality that our world is plagued by a lack of imagination and a widespread and spineless adherence to homogeneity and conformity that seems to be entirely contrary to what metal is supposed to represent.
At its best, metal is outlaw music, the sound of rebellion, the sonic manifestation of adversarial spirit and strength. It should never be reduced down to a lazy formula used by meagre talents with more interest in selling fashionable merchandise than in the creation of enduring works of art. With that in mind, The Satanist is one of the most proudly and audaciously metallic records to emerge in living memory, albeit while exhibiting a breadth of vision that transcends the genre’s limitations and unspoken rules.
“Yes, I appreciate that interpretation,” Nergal concurs. “I think we are very rooted in the world of metal and we carry that spirit with us. I truly believe we have made a radical extreme metal record and an important record. It’s a dangerous album, and I miss that from metal music. Extreme metal has become very friendly and safe, but that isn’t what true art should be about. For Behemoth, it must be challenging and stimulating. And I honestly believe that we are on our own at this point in time.
“When I started Behemoth I was inspired by other bands, by Morbid Angel or whoever, but I truly feel that we have surpassed that now and we are now inspiring ourselves. Morbid Angel made some great records and they were important to me, but now they make albums that are not so good, you know? Ha ha! I think we have become something greater than before.”
The purity of artistic ambition that now drives Nergal forward is, of course, admirable and reassuring, but it’s worth noting that when he originally fell ill Behemoth were striding imperiously towards an unprecedented peak of popularity and success. Their last album, Evangelion, effortlessly outstripped all their previous achievements and even before Nergal permanently cemented his cult status by kicking cancer to the curb, it was becoming abundantly clear that Behemoth were leaving their supposed contemporaries spluttering in the dust.
In that context, The Satanist seems an extraordinarily daring and idiosyncratic next move: wildly different from its predecessor on many levels and in possession of a conceptual depth and density that few modern metal bands stand even the remotest chance of replicating. If this is the album that will propel Behemoth even higher, then they will soon be heading upwards completely on their own, fiercely creative terms.
“I could easily write another Evangelion, but so many things have changed,” says Nergal. “I feel very much like The Satanist is our debut album, as strange as that sounds. Of course I’d like for many more people to listen to Behemoth, but that is not my main motivation in making this album. If no one wants to listen and everyone says that The Satanist sucks, then that doesn’t change anything for me! Ha ha ha!
“But I have great confidence in what we have created, otherwise why should we even bother? I could easily fool the world and just make a lot of money. But there would be no satisfaction in doing something like that. I choose this path instead.”
Revered among many Satanists, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus stated that “it is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself”. By sheer strength of will, Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski has given mortality the finger and now stands before us as a brighter, stronger and more charismatic figurehead for musical extremity than anyone could have predicted, emboldened by the power of his own spirit and character and hell bent on restoring a profound sense of gravitas and self-worth to heavy music. Only death is real? Bollocks. Life is real and Nergal is living it to the full.
“Everything feels fucking great right now, man,” he concludes. “We’re a new band and this is a new chapter. Behemoth has never been more alive.”
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #253.
For more on Nergal, Behemoth and the singer’s battle with cancer and his subsequent memoir, then click the link below.
Behemoth are playing The Satanist in full at Bloodstock festival 2016 at Catton Park, Derbyshire. Get your tickets here.