Behemoth reflect on three decades of Blasphemy (Knotfest Interview)
Among the pillars of extreme music for more than a generation, Poland provocateurs Behemoth have built a teflon reputation rooted in their commitment to an ever-evolving artistry fueled by a profound sense of antagonism.
Over the course of the band's 11 studio album-catalog and three-decade long tenure, Nergal and his horde of co-conspirators have crafted a body of work that has progressively increased their reach without having to dilute it's potency. As dark, dangerous, and menacing as ever, Behemoth touts both the notoriety of legends and the relevance of contemporaries - a cultural beacon that evolved from its black metal beginnings.
Underscoring the impact that band has effected on the landscape of contemporary heavy music, 2020 proved to be a watershed moment for Behemoth. Confronted with a stark, new reality with no ability to tour and a need to soothe a compulsive creative itch, the band found an artistic pivot and embraced a new platform - indulging in the cinematic quality of their craft and creating yet another extensive of their ominous, occult-heavy vision.
The result was 'In Absentia Dei'.
The four-part presentation functioned as a black metal opera captured on film - a resounding artistic achievement that featured Behemoth at the top of their game, complete with hellfire, brimstone, and the band's audacious brand of brutality. Visually toeing a fine line between the beautiful and the bleak, Behemoth held court in an abandoned church in Poland for a performance that seemed to function as a culmination of sorts to a career anchored by their unique blackened metal blasphemy. In Absentia Dei was Behemoth's victory lap - a defiant middle finger aimed at the skeptics of the both the abrasive sound and the circumstance of a world operating at a complete stall.
Given Behemoth's track record, once they set the standard however, they had to eclipse it. What better reason to delve into such an ambitious effort than the band's 30th anniversary?
Again asserting their prowess as artists, Behemoth is doubling down on the earned accolades of their first streaming saga and reinvesting in what will no doubt establish a new bar of excellence with 'XXX Years ov Blasphemy' - a cinematic odyssey that will appropriately broadcast on Halloween.
Comprised of three unique sets revisiting the band's comprehensive catalog, the presentation spans the various iterations of Behemoth from the likes of Pandemonic Incantations through breakthroughs albums like The Apostasy and Evangelion, culminating with their modern opus in 2018's I Loved You At Your Darkest. Enlisting the visual talent of director Dariusz Szermanowicz and the team of Grupa 13, the cinematic retrospective presents the duality of Behemoth as both established pioneers and forward-thinking innovators - a band that fit the legendary criteria but refuse to rest on their laurels.
Among the genre's most articulate frontmen, Nergal discusses how Behemoth not only rose to the challenge in finding a means to evolve while the world was at a standstill, but also managed to develop yet another artistic extension of their vision more than three decades into the game.
Few bands have really tapping into the creative potential of the streaming platform the way Behemoth has. Do you feel like the pandemic has only added to your artistic arsenal?
Nergal - Absolutely. I’m 100% positive that if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have been forced to reach out and adapt these unprecedented tools and do things the way we’ve never done them. And honestly, not many bands touched it the way we did. I try to be inventive and I don’t like following other people’s tracks; I like trying new things that are fresh, rejuvenating, exciting and challenging. Our two online cinematic events are proof that Behemoth knows exactly how to do it. Behemoth knows how to challenge themselves and succeed.
In Absentia Dei was received really well. To this day, I still haven’t read or heard one negative comment about it; nothing ‘neutral’ or ‘good’ either – it was always ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’. It’s because we really stepped up the game! But I must admit, with our 30th anniversary event, we really outdid ourselves…
‘In Absentia Dei’ was truly a landmark performance. Was there any pressure to top that spectacle for ’30 Years ov Blasphemy’?
Nergal - Well, maybe a little pressure! First of all, we never wanted to copy and paste the same show, there’s no fucking way that we were going to say “since In Absentia Dei was so successful, let’s do it again exactly the same”. We needed to think about how we could keep this momentum entertaining for ourselves as a band, and for the spectators. We, the band, the artist, the creators, must stand behind what we do. If we truly thought that In Absentia Dei was the roof and that we didn’t have it in us to produce something bigger and better, we wouldn’t dare explore the territory. But we KNEW how to bring the 30th anniversary show to the next level. We were of the mindset that it’s today or never, and we simply had to nail it.
How difficult has it been to pack three decades of music into this presentation and what was it like to revisit some of Behemoth’s earlier work like 'Pandemonic Incantations'?
Nergal - It’s not difficult… it’s impossible! I can’t fathom what bands like Judas Priest and Metallica have had to do when they delve into their anniversary projects. It’s insane!
With Behemoth, there’s eleven albums and plenty of material. We really wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just another ‘greatest hits’, it was really important for us to go back to early days and confront some of those ‘old demons’ and ancient tracks from the back of the closet. This time we’ve dug out stuff that we have NEVER played live, including stuff from our demo days and debut record. In those early days, we weren’t well equipped and we never challenged ourselves to perform these songs live. But we’ve confronted the challenge with today’s ability and professionalism, something that’s built over decades. So for some of the kids that discovered Behemoth with The Satanist or even Satanica, this will be something very fresh and new.
Looking retrospectively at a 30 year career, what kind of pride do you take in knowing how well these songs have aged and how relevant the music still resonates.
Nergal - What can I say? I’m just proud, I feel such pride when I look back. It’s like flicking through an old photo album with a smile. You appreciate and embrace who you were at each of your milestones, spanning decades. Behemoth has been a solid, decent band; we have the best albums, best touring and best production. It would never have been possible without those 20 years of playing shitholes, small tours, learning how to master our craft. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and we’ve been crawling for half of our career, learning how to stand up – but now we can RUN! We need to treat those early beginnings with the upmost respect, because without that, there wouldn’t be modern Behemoth. That is what we’re trying to do with the anniversary event, we’re showing you that Behemoth is an entity.
Three unique sets in three different locations. That is an incredibly ambitious project for a livestreaming production. Were there any difficulties you encountered? Was there any time you reconsidered the scope of the stream?
Nergal - We worked with Grupa 13 who provide the production management, they handle the logistics and creative. We’ve been collaborating with them since Evangelion and it’s been such a pleasure. There’s always obstacles and quarrels, but the final result is beyond satisfactory. When they sign up for something, they know how to pull it off – so you can sleep tight!
There were challenges – In Absentia Dei was a closed venue, and this time we filmed everything outdoors. There was no ambience for drums, so they sounded dry. We really had to work hard to get the sound done properly, which is why we worked with Jaime Gomez (Orgone Studios) who is from Columbia, but works in the UK. We mixed the tracks together and I am SUPER happy with how it sounds. In Absentia Dei sounded very cool given that it was live, but this time we are doing it differently. It’s very alive, vibrant and more professional.
There was some technical lessons learned from In Absentia Dei too. This time, Grupa have used different cameras to make it look like one long movie. It’s a different quality.
A project like this takes a lot of time and energy, weeks and weeks of rehearsals, followed by a long week of filming, traveling from location to location. We filmed the event in the middle of Summer, The Path of Via Dolorosa was recorded in a quarry, which felt like a desert! Imagine being exposed to all that sun, humidity, and all that dust, and all the coughing. It was a dirty job, but we loved it! But trust me, when I’ve sat at home and watched through the final tests, I’ve been bursting with pride. Having such a great collective, and a great team behind your back, – the sky is the limit.
As the world slowly comes out of the pandemic era, do you feel like Behemoth will continue to explore the streaming platform?
Nergal - Honestly I don’t know. With streaming, it is amazing that someone in say South Africa, or Russia, can simultaneously enjoy the show with thousands of others around the globe – it’s really awesome. But it will never compete with the feeling that a real show, a real tour, or a real festival gives me.
We’ve reached such a high standard with the 30th anniversary event, I really hope that there’s no need in the future to challenge that. I would really love to leave it where it is now, so the next time we see each other again, it will be the physical confrontation at a live show.
Let us enjoy this event now, we are crossing our fingers and hoping for the world to return to some kind of normality next year, where Behemoth can hit the road again and travel from globe to globe with our music.