I tell Nergal, of the Polish black/death-metal band Behemoth, that his music reminds me of jazz. And over the cell phone in his tour bus, I hear him chuckle. Growing up amid post-commie nothingness, he had little musical training; it was even hard to get a decent amp. So it's funny to him that he'd be mentioned alongside the masters of technique and tradition.
But think about it, Nergal -- do you mind if I omit "o lord of war and pestilence over all Sumer, Akkad and Assyria"? Your dark guitar riffs may be fairly simple, but so were Albert Ayler's sax lines. In the big picture, your music is complex, considering how the million kick-drum whaps of the justly named Inferno (cast him as Ayler skinsman Sunny Murray) blend with the gluey bass of Orion and the sinewy counterpoint of auxiliary guitarist Seth. The rhythms maintain animalistic motion; the song segments unite into a fierce, overwhelming whole. It's one thing for some bands to pull off a tight-assed reflection of modern fragmentation. It's another to build a breathing beast out of the fragments. And Behemoth does that.
The exquisitely wrought metal of Behemoth's current Demigod succeeds in part because Nergal, the group's founder, has his own viewpoint. "All the rot and disease of death metal, it doesn't interest me," he says in his urgent Middle European-inflected English. What interests him is history, which he studied at the university level, becoming fascinated with the myths and gods of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant. That 5,000-year perspective, plus lyrics sprinkled with snatches of "dead" languages via writing collaborator Krzysztof Azarewicz, extends the music out of the temporal realm and into the eternal.
Though audience response to Behemoth can be highly physical, "It's not just about mosh," says Nergal; he wants listeners to hear a spiritual side to his art, if a decidedly non-Christian one. ("Your God is dead," he barks on 2001's Thelema.6.) He describes his creed as "total commitment"; Behemoth's scorch-throated words speak of solitude and self-reliance. The overall package delivers an energy buzz that translates across continents, languages and classes. "I see skinny street kids at our shows," Nergal observes, "and I see 50-year-old men in suits."
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