It's been quite an eventful year or two for Poland's notorious metal trio Behemoth: the band's outspoken frontman Adam "Nergal" Darski kicked leukemia's ass after a long and difficult battle; the long-standing charges of blasphemy leveled at Darski for tearing up a bible onstage were finally dismissed; and his selection to be a judge on the Polish version of talent show The Voice led to such a hurricane of controversy that he was dropped from the second season. That's a lot of headlines for one band to rack up such a short time, But it's a testament to Nergal's iron will and the support of the band's fans that they've thrown back just about everything the world has slung at them... and now they're returning to touring and recording as if nothing happened. Now that's metal.
To herald the band's triumphant return, the retrospective double-album Demonica will be re-released next Tuesday, and if you haven't experienced this collection before, you're in for a curious treasure trove of satanic sounds from the earliest phase of the band's career. Read on for a review of what's inside...
Before I dig in to this one, I have to confess that early Behemoth didn't win me over immediately, but I loved the over-the-top theatrics and gothic/medieval imagery of ther later material so much that I felt compelled to explore further, and I was soon rewarded. When the original version of Demonica was released five years ago, I got a good listen to the band's early pure black metal beginnings and how they began to blend that genre with others to forge their signature sound, which for me finally clicked hard on their two most recent albums, The Apostasy (2007) and Evangelion (2009). While that early '90s material is in a completely different class, it's still an impressive example of how far they've progressed and how early they established their atmospheric blend.
Now back in print, Demonica represents a fascinating musical journey, charting the band's evolution from a traditional black metal band to a more exotic combo of death, thrash, progressive and doom metal infused with orchestral, synth and acoustic elements, expanding their lyrical content to include mysticism, occult lore and even Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. You can see this progression before you even start listening, just by reading the newly-transcribed lyric sheets included in the new edition; while some of the early English-language lyrics are a little awkward (Nergal freely admits this, but retained the original text to maintain "historical authenticity"), you can see the how the themes were still more esoteric than many of their genre. This variety would really benefit later albums like Satanica, which contained songs about Greek demonology, alchemy and astrology, and Zos Kia Cultus, which explored the occult practices of notorious figures like Aleister Crowley.
Live photo by Metalrage.com
The first group of tracks on disc 1 – from intro "Of My Worship" through the impressive instrumental "Goat With a Thousand Young" – are pure, raw satanic metal from the band's early demo The Return of the Northern Moon. The influence of Norwegian bands like Emperor and Darkthrone are very apparent (might as well lift from the best), and they turn out some pretty impressive covers of Hellhammer's "Aggressor" and Mayhem's "Deathcrush." Behemoth's early ominous atmospheric touches are already present – showing how early Nergal and company were beginning to shape the genre to their own will – and the production is amazingly clean for a demo. The tracks "Bless Thee for Granting Me Pain" and "Cursed Angel of Doom" were dropped from their 1995 release Sventevith ("Forest" was released on the EP And the Forests Dream Eternally) but re-recorded for Demonica, and they're much stronger in their new form; plus the new version of "Transylvanian Forest" stands up well against any black metal band recording today.
We jump back in time again at the start of disc 2, with a collection of tracks from the band's strong 1993 demo From the Pagan Vastlands. Like Northern Moon, the band is still mainly employing the Norwegian sound at this point, but the diverse elements that would eventually bring them to power are already in play. Alternate versions of some of the Pagan tracks are also included, such as "Blackvisions of the Almighty," as well as previously-unreleased early cuts of "Moonspell Rites," "Pure Evil & Hate" and the instrumental "The Oak Between the Snows." The second half wraps with an excellent new version of "Spellcraft & Heathendom" (originally from the 1996 album Grom).
Behemoth completists no doubt grabbed up the original release of Demonica back in 2005, but for those who have discovered the band since then, this is a worthy sonic scrapbook of the band's early years, and should also go over pretty well with old-school black metal fans as well – especially if you're into legendary acts like Emperor or Mayhem. It's not an ideal starting point for anyone who wants to experience Behemoth for the first time (for that I'd recommend picking up at Zos Kia Cultus and moving forward), but if you want to see how all their inspirations came together, it's an enlightening experience playing the old demos against their re-recorded versions. Behemoth is one of the world's most powerful metal bands, and they couldn't have made it to where they are now without strong creative roots. You'll definitely hear some of those demon seeds taking hold in this collection.