Metal mayhem for the mind

While Behemoth revels in its blackened image, the band says its main goal is to get people to think for themselves - and to damage some eardrums.

Behemoth 248 88 (photo credit: )
Behemoth 248 88
(photo credit: )
Israel has friends in the unlikeliest of places - like in the Satanic death metal rants of Poland's most popular rockers, Behemoth. You wouldn't want to run into these guys in any alley, whether dark or fully lit. But brandish a blue and white flag and they'll be buying you a beer in no time. "I focus some of my lyrics on Israel and include words in Hebrew because I find the country and religion attractive, inspiring and influential," explains Behemoth's leader and creative force Adam "Nergal" Darski. "Israel is the cradle of western civilization. A whole aspect of human character comes from the Bible, and the Bible comes from Israel," said Nergal, speaking from Chicago where his band was in the middle of a summer-long Rockstar Mayhem Festival tour along with colleagues in mayhem like Slayer, Marilyn Manson and Bullet For My Valentine. But for the 30-something Nergal, who resembles professional wrestling superstar The Undertaker, Israel is not just pages out of a history book; rather, it is a contemporary playland. He's been to the country three times, and will soon make it four when Behemoth performs on August 28 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. "We go out to the clubs, to the beach, have some beers. It's always great weather, and we have a ball," he said. It's always interesting to encounter a non-native English speaker who speaks in a relaxed American street vernacular. It's as if instead of learning English from Berlitz, he picked it up from a Kevin Smith movie, or more likely, Ozzy Osbourne from The Osbournes reality show. His sentences are peppered with expletives, dropped off g's, and "man"s. While he may sound like the harmless clerk down at the video rental store, some critics claim that Nergal and Behemoth's music present a grave threat to Polish society. In July 2007, the All-Polish Committee for Defense Against Sects distributed a list of bands - including Behemoth - that allegedly promote Satanism and murder in their lyrics, and it called on them to be banned from Polish radio and stages. Adding fuel to the fire was an onstage incident the same year in which Nergal tore up a Bible in front of the audience. According to its Web site, Behemoth has "always pushed the limits of their abilities and defied the boundaries of death and black metal." The band pronounces that the theme of its 2007 album, The Apostasy, is "to go against religion, and with Poland being one of the top religious countries in the world, Behemoth strives to convey that being religious is not the key to happiness." Then, with as much subtlety as a hammer on the head, the site promises that the album provides "more speed, aggression and blasphemy than ever before." Call it a career direction. Bono has his pulpit, Springsteen has his work shirts - and Nergal has his Satan. "I've been called a criminal, and there were attempts to bring me to court. They failed, but they keep trying. These people don't give up - they delve into my back catalogue and try to find other lyrics to support their claims. They just don't understand artistic metaphors," said a perplexed and defiant Nergal. "I've always claimed that there was a strong Satanic aspect to human nature and I stand behind our lyrics." Looking at the silver lining in the dark cloud of the band's fiery lyrics, one should be thankful that its thunderous music, which has been described by one reviewer as "World War 3 in action," generally drowns out everything else. And Nergal's tendency to growl his lines like Beelzebub on a bad day renders whatever is audible to be indecipherable. GROWING UP in Gdansk, Nergal didn't aspire to be the Antichrist. But a chance encounter with a local heavy metal radio station in the 1980s enabled him to hear music in a different light. "Every weekend, this station would play a whole album from start to finish. And because of that, I discovered bands like Van Halen, Metallica and Slayer. That's what provided my musical education," he recalled. Nergal formed Behemoth in 1991 while still a teen, and the demonic band quickly made a name for itself in black metal circles with four early cult albums: From The Pagan Wastelands, ...And The Forests Dream Eternally, Sventevith (Storming Near the Baltic) and Grom. Subsequent releases saw a broadening of the band's sound toward mainstream metal, with some Middle Eastern elements and more developed melodies, and even though the band has gone through extensive personnel changes, with Nergal remaining the only original member, its popularity in the '00s has skyrocketed. "We were ignored for many years by the mainstream media in Poland, but we're touring all over the world, and we're the most famous Polish band. Since they can't change us, or what we do and how we look, they must have decided that it's better to write about us," laughed Nergal. But it's been outside his native land where Behemoth is making the most inroads, performing nearly 250 shows a year in Europe, Asia and North America. "We're popular in Poland, but it's a small country - you can't really play there more than 10 times a year or so. So if you want to play 250 times a year, you have to tour. We've been everywhere, man," said Nergal. That includes two previous shows in Israel, as well as one personal visit by Nergal in between. "To be honest, I've learned a lot in Israel. I've slowly been exploring the history and the vast number of interesting places in Israel - as I mentioned, it really is the cradle of civilization. Every time I'm there, I make it a point to visit someplace new. I always try to find some time to learn something more about the history of the country. One time, it was Jerusalem, then Nazareth, then Megiddo. I think this time, I'm planning on going to Masada," he said. That's why Jewish themes creep up in Behemoth's songs, including one of the cuts on its most recent album, Evangelion, called "Shemaforash," whose title, Nergal says, is inspired by the name Hashem. Its lyrics recall Jeremiah's description in Lamentations of the destruction of the Second Temple: "Holy gardens reduced to ash, Extinguishing light of hope, Bringing the end of the days." "We try to include different methodologies and different cultures in our music and lyrics. We try to pick up whatever is out there, whether it be Greek, Roman or Hebrew," said Nergal. Holocaust imagery is also sporadically conjured up in Behemoth's lyrics, but Nergal said he was sensitive to the enormity of suffering which took place so close to his home. "The Holocaust is part of our Polish history. We learned the truth about it in school, not the disinformation like those people claiming the Holocaust never happened. We took a school trip to Auschwitz and it was a moving experience," he said. Like Behemoth's music, there's more to Nergal than meets the eye. While he revels in his blackened image, he professes his main goal is to get people to think for themselves - and to damage some eardrums. Even though Behemoth is performing on a side stage of the Mayhem of Rock tour, the gig is its highest profile appearance in the US, and the band's future is looking as bright as the weather it's been experiencing. "In Poland, it's raining all the time with thunderstorms. Here in Chicago, there's actually sunshine," he said. "We've received amazing feedback, and we're fortunate to be on tour with bands that we're friends with. It's like a party on four wheels. It's a really nice vibe." And for Nergal, it sets the stage nicely for the band's return to Israel. "We can't wait to get our asses back to Israel. We're going to do a longer concert than we did last time, and we look forward to hanging out with all the friends we've met there." It should be great to see the reactions of other tourists on the snake path up to Masada when Nergal's Satanic contingent strides by.