Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And The Profane: Behemoth And Beyond

I remember a particular concert in Marseille. People ran amok there. I threw pages of the Bible at them and they ate them, burned them, or tore them apart. That was crazy. I felt that we had hit the spot. We had focused their anger. If people come to a show and explode with such madness, that happens for a reason. They saw religion and its influence on society as a form o repression, and you could say that our concert purified them. . . .

We have a very specific audience, remember. They like blasphemy. We once played  show at Stodola in Warsaw. After a few songs, the lights went out. When they came back on, I made a joke that apparently God was responsible for Warsaw’s electricity supply. All the people in the room started shouting ‘Fuck God! Fuck God!’ A few thousand throats were yelling. I just smiled. – Adam Nergal Darski, with Kryzysztof Azarewicz, Piotr Weltrowski, translated by Mark Eglinton, Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And The Profane: Behemoth And Beyond, pp.43-44

Nergal In Concert With Behemoth

Nergal In Concert With Behemoth

In the early 1990’s, a small group of musicians living in Norway took elements of heavy metal, specifically the more progressive forms of death metal, stripped them bare of their glossy, often over-produced heaviness, stealing only the speed and underlying rage to provide the “heavy” in the metal. Bands like Slayer, Morbid Angel, Possessed, and Venom had already played around with Satanic lyrics, sometimes as symbol, sometimes with a modicum of seriousness, and sometimes without caring one whit about the lyrics themselves. These young Norwegian bands – Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor – were deadly earnest when writing lyrics that abounded with Satanic imagery. So earnest in fact that over the space of a few years, members of these bands and their fans burned about 50 churches, some close to a thousand years old, across the country. Two musicians were imprisoned for murder. Black metal, as the music called itself (after the title of a Venom album), was many things, but one thing it was not was “just music”.

To young Polish teen Adam Darski, Black Metal offered the final piece in the puzzle he was putting together, the puzzle that was both his identity and his desire to express the things he thought and believed as well as how to express them. Not only the power of the music – often missing on those early recordings from studio creations like Bathory, and Mayhem’s first album due to poor studio conditions – but the social and religious protest involved in adopting an overtly Satanic persona provided the vocabulary that Darski still uses to do more than just “play music”. On stage, Behemoth is an intimidating presence, still wearing corpse paint long after it’s gone out of style; the music is fast, complex, yet also raw. Listening to a piece like “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” feels like having thorns dragged over your skin. There’s also this horrid, dark beauty about this song; it’s anthemic with its sing-along “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”. All the same, their stage presence is just a little overwhelming. I’m quite sure there’s always an air of danger at their shows, as if anything could happen. In this sense, Nergal is a true artist. He is provocative, a threat to the most basic, comforting notions we use to offer ourselves security. Far from a necessary evil, Darski and his band are a necessary social good, not just in their native Poland, but anywhere social and religious authorities tend to be just a bit too smug about their power.

Nergal interviewed

Nergal interviewed

This memoir, however – the result of a series of interviews conducted by Nergal’s friends, originally appearing in Poland in 2012 as Spowiedz Heretyka – shows that as seriously as everyone should take both Nergal and the band Behemoth as artists and musicians, he is no simple-minded stereotypical heavy metal musician. Coming away from the book, I feel a real desire to go to Gdansk, look him up, and offer to buy him some beers so we could sit and talk. Not about religion, obviously; about art, though, and what it is to become a national celebrity while never compromising one’s art. He’s intelligent, very well-read, thoughtful, surrounded by good friends – much needed during his battle with leukemia in 2010 and 2011 – and family, and has a wry sense of humor.

More interesting than his long relationship with Polish pop star Dorota was his stint on the Polish version of the TV show The Voice. Having just come out of hospital, he took the offer both for the money as well as, it seems, the thought it would be fun. He admits being intimidated because he isn’t a “singer” and can’t in fact “sing”. All the same, he did a season and it was quite popular despite the producers worries he would . . . who knows? eat a puppy? . . . do something provocative. He did wear a figure of Baphomet around his neck, but it seems few people noticed. Already a figure of national renown both because of repeated attacks from the Catholic Church as well as living with Dorota for a year, the public now saw Nergal as far more than a spouter of blasphemies and extreme artist.

This book does for English-speaking readers what his television appearances did for people in Poland. Nergal is many things, by his own admission. He is always a work in progress. Yet planet Nergal revolves around a sun called “Music” that looks an awful lot like four guys playing extreme music to fans around the world. I won’t pretend that Behemoth’s music, which I hear always balancing this sharp edge between Death Metal and Black Metal, is for everyone. On the contrary, if it were for everybody, it wouldn’t be as provocative or dangerous as it is. It wouldn’t be art. That it is, and that at its best  – “Lucifer”, “Furor Divinus”, and “Amen” along with the aforementioned “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” – becomes something beautiful without losing its threat or danger or provocation, is deafening testimony to Nergal’s efforts to create something both unique and powerful.

Much like the man himself. I won’t pretend to agree with him. I also won’t pretend that this memoir doesn’t present a human being like all of us, yet unlike anyone you’d encounter. Which is what makes the book a more than worthy read. At the end of the day, for all the Satanic fury of his music, I feel like if Nergal and I met, we’d probably get along, as long as we didn’t talk about religion.