Review: Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest
The Polish blackened death institution returns with their first new album in over four years. So, does this latest salvo live up to the band’s decades-strong legacy of blasphemy and blasts or lose its way along the left-hand path?
Since Behemoth began in the early 90s, frontman Adam “Nergal” Darski and his co-conspirators have significantly changed course a few times. After the atmospheric black metal of the band’s first two albums, drummer Inferno joined the fold in 1997, marking a turn toward a more death metal-influenced sound. By 1999’s Satanica, the death metal aspects became dominant, with Nergal’s black roots mainly coming through in his chord choices and an undying devotion to mysticism and corpse-painted theatricality.
Over the ensuing years, Behemoth refined a highly identifiable combination of blasts, chugs, melodic hooks, and growls about the glory of Satan and ritual magick. After the release of Demigod in 2004, the group solidified its core trio with Orion on bass and began to reap the rewards of extensive international touring, a trajectory that carried them through releases such as The Apostasy and Evangelion. But after Nergal stepped away to win a battle with leukemia, the band took an intriguing detour with 2014’s The Satanist. That widely acclaimed album built on the modern metal production that had defined Behemoth’s biggest successes to date while exhibiting more engaging and accessible songwriting than ever.
So, having established a fresh direction where could Behemoth go next?
The answer has arrived in the form of I Loved You at Your Darkest, an album with a kind of goofy-sounding title that stands in stark contrast to the concision and directness the band’s opted for in the past. In the accompanying press release, Nergal explains that this name is extra-blasphemous since it’s a direct quote from Jesus Christ. That would kind of work, except he probably didn’t bother trying to look up the verse in question because it’s not in the Bible and definitely not attributed directly to the Son of God. If you Google the phrase, however, you will see that it’s a popular meme among Christian circles and constitutes most of the title to the debut album of the Atlanta Christcore band As Cities Burn.
Nergal’s misguided posturing aside, the songwriting and arrangements double down on some of the changes that arrived with The Satanist. While maintaining healthy measures of Behemoth’s signature brutality, I Loved You at Your Darkest shifts the balance well in the direction of their sound’s melodic side. Appearances by both adult and children’s choirs – starting from the album’s brief introductory track – and a 17-piece orchestra provide an epic sonic palate and some intriguing dynamics. In songs like “If Crucifixion Was Not Enough” or especially “Bartzabel,” the dark melodies often take over entirely, with only Nergal’s signature grunt to remind you that you’re listening to an extreme metal band.
On the other end of the spectrum, Behemoth also exhibit their formative influences from raw, eerie black metal like they haven’t in years on a few tracks. “Wolves of Siberia” demonstrates a refreshing simplicity through most of its vicious three minute assault with an arrangement that’s built on a straightforward, impressively evil verse riff. When additional instrumentation shows up, it’s brass leading the call to war in the song’s bridge. Some songs, such as “Rom 5:8,” look for a balance between the atavistic blastbeats and Nergal’s newfound fondness for more accessible sounds.
Moments like the bluesy lead in the intro of “God=Dog,” demonstrate that while the frontman’s primary allegiance may always be to Dark Lord, he is now also worshiping at the altar of 70s and 80s rock gods. Throughout the record, Nergal embraces straight-up hard rock like never before, with solos that owe far less to Trey Azagthoth than to Angus Young. “Angelus XII” may largely fit into the template of Behemoth’s blackened death style, but it eventually take the intensity down a notch to let the mainman unleash an extended solo fit for his arena-sized ambitions.
The well-honed rhythm section are, of course, perfectly game to keep up with every shift. Inferno delivers his signature barrage with perhaps a bit more nuance than usual even as he ensures the sense of muscular aggression is never totally lost. On “Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica,” he alternates between a double-bass groove, tom-heavy fills and stripped-down rock groove before letting loose with the blasts as the guitar and orchestra swell at the song’s conclusion.
One thing that has definitely not changed is the lyrical subject matter. Your feelings on that will likely depend on whether you think a continued focus on leaving no cross unturned enjoyably consistent or depressingly uncreative. A good litmus test is your reaction to a single that owes its title to the not-exactly-original observation that “God” is “dog” spelled backwards – with specific reference to a line from Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law.
It seems that kind of sacrilegious inversion is endlessly fascinating to Nergal and his longtime lyrical collaborator Krystof Azarewicz, as illustrated in “Havohej Invocator” and another tip of the hat to Crowley with the aforementioned “Ecclesia.” On one hand, it’s entirely understandable that the frontman would have an enormous fount of rage for the Catholic Church given its dominance in Polish life and politics and the legal troubles he has faced at home for his onstage antics. On the other, endlessly mocking the cross and threatening Jesus with additional violence definitely gets a bit repetitive after all these years.
I Loved You At Your Darkest feels very much like a transition from the monumental heights of The Satanist into the rest of Behemoth’s career. The result is a confluence of elements that is undeniably ambitious and sporadically awesome, but inevitably leads to sacrificing some of the immediacy and venom that have historically driven Behemoth’s work. The album as a whole can come across as unnecessarily bloated and pretentious despite its visceral rock ‘n’ roll trappings and sensible 46-minute running time. There’s a wealth of interesting musical ideas that are definitely worth a listen, but they unfortunately never quite cohere into a record that can stand with the best of the band’s catalog.