The Devil in Metal: 2. Behemoth's Satanist

If you’re confused by what’s happening here, feel free to refer to my previous post which introduces this whole thing.

Behemoth have become a force of nature. Emerging as a fairly typical heathen-inflected black metal band in the early 90s, they began to diversify their influences as the decade wore on, dipping into death metal and thrash, as well as shifting their lyrical focus to more occult and thelemic themes (...feel free to Wikipedia that latter one…). The early 2000s saw them refining this formula, culminating in 2009’s Evangelion, a condensation of their approach up until this point.

Then in 2010 tragedy struck. Adam “Nergal” Darski, Behemoth’s singer, was diagnosed with late-stage leukemia. The doctors were pessimistic; things looked bleak; we were told he probably wouldn’t make it out of this one alive. Yet, miracle-of-miracles, a last-minute bone marrow transplant came through and the cancer was removed.

Nergal remains in good health today.

Following this brush with death, there was a lot of questioning and wondering: would this change Behemoth? As a band committed to the elevation of the dark and obscene, would this season of suffering let a new light into their lyricism? Would God “show up” as a testament to Nergal’s deliverance from certain death?

Behemoth answered a resounding NO to these claims with the release of 2014’s The Satanist. This is an absolutely massive, epic, and unflinching look at the devil. It pays him homage, bows in obeisance, and lifts a hymn of worship to his name. The Satanist is a disturbing, and at times revolting, record, but it is also riveting musically and theologically, and (to my mind at least) one of the top ten metal albums released. Ever.

In this post, I’m going to focus in on The Satanist’s depiction of Satan (surprise, surprise). There’s a lot more going on in this album than simply the devil, but I’m going to focus in on that: What does he look like? What does he do? What revs his motor? What gets him up in the morning? By and large, I’m going to keep the theological commentary to a minimum, saving that for my next post when I’ll look to a surprising source[1] to bring illumination to Behemoth’s Devil.

So, let’s dive in.

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The Satanist kicks off with “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel,” setting out a vision of cosmic destruction. The ways of God have failed; Christ is dead; the tribes of Judah, David’s line, are reduced to nothing; and cries of “Hosanna” fill the skies as the masses baptize themselves into the pleasures of Sodom and Gomorrah in the wake of Satan’s long-hoped-for return.

Despite the cosmic triumphalism of the initial track, the rest of the album moves between our protagonist’s(?) bombastic claims of victory and conquest and startling admissions of frailty and bondage. On the former theme, “Messe Noire” unfolds as Behemoth’s variation on The Apostle’s Creed. Its first stanza bears quoting in full:

I believe in Satan,

Who rends both heavens and earth,

And in the Antichrist,

His dearly misbegotten:

The anguish of our future,

A Bastard spawned from lie,

Born of a harlot nun.

Rein high in luxury,

Aloft the kings of man.

Here we have Satan as the one who shreds apart creation, annihilating and igniting the tattered remains of God’s handiwork. Where once all that is had its life and being in God, this lifeline has been shorn and all that remains is decaying nature bereft of even the hope of salvation (“I cut loose the cord of life/Depart celestial source/Rub mold in holy pages/Let woodworms eat the cross”). On the latter theme (of frailty and bondage), “Furor Divinus” sets forth an unsettling image of the Devil’s degradation and punishment: “Pluck my eyes out/Rip my tongue/Make me slave to gravity/Bleed dry of tears/Weep with blood/Leave to atrophy.” Everything has been taken away, this Prince has been stripped of glory and reduced to nothing, and he sits traumatized by the assault on his body and mind.

It is against this shifting backdrop of boasting and trauma that “Furor Divinus” begins to justify the devil’s counterstrike against creation. Far from giving in, far from accepting his diminution, this Dark One strikes back in Miltonian fashion, spilling forth plagues, devastation, and apocalyptic chaos, submerging the nations in sin and decay. Where he was once accused, the Accuser rises up to make the peoples suffer for his own misfortune. What had seemed the deliverance of God is revealed as the very opposite: “Raise the dagger Abraham/And slit the throat of thy only son/Reverse the history of man…and reset the world.” Despite everything the devil is still bound by the fetters of his damnation (“My steps never outweighed the gravity of hell.”), so he prays for the fires that might destroy the order of bondage that he languishes under.

Unable to escape this tormented existence, Satan finally gives up any outside assistance from ideas or gods or imperfections, and instead turns to a human, a singular person, to contend with, to be a partner, a lover, an object of domination and delight. As we might say in churchy language, he looks for someone to “do life with.” At long last, he finds himself recreated and given new life through this intertwined partnership (“In the Absence Ov [sic] Light”).

After a minor pit-stop to spill forth some desecration upon the Virgin Mary (because, this is a black metal album, so why not?), Behemoth make their way to the title-track, “The Satanist.” Having selected a person to be his help-meet, our protagonist—Is this the devil? Is it his evangelist? Narratival disorientation complicates things…—descends Mount Sinai to bestow his Gospel upon the masses. He comes to pour forth the rapture and ecstasy, the euphoria, to unleash the font of pleasure and filth, as he tears down the dividing wall between earth and the inferno, letting in the blissfully churning waters of the profane. “Compelled to liberate the spring of life/When the levee breaks gush forth o’ stream of ice/I decompose in rapture of hells/Dissolve divide disintegrate/I am yours/In euphoria below.” Far from being simply a wrecker of destruction, far from being simply a provider of ecstasy, annihilation and pleasure, degradation and liberation are all mixed together when it comes to the devil's deeds.

Which finally brings us to the concluding track, “O Father, O Satan, O Sun!” It is beautiful. It is devastating. It is disturbing. It is, literally, a hymn to Satan, asking the devil to indwell and provide strength, courage, and power to his people.[2] It asks him to snuff out the sun and stars. It asks for redemption, for the whirlwind, for the vortex, for “a storm that brings no calm.” The devil is finally named as The Wanderer, bereft of home and hearth, forever set adrift on the seas of fame and fortune, enslaved to the currents of time and tempest. To this one, our pray-er cries for liberation and the release,

O Father,

O Satan,

O Sun,

Let the children come to thee.

Behold the Morning Star.

Finally, all of these cries of praise rise in the desire that the Accuser make all creation subject and obedient to the psalmist’s desire for domination and power. Before this one, before the Betrayer of Hope, “I’m most complete, yet so undone.”

*          *          *

The Satanist, then, paints a picture of the devil as a bombastic underdog, bound, chained, permanently wounded, yet ever-striving, seeking to regain his place in glory. Like the boxer whose odds are never in his favor, he seeks to psych himself and others up with tales of his assured victory, all the while being consumed with doubt and fear in his more unguarded moments. This is a character who has been marred and violated, so seeks to mar and violate others, inflicting pain on them; yet, he longs for a partner, an equal, to spar with on the turf of life. He wants to upend the cosmos, but in doing so brings delight, joy, and bliss, not only humiliation, degradation, and putrefaction. He is sought as the Rebel, the one who rises up and offers life and victory, the Homeless One who wanders the face of the earth, bringing life to those who are likewise homeless and born aloft on the pitch and lurch of being. He is, simply, “The Great Rebellion” (from the title track).

Whether this is in fact the case or is merely Satan’s most heartfelt wish is beside the point, the value lies in his taking up arms against the heavens and refusing the ways of God or the consolations of divinity.

It is a thrilling ride.

It is an intoxicating ride.

It is a disturbing, even nauseating, ride.

And yet.

When the music fades and all is stripped away, we begin to realize it’s also one that we’ve all heard too often before. It’s a story as tired and old as creation itself.

Here we find simply the inescapable fact that hurt people hurt people; those who have been humiliated and savaged often move to humiliate and savage others when given the power to do so. For, there is no limit to the violation that the desolate ones will visit on others when given free rein to their deepest, darkest desires.

Black Mirror provides a lens through which to critique all of this.

More on that, next time.

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[1] Spoiler Alert: It’s Black Mirror.

[2] Though the album was released in 2014, Behemoth actually just released the video for the track here as the final offering in The Satanist’s cinematic unfolding. It is, as with all Behemoth videos, gorgeously shot, but thoroughly NSFW and problematic.