Hail Nergal! Behemoth’s show is a masterclass in sophisticated black metal – and strangely full of joy

London O2 Forum Kentish Town, February 8, 2019

You might describe Poland’s Behemoth as the thinking person’s black metal band.

Compared to Norwegian counterparts like Mayhem, whose deeply troubling off-stage antics are better known than their music (and soon to be moreso thanks to a new biopic), Behemoth seem positively academic.

Sure, lead singer/guitarist Nergal might have been prosecuted for blasphemy a decade ago for ripping up a bible on stage, but he argued his right to free speech and won the case, having to neither draw pentagrams in salt nor shed the blood of any lambs in the process.

In fact, the more surprising thing about the band’s growling underlord is that when he’s not touring the world he’s got a level of A-star side-hustle that any LinkedIn-stalking portfolio entrepreneur would envy. He’s an established TV personality back home, having hosted the Polish version of Pop Idol, he runs a chain of barbershops and is a qualified museum curator. Now you know.

If Nergal’s own life has crossed over between projects and periods, then so too has Behemoth’s. Since their arrival in 1991 they have evolved from black to death metal and several shades in between, until they’ve arrived at what they are today, a crushingly powerful but deeply expressive hybrid beast that warps the symbolism of the catholic religion and turns it into a visual language of its own. Notwithstanding its many political interpretations, the show is deeply pleasing to witness in its visual symmetry and remarkably accessible given the genre’s anti-social, anti-life connotations.

More importantly, the music slaps. So. fucking. hard. As the opening curtain drops and the band unleash ‘Wolves Ov Siberia’ from last year’s ‘I Loved You At Your Darkest’, a melee of fire and smoke competes with the intensity of the swelling mosh pit.

Newer material like singles ‘God = Dog’ (oddly reminiscent of Morrissey’s ‘The Youngest Was The Most Loved’ with its use of a child choir) and the mystic, thumping ‘Bartzabel’ rustle up against moments of death metal carnage like ‘Slaves Shall Serve’.

The outfit changes are numerous and ostentatious, each one further elevating the spectacle and presenting their wall of complex sound from another resplendent angle. During encore ‘Lucifer’, Nergal plays in a giant feathered crown, silhouetted by red lights, ensnared in hurricane of confetti, a powerful image of whatever you want it to be (because let’s face it, a huge chunk of tonight’s audience are unlikely to identify as satanists.)

In fact, far from depressing, it’s hard not to feel uplifted by the whole thing. While Slipknot might address their fans as maggots and Cannibal Corpse as ‘you mother fucking crazy fucking mother fucking freaks’, when Nergal speaks to the crowd he chooses to elevate the esteem of everyone in the room, saying from the start his band has been for the ‘freethinkers.’

With the show a grand choreographed spectacle that carries with a tightness and clarity, it lets an incredible energy and emotion flood through the Forum like a wave. For a genre so deeply associated with anger, fear and darkness, it feels more like a catharsis, setting your mind and body free.