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Photo by Jimmy Hubbard

The influential extreme-metal frontman on I Loved You at Your Darkest and why flouting the genre’s mores is essential to its survival.

Since their debut nearly 30 years ago, Polish metal outfit Behemoth has always been unapologetically intense—musically, lyrically, and aesthetically. But with 10 studio albums now in the band’s wake, their sound has developed from a potent take on black metal’s fury into a multifaceted beast that flexes with dynamic sensibility and nuance rarely seen in extreme metal. With their 11th studio LP, the monumental I Loved You at Your Darkest, vocalist/guitarist/bandleader Adam “Nergal” Darski, bassist Thomasz “Orion” Wróblewski, and drummer Zbigniew “Inferno” Promiński (along with hired-gun lead guitarist Patryk “Seth” Sztyber) have submitted a mission statement that puts artistry at the forefront and defies the notion that great metal thrives exclusively on bludgeoning guitars and maxed faders.

A far cry from the lo-fi sonic blizzards of early Behemoth releases, I Loved You at Your Darkest is a punishing yet surprisingly diverse stomp down paths not unlike those the band took on 2014’s The Satanist. Nergal and company still brandish many of the musical weapons honed during their time as a traditional black-metal band—including searing, tremolo-picked minor chords, pummeling blast beats, and jarring tempo shifts. But these calling cards now fall in the context of arrangements that fuse black metal’s ethos and speed with death metal’s brute force and rock ’n’ roll-inspired tones and structural ideas, culminating in a sound that’s utterly Behemoth.

In fact, if the critical reception the new album has enjoyed is any indication, Behemoth is advancing extreme metal beyond the stereotypes of its various subgenres and proving that heavy music can be a form of high art when freed from the shackles of “authenticity” that establishment figures often force upon even vanguard artists.

Factor in the quartet’s dramatic visual aesthetic and a world-class stage show, perfected over years of touring alongside icons like Slayer and Cannibal Corpse, and Behemoth’s ascension to the pantheon of metal’s great maverick artists seems destined.

Despite the band’s obvious love for impactful imagery—in everything from their stage makeup and attire to the feature-film-like cinematography and costuming of their videos—band visionary Nergal says he’s not interested in prog-rock or traditional narrative-style concept albums. Even so, I Loved You at Your Darkest does have a loose conceptual theme that traces the band’s trajectory over the years through 12 tracks, most of which feature the sorts of brazenly blasphemous but intellectually approached lyrical themes that have come to typify Behemoth releases.

For many casual listeners, the band’s visual drama and Nergal’s penchant for blatant profanity (which is informed by both several years of history studies at the University of Gdańsk, and his upbringing in a country where Catholicism is a dominant societal force) can be a distraction from the members’ immense prowess as instrumentalists. However, I Loved You at Your Darkest allows Behemoth’s musicianship—and Nergal’s growth as a songwriter and arranger—to shine. Underpinned by a maturity and restraint that gives the album breathing room unheard in past efforts, and accentuated by an organic production style that shirks the sterility that plagues many extreme-metal records, I Loved You at Your Darkest sees Nergal settling into the role of reformed shredder. Void of superfluous guitar solos or particularly technical flights of fancy, the mood is instead set by heaps of texture, unconventional layering ideas, and solos that truly serve the song. There’s even some acoustic guitar. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of the churning rhythm work, atonal riffing, and angular leads that Behemoth fans have come to expect. But those elements are used more thoughtfully for greater impact.

We don’t want to end up like a hamster, chasing ourselves around on a wheel by doing the same shit over and over again.

When PG spoke with Nergal—who also fronts the dark blues ’n’ roots outfit Me and That Man—he was in the midst of a whirlwind press tour in his native Poland. While well known for his intimidating stage presence and a voice that could only belong to a man in league with Satan, we found Nergal a deep-thinking and articulate interviewee. Our discussion ranged from the new album’s writing and recording processes to lessons learned from Slayer’s Kerry King and Gary Holt, stealing from Jack White, and taking a holistic approach to art.

Behemoth’s last studio album moved away from traditional black-metal structures and started exploring more rock ’n’ roll-like elements, and I Loved You at Your Darkest takes that even further—especially with some of the alt- and classic-rock vibes in the guitars. Where were you coming from this time around?
What you hear on this record is really a summary of who we are as musicians, and who we are as artists and people. I process a lot of inspiring things from disparate places and spit them back out, and that’s what you hear in these songs. As far as my guitar playing goes, I’m definitely opening up a bit. On earlier records, I was very stiffly attached to certain sonic patterns and ideas that come from the metal world, but on The Satanist—and especially I Loved You at Your Darkest—I’ve really liberated myself and decided to go with the flow. I didn’t restrain myself or limit the exploration of an idea just because it doesn’t necessarily belong within extreme-metal or black-metal standards. We’re just much more open to freely exploring all of the influences that exist within us and that have always been there. We don’t want to end up like a hamster, chasing ourselves around on a wheel by doing the same shit over and over again, and I think you can still be an extreme-metal band and pull from other genres. So the idea is to blend elements from other musical worlds in with what we do to give our own music a wider range of colors.

TIDBIT: Nergal’s main guitars for tracking the band’s 11th LP were his signature ESP single-cuts, but Fenders—primarily a Telecaster—Gibsons, and Jacksons also factored into creating guitar sounds with a bit more classic-rock crispness.

And yet it’s still a very cohesive album—and as heavy, in its own way, as anything the band’s put out.
A lot of bands in our world play it safe and don’t want to risk losing their fan base. They follow their pattern and do the same record over and over again to stay “credible” and avoid that. Me … I need to stay credible to myself, first and foremost. My own inspiration and being honest with myself comes first, regardless of whether other people follow it. Stagnation really equals death, and I don’t want to stay in the same place. So on one hand, I do want to remain faithful to the sound that we started with—and you can hear it on this record maybe even more than anything on The Satanist with a song like “Wolves ov Siberia”—but, on the other hand, there’s stuff that you’ve never heard before on a Behemoth record … pretty adventurous ideas that are far-removed from extreme metal. It seems to be connecting with people. We did a meet and greet yesterday here in Poland, and when I asked what people’s favorite song on the record is, a lot of people said “The Crucifixion Was Not Enough…” which is a very different song for Behemoth. It means a lot to me that people seem to get it. It’s an exceptional compliment when people single out a song like that.

Speaking of “Wolves ov Siberia,” it’s perhaps the most traditional black-metal song the band has put out in years. How do you approach writing a riff like that without plagiarizing your past work?
That song is sort of the mirror song, conceptually, to “We Are the Next 1000 Years,” which is why it’s placed so early on the album and in a spot that correlates to “We Are the Next 1000 Years.” It’s supposed to represent the beginning for us both sonically and in its placement on the album.

When it comes to writing things like the riff on “Wolves,” I’m not necessarily above repeating myself. There are certain parts that I see as Behemoth signatures at this point. For example, the main guitar theme on “God = Dog” is very similar to the guitar part on “Conquer All” [from 2004’s Demigod], with that alternating high-to-low marching chord idea. That kind of riff is one of my favorite things to do on the guitar, to the point that it’s on a lot of our albums and is very much me. To my thinking, there’s nothing wrong with having sort of trademark ideas, but it really comes down to how you finish them and how you build the things around them. For example, the main guitar theme of “God = Dog” was not very exciting to me until we came up with the song’s beginning and ending, and it was the context of having all of it together that made the song exciting. So it’s not about the riff so much as the context it’s in, and that’s a big thing for this band. Riffs only make sense if you put the right elements together, and that’s when a riff can impress in a song. I don’t know that Behemoth is really a killer riff band, but when we combine that element with other things and we put it all together and pour our “sauce” on it … that’s when things get exciting for me. I really want Behemoth to be more of an experience and a bigger entity than just a rock ’n’ roll- or metal-riff-based band.

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