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Nergal from behemoth speaks to Sick Sounds magazine!
Words: Jonathan Horsley
Pictures: Ester Segarra
Fear Of A Black Metal Planet
After a long, steady ascent, 2009 saw Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski reach metal’s Olympus as a true musical behe-moth. Jonathan Horsley talks ‘Evangelion’, riffs and Shakira with the man himself.
‘Evangelion’ is the sort of box office longplayer that emits enough dark energy over nine tracks to offer a fam-ily sized megabucket of oh-shit moments.
Behemoth’s graduation from intriguing black-metal-turned-death combo to champions league necro shred-ders was most prominent on 2004’s über-rager ‘Demigod’, when jams like ‘Slaves Shall Serve’ and ‘Towards Babylon’ put the muscle into the monochrome hate of black metal ideology. That was when the Polish icono-clasts started to sound like they looked. Like some CGI fantasy horror creation, Behemoth, led by the em-peror-esque Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski, had adopted a public persona that was properly monstrous. It didn’t mat-ter that they started getting sued for blasphemy by a right wing conservative in Poland, and that, conversely, some in the underground moaned about the hype and the inconvenient truth that some folks liked the band, because by the time ‘The Apostasy’ chased away the post-’Demigod’ expectation with pathologically efficient brutality, Nergal had the idea for ‘Evangelion’ gestating in that brain of his. It was to be an album that crossed over all over the place, lurching between black and death metal, pretty darn vicious but delivered with such slight of hand and conviction that even the mainstream got a bit excited. Nergal, joined by Tomasz ‘Orion’ Wróblewski on bass and Zbigniew Robert ‘Inferno’ Prominskion drums, had summoned the vision and mustered the chops to get that sound in his head onto tape.
“Yeah, thats what ‘Evangelion’ was all about, it was just whatever comes to our mind, what ever suits our vi-sion; that’s what works, you know,” notes Nergal, sans-warpaint but full of, well, evangelistic pep when it comes to talking riffs – y’know, the stuff that sticks in the head, with often the simplest ideas reaping the greatest reward. “That’s the whole point, it’s a trademark you know, it’s what really sells us as artists it’s this recognition, it’s little things you know that people will listen to it and after a few seconds they will recognise it immediately. Same goes for Mayhem, same goes for Slayer, the same goes for Behemoth.”
Behemoth’s trans-genre triumphs have made them a ubiquitous presence in metal magazines but their plau-dits for musicianship and technical adroitness has seen less of a hoo-ha. And this – maybe – is a sign of Be-hemoth’s artistic functionality. Nergal talks about his gear and his playing in purely pragmatic terms. Com-position is everything, and that is why a record like ‘Demigod’, the first to really coalesce around the core of Nergal’s ideas for what Behemoth should sound like, combines exceptional, faultless playing that is swal-lowed by the song.
“I love [the song] ‘Demigod’. We never shot a video for ‘Demigod’ but there must be a reason why we play that song live. I love to combine these two elements: catchiness in the song, when it’s catchy and melodic; and when it’s hyper-brutal, just blasting and crazy. That’s what ‘Demigod’ has. The song structure is very simple too, it makes it a really cool song to play live. . With ‘The Apostasy’ we would just make ourselves just play technical, you know. I would play something I would struggle with live and I don’t want to do that any-more. That’s what I struggle with, y’know, when I play live, this reason I can play in the studio but I can never really play them that well.”
‘The Apostasy’ was the band’s technical zenith – Inferno’s drums are rocket science accurate, while bass and guitar whip by with clinical savagery and the double-tracking was taken off the vocals to streamline the ag-gression. But technical dynamism is given short shrift by Nergal, which is maybe why, despite some right-eously bombastic tunes with blazing leads in all manner of minor modes, Kerry King-esque chromatics and whammy bar gymnastics, that Behemoth’s songs are all so memorable. Stripped to their constituent parts, there is a degree of simplicity that is concealed within the ferocity of the delivery. If one impression of Nergal prevails during any conversation about music it that his pragmatism is as profound as his hunger to take Be-hemoth to new audiences and reach the next level without sacrificing the band’s principles. Oh, and being beasts…
“Live is live; album is album,’ he asserts “to me it’s a basic difference, because live, you’ll see beasts, you’ll see beasts… we just go crazy, like you know when you go crazy? You just want to go full on. You can’t fuck with this [principle]. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to stand there and just watch my neck playing. No, it’s just like, ‘Fuck it! lets just go crazy’. I don’t want to look boring. I don’t want to bore myself on stage. I want to feed on the energy that comes from the crowd and I want to give them energy. There is no place for being so precise [$Italics]. It’s not really that I do it just because I want to attract the kids; I want to attract myself in the first place. We played with Cynic, and I respect these guys, but after one or two songs I was like ‘Okay, that’s not me,’ and then The Hellacopters play and I’m like ‘Fuck yeah!’, you know what I mean!?[laughs].”
Maybe it is this pragmatic attitude, leaving enough in reserve to perform the fuck out their set, that has made Behemoth the most marketable extremists in music today. Back in 2006/07, Nile, with their similarly obses-sive death metal curating of ancient mythology, were Behemoth’s logical peers. But Karl Sanders and Dallas Töller-Wade’s Egyptian schtick has kinda been obscured by the dust storm left in Behemoth’s wake. Behe-moth, with the corpsepaint, the armoured helmets and the sort of call to arms stage show that’d leave an in-delible impression on the impressionable yoof of today. Who, despite all manner of commentary to the con-trary, still get hepped up on a good chorus. Which begs the question to all you young, aspirant death metal musicians; can you write a chorus?
“We were talking about it like yesterday backstage when we went down to the show,” enthuses Nergal. “Here were some bands on the bill, like Trigger The Bloodshed, who are like super-technical and they’re really di-verse, they’re young guys and they’re like shredding and stuff and I’m like drum results and guitar is awe-some, I think it’s good. But what these new bands are missing, I’m like ‘where are the choruses?’, where is the stuff that they repeat and can actually stick to your brain so that I can hum it? I have to fucking hum the songs, y’know! I have to whistle the melody you know. I’m still all about the melody and roll thing you know, you can do it in extreme metal we proved that you can do it.”
So compositionally, you have no excuses for not sticking some hooks in. Morbid Angel did it. Obituary did it. Carcass too. Such is Mr Darski’s boner for hooks and song structure, he even gets excited over mass mar-keted pop.
“I don’t really give a fuck, I just bought the Shakira album two days ago, the new Shakira! I went in to HMV and I heard this single, good stuff, and it was so good I was like ‘Fuck, it’s Shakira I’m buying it.’ And I don’t care, man I’m not afraid to speak up my mind, I’m like whatever. Open-mindedness can be a key to success for the arts, I mean I wasn’t really open-minded back in the ’90s, when I formed the band. You listen to other music at this age. White Lies!? Another UK band: awesome, great songs. And you know I don’t think of it like it’s not extreme we’re talking about songs. Rammstein! Yeah, I’m all about songs.”
To turn green and blench at the thought of pop songwriting infecting death metal is to miss the point. Again, and it is worth repeating, there are compositional lessons to be taken from all different types of music, no matter how worthy you’d consider them. It’s all a matter of how a verse/chorus hook is applied. Nergal’s greatest victories in songwriting are concealed on the fog shrouded battlegrounds of death and black metal, so nobody is going to puke and cry foul of hooks that are similarly contagious to FM pop. ‘Ov Fire And The Void’s verses linger in the head long after you’ve pressed stop. And it’s something to bear in mind when pen-ning you next jam: everything hinges on the riff, and the riff lives or dies by its ability to stick in the head.
This pragmatic, ends-justifying-the-means approach to songwriting extends to Nergal’s guitar playing. He isn’t the most accomplished shredder on the death metal touring roster. But nor is he a reductive hacker. His lead playing recalls a more melodic Kerry King, shouldering the burden of the leads rather than having a Hanneman figure to trade off with. As such, his leads, like his riffs, are memorable, with a sense of narrative to them. They take the song into the next section; acting as a segue-way, Nergal’s leads are rarely, if ever, su-perfluous. Being brought up in Poland helped foster this sense of pragmatism. For a start, getting decent gui-tar parts in early ‘90s Poland was a problem, so the nascent Nergal, still the relatively anonymous Adam Dar-ski, was working with more a more primitive rig than he is now.
“I had a few guitars, very low profile instruments from local factories and some were…. like I had to take a neck from a professional guitar and then just build the body the way I want it! I remember I wanted a head like a Flying V, I couldn’t afford it, so my father just like did it for me and we painted it black and this guitar was a piece of shit obviously but at least it looked cool then. I have my first ever guitar, it’s in pieces. It’s just a body and a neck; there are no pick-ups or nothing there but I still have it at my parents place. I got this gui-tar when I was nine, I still have it, over twenty years [later]. [My father] He was a big supporter, a big helper you know in making things happen like some of the stage gear, my instruments, he’d be the one making or fixing them.”
Nowadays, with his own signature Hex-7 series, a seven-string Flying V made and designed by ESP, loaded with EMG 81-7s and 707s in bridge and neck, Nergal’s rig is less rudimentary ‘Mad Max: Beyond The Thun-derdome’ and a bit more Death Star. Again, it’s a rig built for a singular purpose: Behemoth.
“I stick to what works you know. I’m not very adventurous when it comes to equipment. I know that ESP al-ways works. I know that I need a good boost you know Ibanez is not enough [gain] so I play around with other pedals. But I know what works the best for this music, and if I play something alternative, some rock maybe, it’s a wider range of options. With heavy metal you need a great amp, possibly a tube amp but some of the digital ones are cool, too, sometimes a combination of both. I’m using a Mesa/Boogie Road King. The older and more experienced I get, the less I need. I go for simple solutions. When I see the Road King I see millions of options in the front and in the back: I don’t have space in my brain to fuck with some of this! Just get me a decent heavy tone that’s it. I was surprised a lot with Colin Richardson when we did ‘Evangelion,’ he suggested to re-amp with Randall, and Peavey Van Halen model not 5150 [Peavey 6505]. I hated it, not that I hate Randall; it’s just not my type of sound. But altogether it sounded great, that’s what you hear on the re-cord.”
God Botherers: Moments that made Behemoth
‘FROM THE PAGAN VASTLANDS’ from ‘Sventevith (Storming Near the Baltic)’, 1995
“This is the song that has survived the test of time and is a song that we can play on the setlist today and it’s still going to sound fresh and ass-kicking. It was one of those songs that changed people’s minds. I wouldn’t call it a hit or anything, but it it was catchy, it was good. We had to rearrange it. Since ’95/’96 when we put it out, we’ve learned to handle our instruments. It obviously sounds pretty fucking different to the original and I love that song a lot. Even with the sloppy production on the record and the performance, it still has its charm.”
’CHANT FOR ESCHATON 2000’ from ‘Satanica’, 1999
“There’s a funny story to that song. I remember I was strongly inspired by [The Fields Of] Nephilim album ‘Zoon’. It was more like an industrial metal project, it was different, a more metalised version of Nephilim. I wanted to bring some of the atmosphere, the mood of this record into Behemoth. The faces that my band members made when I was explaining to do that song!? They didn’t dig it. They didn’t get it at all. I promised them: ‘Let’s play it once. Let’s play it, try to improvise a little bit, then we go into the studio and see what happens. If it fits there, if it is a good song, it is going to stay on the record. If it’s crap then I’m going to fuck-ing delete it. We tracked it down and it happened to be one of our biggest songs to date. I couldn’t imagine a Behemoth live show without ‘Chant For Eschaton…’”
’ANTICHRISTIAN PHENOMENON’ from ‘Thelema.6’, 2000
“I really liked the opening, which is very groovy, very simple and black metal rooted. It is one of the most im-portant songs in our career – along with ‘Christians To The Lions’. I was in Lublin recording the album, in South-East Poland. I was staying at a friend’s house and was explaining to him that’s how I wanted the re-cord to start but it would be cool if we had some sort of speech before the song begins. He came up with this quote from somewhere. We cut into one short sentence, put some distortion, some effects on it so it doesn’t sound exactly like the original. Years later, someone told me it was John Malkovich. I still don’t know what movie it is from.”
‘SLAVES SHALL SERVE’ from ‘Demigod’, 2004
“Just before we went into the studio, ‘Slaves Shall Serve’ was the song I liked least. I didn’t even like it, at all. I thought it was just too chaotic, too crazy, it didn’t the concept, it didn’t fit the rest of the songs so I thought ‘Slaves Shall Serve’ would be an outtake! But, once we started working on it in the studio, I put vocals on it and everything, it ended up to be one of my very favourite songs of the whole Behemoth catalogue not just ‘Demigod’.”
‘ALAS, THE LORD IS UPON US’ from ‘Evangelion’, 2009
“Originally, we were going to have an instrumental and put some samples over it. Guenther from Rock The Nation, our agent, I played him some of the rehearsal songs from pre-production and I played him this song. He just said, ‘No fucking way! You’ve got to make a regular song out of this.’ I love the lyrics, they are very straightforward and offensive. We put it all together and I love how it is all so simple in a way. There is no lead, nothing. It’s very raw, very primitive, very bombastic.”