Blasfemia America, Part I: In A Rapture Of Hell
I am the great rebellion
Neath Milton’s tomb I dwell
An existence even sin would not pardon
No guilt, no reason, saviour, or shame – “The Satanist”, lyrics by Adam Darski
Before the lights come up on stage, twin projection screens show images of water, roiling from some unknown source, on either side of the drum kit, set on a riser that seems impossibly high. Two men emerge from stage left, the lead guitarist and bassist, who take their places on the riser in front of the screens. The drummer has climbed to his stool from the back. The Intro Tape’s volume is rising but not enough to match the screams of the audience. Then the opening riff of “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” begins. A short, slender man, dressed in a a cowl, his face painted (as is the rest of the band) to declare his war against Christianity, walks out and stands in front of a microphone stand done up with the band’s logo, the Unholy Triangle of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema guarded by two cobras, hoods unfurled.
As the crowd surges, Nergal growls the opening lines, “I saw the virgin’s cunt spawning forth the snake,” and the 1300 people in the audience are focused on the display in front of us. This isn’t just a rock concert. It isn’t even a heavy metal concert. This is a ritual, a kind of unholy liturgy led by four priests of the apocalypse. The high priest calls forth more and more screams from the audience even as the songs from The Satanist roll on, one into the next. He carries an inverted crucifix to the front of the audience and spits upon it. The three guitarists spew (fake) blood over the audience, an unholy baptism that brings the audience into the circle of the fallen (despite being quite close to the stage, I managed to emerge untouched by the fake blood; others around me looked like they’d visited a slaughterhouse).
Some branches of Christianity believe that Hell is unending physical torment, that the damned experience their punishment not just in the spirit but the flesh as well. As Behemoth played, I thought about that (even as I nodded my head, my sweat-soaked hair flying) as the crowd around me surged and rolled, crowd-surfers coming overhead to be passed to security in front of the stage. The music isn’t just loud; in its relentlessness it is intricate and beautiful, without ever once surrendering the darkness at its core. Being in the audience is total physical assault, an attack on the senses that, allowing oneself the freedom to be in the moment, transports the audience beyond the Hell of the moment.
Behemoth’s presence is intimidating, their message of enmity toward the Church and all it stands for very real and serious, the whole packaged as an artistic blasphemous liturgy in which we are all participants. Nergal even passes out communion wafers with the Unholy Trinity stamped on them, right in to the mouths of audience members just as the priest places the host on the tongues of those coming forward. In the midst of it all, the performance becomes more than performance, the music a Black Mass calling forth all that is antithetical to a kind of petit-bourgeois complacency about life and the universe. To dare not only to question the goodness of the Christian, but to defile its most sacred symbols and offer a perverted anti-Mass of hatred is risky. Yet, that is Behemoth’s goal. The tour is called “Blasfemia America”, after all.
A Behemoth concert isn’t just a rock concert. It isn’t even just a heavy metal concert. It isn’t even just a Black Metal concert. It is a performance, a piece of dark art that cannot be broken down in to its constituent parts without destroying what the totality is trying to achieve. Toward the end of the show, Nergal shouted between songs, as he praised this sold-out Chicago crowd, never to compromise one’s art. It’s clear the hour-and-a-half-set (including The Satanist in its entirety) achieved that end. Whoever any of us, band or audience were and are, for that time we were all immersed in Behemoth’s artistic vision of Hell, where Milton’s Lucifer, declaring “Non Serviam”, destroys one’s sense of beauty, of decorum, of what is and what should never be.
And then the lights on stage come down. The house lights come up. The band has taken bows, shaken hands with audience members, even taken the selfie included above. With the performance over, that darkness that prevailed has passed and whatever may have happened, while perhaps leaving the indelible mark of something more than a Black Metal show, flees with the return of the light. As people file out, friends and those who just met that day slap each other on the back, declare the show fantastic, high five the 50-year-old married father of two whose shirt is soaked in sweat, dripping hair hanging down (about halfway through the show, the stage started to look all fuzzy, and I honestly wondered for a second if the heat and press of all those bodies was making me pass out. Then I took off my glasses and tucked them in the pocket of my cargo pants, and kept going), one young man telling me, “You rocked it like a boss!”
Behemoth’s shows are performance art at their best. Immersive experiences that terrify and transport, break taboos yet take traditional rock tropes and use them toward their own ends. I certainly don’t endorse any of the views Nergal holds, but that isn’t the point, anyway. This show may well go down as the single best night of musical performance art in which I’ve ever participated.