Batushka vs. Batushka: Liturgical Usurpation on Black Metal’s Front
The long and storied legacy of in-fighting between black metal musicians is, at this point in history, seemingly inevitable. This year, one of extreme metal’s most hotly contested and quarreled-over controversies concerned an underground black metal group hailing from Poland; known as БАТЮШКА (or "Batushka" in its latinized rendering), the group’s material is based around an occult take on arcane liturgical themes and the utilization of Eastern Orthodox imagery with traditional instrumentation to evoke a sacred but dark and otherworldly atmosphere.
The group’s origins lie in 2015, when founding composer and guitarist Kryzstof Drabikowski recruited vocalist Bartłomiej Krysiuk and drummer Martin Bielemik to join in his quest to create black metal inspired by ancient religious themes, a collaboration that resulted in the prompt creation of their breakout debut full-length Litourgiya, released later that year. The record did not gain widespread international attention, however, until the group was issued a contract with Metal Blade which involved a 2017 re-release of Litourgiya. Though Drabikowski was Batushka’s main songwriter and creative force, it was Krysiuk who was most eager to push the band into their partnership with Metal Blade, as he likely saw the opportunity as a direct route to international acclaim. If newfound fame was what he sought, he had struck liquid gold: the peak of Batushka’s prominence saw them reaching the coveted position of a must-see black metal experience, with the outfit bringing the ethereal theatrics of their live show overseas, touring the US, and appearing at high-profile metal festivals such as Psycho Las Vegas.
But in early 2019, Batushka’s fate took an unexpected turn. Just as they began to develop a solid reputation on the worldwide metal arena, a bout of dramatic events began to unfold, tearing the band limb from limb. Following internal disagreements between its members, Krysiuk was said to have attempted a creative takeover, offending Drabikowski immensely and driving him to essentially split the group into two factions. Both individuals took to social media, each claiming he had kicked the other out of the band and would be proceeding musically as Batushka without his former compatriots.
Though Drabikowski was the band’s original founder, Krysiuk managed not only to assume control of the group’s social media accounts, but also to claim the outfit’s title for his own, effectively blocking Drabikowski from directly communicating his side of the conflict with fans and Metal Blade itself. Drabikowski then took to online forums and YouTube to spread the word of his new project Панихида which he hailed as the "true" sophomore Batushka record. Many of the group’s fans (and critics) sympathized with his situation and thus recognized Drabikowski’s new effort as such, discrediting early singles from "the other" Batushka’s forthcoming album Hospodi (translates simply to “God”) and claiming a betrayal of identity by members they believed had hijacked the official moniker.
Regardless of any ongoing politics and legal issues between the outfit’s original members, the tangible reality of the situation is that two groups have put forth full-fledged, professionally conceived releases each declared as the true continuation of Batushka’s discography. Now that we have been given the opportunity to properly consider both records in their entirety, we can perhaps let the music speak for itself in more substantial disputes concerning the artistic value presented by each: assessed holistically, which is stronger and a more well-composed black metal album? Which displays more innovation and lasting vitality in aesthetic context of the band’s discography? Which album carries on the true philosophy and core essence of Batushka, the vital spirit responsible for elevating that name to its current level of renown?
Must there be a winner and a loser in this debate, or can these albums perhaps exist side by side as two equivalent iterations of the same root being?
Hospodi, the “official” Batushka release under their existing contract with Metal Blade, releases this Friday, marking the group’s first official release in four years. Initial ventures into exploring this record proved to be deceptive; at a glance, it presents a ferocious palette of black metal compositions without entirely abandoning the traditional orthodox infusions that made Litourgiya stand out so boldly. In fact, Hospodi’s entire first track “Wozglas” lacks any form of distortion whatsoever, consisting solely of choirs and atmospheric liturgical percussion that builds into a massive release of tension at the start of the second track. But once this first piece fully transitions over into “Dziewiatyj Czas,” the enormous void of difference separating Batushka’s debut release and their sophomore effort becomes painfully apparent.
Instead of being lost in a deep and timeless pool of auditory texture, the cold and thin timbres of Hospodi’s threadbare tapestry produce a sense of alienation, or even boredom. Perhaps traded are Litourgiya’s tasteful senses of mystery and obscurity, replaced with the less daring presentation of trite black/death metal crossover riffs appearing in mechanical succession. Rather than fully integrating Orthodox tonalities (or even instrumentation) into its tracks, Hospodi dives between lethargic choral passages and energetic, brightly intoned black metal. In their quest to create a distinct experience with Hospodi, Batushka clearly added many elements which appear at odds with their identity: the group states the new record contains a “newfound sense of rock swagger,” and that “as far as guitars go, there are a lot of classic rock influences and some '90’s metal in there too."
These inclusions come with an intentional shift into more “melodic” structures; Litourgiya, however, was not without its strong melodies and gleaming moments of harmonic grandeur. Instead, though, these new melodic elements on Hospodi reflect songwriting structures typical of the melodic death metal of mid-1990s Scandinavia, a style left largely untouched by most cutting-edge black metal outfits in the current decade.
Hospodi’s greatest weakness involves the band's inability to conjure a compelling sense of movement across the overall structure of the record’s ten tracks. Individual pieces taken out of context might be catchy and enjoyable -- there are surely fantastically woven moments throughout the record -- but it ultimately fails to cohere like its predecessor, often diving into uninspired riffing that plods along at an incessant mid-tempo pace. Although not total loss for Batushka, Hospodi has significantly departed from the whimsical and wholly meditative ambiance created on Litourgiya, replacing it with relatively predictable song structures and sometimes extraneous choral and symphonic arrangements which seem to fail to add any creative value.
Drabikowski’s album, on the other hand, takes no detours with the thematic material that made Batushka’s sound so potent with fans. On Панихида, the first release from Batushka’s newly-formed iteration, no departures from the cultural phenomenon created on their debut record (and during their bewitching live performances) can be found. Freed from the restraints of a major label contract, too, Drabikowski took an early upper hand by uploading Панихида to Bandcamp more than a month before Hospodi’s scheduled release, subtly working his foot into the mental door of those paying close attention to the conflict.
As a successor to Litourgiya in artistic regards, Панихида begins similarly to Hospodi but proceeds with the eerie, Medieval introductory notes of its predecessor, immediately invoking quivering mystic energies that promptly explode into towers of black metal undergirded by the soothing reverberations of choirs populated by basso profondo voices. Its approach, though largely similar to Litourgiya (in addition to its nearly identical cover art, all of its tracks have been given the same title differentiated only by numbers, as on the first record), widens the scope of textures and expressions utilized within Batushka’s sound while fine-tuning its ambiance to wonderful effect. Despite the dense layering which sometimes results in aural cacophony, Панихида comes into focus as a more advanced version of the original band's idiosyncratic liturgical style.
An obvious change from Litourgiya to Панихида involves the vocal performance, but not to the detriment of overall quality -- the full spectrum of vocals on Панихида, from the bassy choirs to the cavernous inhuman growls to the more traditional screams, echo out ardently into the rafters of Batushka’s esoteric cathedral. Although the harsher vocals are delivered in a more alternative style compared to Litourgiya, there's now an even wider range of capability and pitch, frequently adventuring into spaces unexplored on the earlier record. Relatedly, the tone of Панихида blends with such aplomb that it achieves a surprisingly warm and inviting quality despite its blackened demeanor, with stoic chord progressions that juxtapose the deep, human anguish carried by the vocals. While Hospodi has seemingly abandoned its commitment to the elements that successfully piqued the interests of black metal fans internationally, Панихида’s sound is fully committed to the Cyrillic orthodox imagery and transcendental soundscapes created by percussion and traditional instruments and actually creates songs built around these older techniques and musical structures rather than just mirroring their representations or just omitting them entirely.
When given an immediate side by side comparison, Hospodi and Панихида represent a severe divergence in Batushka’s identity and central philosophy: both do have significant appeal as modern entries into the black metal pantheon, but to a vastly bisected audience with little potential for crossover. Though Hospodi has taken a greater step away from the experimental toward the conventional, it is admittedly a completely acceptable album. However, it is not guaranteed to be seen as such to a vast majority of existing fans who had gravitated toward the trappings of Litourgiya.
Even beyond the compositional and musical abilities of these two clashing groups, Панихида has won more die-hard black metal fans than not, simply because of its essentially rebellious nature. With Krysiuk forcing Batushka into the spotlight as a potential strategy to achieve his authoritative vision of a more fame-oriented outfit, steadfast black metallers saw Drabikowski as the victim of a flagrant injustice, simultaneously attracted to the scene-specific appeal of keeping things strictly obscure and underground.
Of course, there's some True Irony in this situation: we have Bartłomiej Krysiuk to thank not only for bringing Batushka to the world’s attention and boosting that level of attention with dramatic press, but also for inspiring Drabikowski with the sense of individual oppression and indignant rage that he likely poured into Панихида. If the group had managed to overcome their disagreements and carried on with the same lineup, compromises might have muddied their sound. History's events unfold in ways we can never truly predict, but we can hope that these sometimes dramatic proceedings have resulted in the best of all possible worlds for Batushka, both as conceived under Drabikowksi and Krysiuk.
Панихида released May 26th. Hospodi releases this Friday.
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