Behemoth – Devil’s Conquistadors
“Let the thunder be your messenger
The dawn of empire in glory awaited
The bell in the pagan hearts resounding
The altar of truth in pride and blood covered”
“Grom,” lyrics by Nergal
I had a couple of beers and settled in to start reading the new Behemoth biography, Behemoth: Devil’s Conquistadors, written by Łukasz Dunaj and available worldwide now, courtesy of Metal Blade (Order here)
While I read a digital version, this biography is a hard cover with a massive 490 pages full of ephemera like photos, flyers, lyrics and ticket stubs, along with interviews and anecdotes from current and former members (of which there are many).
Is there any band more deserving of documentation that doesn’t already have it? Nergal’s own autobiography, Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And Profane, Behemoth And Beyond, is supposed to be released this year in English, which will satisfy fans who were peeved that the original version of the 2012 book was written in Polish and wasn’t translated. I don’t know how this book came about--whether the band asked for it or the author approached them to make it happen, but it is obviously written by a fan and someone who deeply understands the challenges, difficulties and opportunities the band faced over the years.
Devil’s Conquistadors is quite a lengthy book and goes into great detail about the band as a whole. Author Dunaj covers details about recording, touring, songwriting and line-up changes from the perspective of everyone involved. The book guides readers through all of the ups and downs of the band’s career, including serious illness. The author interviews the current and former band members who made significant contributions to the band, including Inferno, whose been with the band since 1997, and Havok who was 17 when he joined the band in 2000. The book wraps up with a discography with comments from Nergal, Inferno and Orion that put the line-up changes into context and the sound they were going for with each recording.
There are some awkward (to a native English speaker) turns of phrase in the book that belie the fact that the author is Polish. This doesn't diminish the depth of reporting that went into compiling this massive tome. If anything, it reinforces the fact that the band is so firmly of Polish soil that the rest of the world should get a different feel while reading it. This book will satisfy hard-core Behemoth fans while also entertaining those fans who don’t know much about the band but want to know more. Those interested in recording and touring background will get much to read through.
Naturally, the main character is Adam Darski, who some of the band members call Ner. We get chapter after chapter about the young Darski, how he got into metal and how he met the people who would shape the early future of Behemoth.
Darski was born in Gdynia, in the far north of Poland, in 1977. He apparently had what would be considered a normal upbringing except that he related to the heaviest of the musical dregs that was available in Poland. His parents even helped him along, giving him a guitar at age 8.
We’re led through his teenage years, discovering what music was out there (his first purchased tape was the Polish heavy metal band Turbo) and how he met his earliest collaborator, Adam Muraszko, or Baal. Their band changed its name from Centaur to Baphomet, and finally to Behemoth in 1991.
The midsection of the book is taken up with details of touring and the flack that Behemoth started to get right as they began to grow in popularity. Despite the success they’ve ultimately achieved, not all fans appreciated the choices they've made along the way. For example: choosing to cover the song “Deathcrush” on their From the Pagan Vastlands recording a year after Euronymous’s death pitted them against Grishnack’s supporters. Later, the evolution of their worldview away from Satanism toward paganism led to some serious pushback from musical friends and fans who scorned their ideological change.
The band was also criticized for making choices that were deemed too commercial. Rob Darken of Graveland, who became Nergal’s greatest antagonist, says that Behemoth wouldn't play in certain cities because they had become a “convenient object of attacks.” “Wreaking havoc at Behemoth gigs became something of a trend,” Darken says.
One of the most fun reasons to read band bios like this one are for the anecdotes about the long hours on the road and drunken madness on tours, which can be pretty ugly affairs. There’s plenty here, particularly surrounding the 1999 tour with Ancient Rites, Rotting Christ, Aeternus and Deicide, which Nergal calls “murderous” for alcohol consumption. “The Norwegians went soft after a couple of beers,” and Deicide only smoked pot, which left a lot of alcohol for the rest of them to consume. Glen Benton, apparently, is a shit-fiend who would make turd “ships” by poking twigs, cigarette butts or whatever else into pieces of his excrement and leave them around to be found.
In 2000, the band started out strong, but in June, their first Polish headlining tour was fractured by more havoc-wreaking. It was during this era that the band developed an actual internet presence. It’s also the time when fans started questioning whether Behemoth was still black metal. “I see no point in repeating the same old tricks,” Nergal says, while still asserting that yes, Behemoth is still black metal.
A chunk of the book is devoted to their South American tour to promote their 2004 album Demigod. In one particularly amusing anecdote, the band mates were playing in a club in Guatemala from which they were not permitted to leave, even though their gear and clothes hadn’t arrived. Still trying to make the best of it, they somehow found a fan with corpsepaint and bribed him to go get paint for them.
It seems like with each step forward this band made, there was at least one step backward. After returning from an American tour to support The Apostasy in 2007, Ryszard Nowak, leader of a Polish group called the National Committee of Defense Against Sects in Poland, sued Adam Darski for insulting public religious sentiment for tearing pages out of a Bible on stage, which they did at nearly all of their shows, and promoting Satanism. This incident made national news, and though it was later resolved in Darski’s favor, it cast unwelcome attention on them at the time.
In 2009, while the band was recording their ninth album, Evangelion, press around the world including Terrorizer and the Polish edition of Newsweek lauded them. Critics loved the album and so did the fans, and everything seemed to be going well for a change.
Then, bass player Orion has nerve damage in his hands. It was a short time later, during the Behemoth and Watain tour in 2010, that the term “health problems” began to crop up. A message on the band’s website said that Nergal was “seriously ill.”
The illness turned out to be lymphoblastic leukemia, and Nergal spent about six months in hospitals, receiving chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. While this was happening, guitarist Seth recorded a new Nomad album, and Orion worked in sound engineering and with the reactivated band Vesania. Nergal was released from the hospital in early January 2011, and has remarked that the experience changed him. “If God is punishing me or testing me, why is he testing all these small children in the next room? Lets leave God, Mickey Mouse, and other figments of human imagination aside and focus on the human being.”
Being in the hospital and knowing that people were dying on a daily basis, he says, or meeting people who died a week later, made him want to experience life. It made him hungry to do more and experience more. And again, he made choices that not everyone liked, such as agreeing to be a judge on the TV show “The Voice of Poland.”
In the guy-just-can’t-get-a-break category, symptoms of a serious headache turned out to be degenerative disc disorder in his spine, which means no more headbanging, although now that Nergal is mostly recovered and healthy from the leukemia, the band continues to play and perform live with their show and spectacle intact.
The band did cancel an American tour to focus on finishing 2014’s The Satanist, which Nergal described as the best–sounding album he had ever made. Shorty after finishing that record, Inferno developed acute appendicitis and could barely move his dishes to the sink, the book says, much less drum.
The band’s story ends with Nergal stating that the band is not afraid to carry the burden of being leaders in the scene. If The Satanist ends up being their last album, he’s okay with that. “We are in a place from which we can look around and say with quiet pride: Yes, we like the views. Why not stay here a while?”
Ultimately, Devil’s Conquistadors is the story of a person who shaped a band over decades, a band who didn’t let a lot of bad luck, controversy and criticism get in their way.
“Regardless of what people say and think, we have done something that no other Polish band has ever done or – I may need to take it back in the future – will ever do,” Nergal says.
. . .