Behemoth’s Nergal to Chaoszine: “Art is meant to be free as a bird and no force on earth can stop it. And that’s what this Behemoth modern current state of mind is.”

Author Flavia Andrade - 5.9.2022

In the annals of metal there is no band more synonymous with an unswerving commitment to the single-minded defiance of expectation than Behemoth. Over the course of their remarkable 31-year career, these Polish hellraisers – spearheaded by Adam Darski, aka Nergal – are more than just the architects of their country’s legendary extreme metal scene. Over the course of three decades and previous 11 albums, Nergal’s singular vision has forged Behemoth into something far more than a mere black metal band. Beyond any confines of genre, they have grown to become nothing less than the personification of rebellion, individuality and unflinching self-expression, informed by a literate worldview and worldliness that’s resulted in a locking of horns with everything from the mainstream press to the Polish Catholic church – most notably manifesting in Nergal’s trial for blasphemy in 2010, which only served to expose the deep-seated hypocrisies that his music seeks to challenge. It also highlighted the distinct lack of fucks that he has to give.  

Now world-renowned and yet exuberantly underground in their convictions, Behemoth are perhaps the unlikeliest of success stories, but if their stratospheric ascent and hard-won commercial achievement can be attributed to anything, it’s a cast-iron unwillingness to compromise. As “Opvs Contra Natvram”, their 12th studio release, heralds from the rooftops – their longevity is down to a resolute commitment to find new ways to enthrall and inspire their ever-growing legion of latter-day heretics, a determination which shows no signs of erosion. It’s changing times and new battles to fight, to which Nergal attributes Behemoth’s unique ability to sound fresh despite their incredible tenure. Therein lies the inspiration for the album’s title and striking cover artwork. 

The 12 chapters of fury that make up “Opvs Contra Natvram” were written and recorded over the course of a very strange year for the world, a situation which only heightened the level of craft seen in these 43 minutes and 15 seconds of honed, searing wrath. As with previous studio outings, it was produced by Behemoth with engineering duties undertaken by acclaimed Meshuggah, Dimmu Borgir and In Flames producer Daniel Bergstrand. Mixing, however, involved a new player on the chessboard who you’d be hard-pressed to guess – famed producer and mixer Joe Barresi, a studio legend with a breathtaking credits list which includes Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains and Tool, just to name a few. He was chosen for his celebrated ability to preserve a studio recording’s organic feel and identity.

And from the sound of “Opvs Contra Natvram”,  there is no doubting the artistic summit that Nergal and Behemoth are aiming for. From the colossal energy of opener “Post-God Nirvana” to the epic and righteous indignation of “Ov My Herculean Exile” and album-closer “Versvs Christvs” – a riveting extended track featuring piano and clean vocals, which are destined to turn heads, Behemoth’s latest is the ultimate soundtrack to these strange and troubled times. 

Chaoszine had the opportunity to chat with Nergal over the phone, and you can read the full interview below.

Hello. How’s it going, Nergal?

Nergal: Well, it’s going super busy, actually. I’ve been doing like, three interviews right now. And while doing those interviews, I was signing another fucking hundreds and hundreds of copies of the pre-sold new record. So one can say very busy. We’ve also finished the summer season of festivals and it was especially challenging for myself because I was swinging out with both bands [Behemoth and Me And That Man] out there at the stages of Europe. I did 24 shows altogether. So, very busy. I’m tired, but I’m happy. I’m satisfied. The reaction to the new record so far has been at least very good, so I’m very happy about that. And I’m off for holidays tomorrow for one week. So, I’m going to shut down. No social media, nothing. And then, come back and do some more work for the devil.

You are about to release “Opvs Contra Natvram”, your first studio album after the pandemic. So, how is the writing process for it? And was it affected by the health crisis at all?

Nergal: Well, I’m quite ambivalent about how I see that because on one hand, I was very happy that the world shut down, at first. For a few minutes, for a few months in the very beginning, I was kind of relieved. But I wasn’t really writing much back then. I just wanted to have some time off  ̶  that I didn’t have in ages. But then, after a few months, when I realized that the sky is not clearing up anytime soon, it started to be more and more of a pain in the ass that we can’t travel, we can’t fucking go and do our job as we wish we could. So, we started completing more and more demos for the record. So, I’d say that this is our pandemic record. It was done in times of isolation, lockdown, misanthropy, hopelessness, no tomorrow and no future, basically. Because that was the state of our minds back then, because there was no guarantee that tomorrow we can do anything. So, maybe, that is one of the reasons why that record became so existentially driven, so to say. Because that’s how it is to me. It’s a very existential record. But at the same time, I just turned 45. So, I guess that there’s also some of those reflections and maturity, basically, coming from my experience and from the fact that I’m almost half a century around, and my reflections also made this record more existential than any other Behemoth record.

So, the album title means it’s a work against the natural state of things, the status quo, right? Do you see your music still as counterculture, contesting the current state of affairs in the world?

Nergal: Abso-fucking-lutely. It’s always been that. I’ve just been switching tools, how I want to execute my vision. That’s it. Absolutely. Some record titles were stronger, some were softer, maybe just targeted differently. But yeah, there’s a lot of fuck-you attitude on the record. The cover says it all. You don’t really need any explanation here. The phrase, “Opvs Contra Natvram”, obviously I didn’t invent it. I’m not that creative, sorry. But I stole it from a brilliant mind, Gustav Jung. But, again, he uses it for completely different reasons and he invented the whole phrase to describe whatever agenda he had in mind. I’m not here to talk about that. I just thought it’s beautiful, perfectly collected words that make an awesome, very strong statement that I can use for my own purposes. And that’s what I did, I stole it and I fucking tweaked the meanings and adopted it and just made it mine. And I’ve been talking to a few people now, how they perceive the record and how they perceive the title, and I’m very happy that I’ve already heard I don’t know how many different interpretations of the title. I have many, too. The one that I kind of repeat every time is that– I try to rephrase it and just put it in different words, but, well, art is not created to make the world a nicer and easier place to live. Art is not there to make the world happier or more beautiful. Art is here to make it more difficult. Art is to make you fucking work your ass off and make up your mind and challenge your demons and channel those energies and turn it eventually into something creative or not, I don’t know. But that’s what art is, at least ours. That is radical art. It’s not meant to be, “Oh it’s a fucking mass appeal, happy music, let’s entertain people, let’s be soft or whatever.” No, let’s not be soft. Let’s be difficult, let’s be challenging, let’s be against. Let’s go against the current. Let’s do things that other bands or people dare not do because they think, “Oh, that’s maybe politically not correct.” Fuck that. Fuck cancel culture. Fuck political correctness. Art is meant to be free as a bird and no one and nothing, no force on earth can stop it. And that’s what this Behemoth modern current state of mind and state of vision is.

Yeah, that’s perfect. Art is supposed to make people think, right? Nothing other than that.

Nergal: Exactly. I want to piss people off and I do it right, I think.

You do piss a lot of people off. So let’s talk about some of the songs. “Ov My Hercvlean Exile” is one of the slower-tempo songs on the album and it was chosen as the first single. And the music video is amazing. It’s like a short film, a horror movie. And we don’t see you guys in it. So how did that concept come about?

Nergal: Well, I gave a free hand, basically, to the director [Zuzanna Plisz] of that clip. And I sent her a few of the new songs and she just chose “Hercvlean”. If it was up to me, I don’t think I would choose that as the first single. But it was the first video that was fully finished, and we really wanted to give something to people, so we decided, “Okay, let’s go with ‘Hercvlean’.” And yes, when she came back with the concept, we had to rework that because, even though we’d spent a fucking fortune on it already, originally it was even bigger and way more expensive. So, I told the company, “Guys, we can’t fucking afford it.” So, they had to rewrite that script and adapt it to the slightly smaller budget that we were given. But I’m extremely happy with it. I think it’s a game-changer. Not many bands really pay that much attention to these kind of things. I really hope that we are right behind Rammstein, and I hope that this is not just a bold statement. I always just give everything to reflect my vision the best I can, and to blow people’s minds and engage people. And that is such an engaging story. So, yes, it’s a creeping cat, “Hercvlean Exile”. Well, I really love how she captured the vibe of that song. It’s a story-telling song. Also, the music, it’s just– because there’s not much dynamics for most of the song. It’s quite monotonous. To me, it just reminds me of early Burzum stuff. It’s just boom, boom, boom. It tells a story, and she picked the song. She said: “This is the best music that you gave me, so I really want to write a script for that song.” So that’s how we ended up.

There’s a video for “Off To War”, and the song features the verse that represents Behemoth the most on all of the album, which is: “Are we to remain subjugated by fictitious morality?”. This was a stroke of genius. What can you tell us about how this song came about? Because it’s one of the most in-your-face songs, as I see it.

Nergal: I don’t really remember how I was writing this song. I remember I was writing the lyrics and the music separately and then, somehow, they clicked. And obviously, the music and the lyrics, they must align. Honestly, I think that music is more militant, and the lyrics are way more extensions. I really like how that’s some kind of contradiction, if you ask me. The only militant part is the speed-up towards the end. It’s the verse when we’re just doubling my vocal and, “We’re off to war,” and it just speeds up and it’s a blast beat. And I love that part. After that, it’s up-tempo but the lyrics are something else. They’re existential. I’m just throwing those existential questions. And it’s like, “Hey, are we this, are we that? Are we defenseless prey in the predator’s eye?”. And obviously, you can link it to so many political situations or war-like situations that are, in my case, actually, they’re fucking by your border as well. The enemy is right at your door. And I kind of chose that song; it was written pre-war, but I decided to use it to express my political views as well. So, every time I go on stage, I use the stage as a platform to express my solidarity with courageous troops and people in Ukraine fighting for their sovereignty. And it clearly makes a link between that song, and I might as well throw that question at those people. Are you defenseless prey? No, you’re not. You are a brave civilian, fighting for your freedom. And you have my full support. But every time I introduce that song live, I say, and I mean it, “When the enemy is at your door, we’re off to war.” And I’m so with these people. So, I love that song, personally, I think it stands out, it’s different. And I honestly think that every song on the record kind of stands on its own but when you put them all together, obviously, it makes for a solid unified endeavor.

So, “The Deathless Sun”. You guys have two videos out for it, one which is a performance video of the band, but the other one, the narrative video, is the one that I would like to address here. It’s like exploitation taken to the most. It’s “caput quod futura praenuntiat”, which is like the head that foretells future things, which reminded me of some Pentecostal churches that exploit the scripture, but at what cost? Can you tell us a little bit about that concept?

Nergal: Well, again, I gave that script to the artist [Błażej Jankowiak]. I just gave him a free hand, and he came back to me with this idea of Christ, I mean, a traveling prophet, basically. And that’s how we perceive saints these days, or we just make money on them. And that’s what it’s always been like. Any religions, they’ve always tried to sell something. So that’s why you have this trickster. And he’s just traveling around trying to sell a piece of sanctity. But eventually, he becomes the prophet himself, because he just got possessed by this evil force behind that. And then again, I had something else in mind when I was writing that. “I am nothing, I am no one.” Compared to what? Compared to solar power, the life-giving, energy-giving God, or you name it. It could be Lucifer as well, if you wish. No problem. But basically, I wanted to express how small we are, how small I feel in the presence of something absolutely overwhelming. And that, again, is existential. It’s almost religious, in the context of this video: like the head, there’s like a few seconds when you can actually see that Jesus-like, Jesus-inspired head, singing those parts: “I am nothing. I am no one.” And that is so self-explanatory, right? So, again, my original plan was totally turned upside down with the video; it gives you a completely different interpretation of those words. I love it, because that’s exactly what I’m aiming for with art and music, I just want to give you keys and it’s really up to you which doors you want to open or if you want to open them at all. And if you open them, what’s behind? Just find out yourself. Why should I spoil all the fun? I don’t want to do that if I can: work on your brain, do it yourself.

Your art has always been controversial and contesting. Coupling this with Satanism and the Occult and bringing those to the foreground has brought you legal troubles in Poland and you’ve been accused of blasphemy. You also have a campaign, “Ordo Blasfemia”, which is against that kind of right-wing conservative extremism. How important do you think the role of artists is in the world, especially in fighting that and in bringing these themes to light for the general public?

Nergal: Well, if you ask me now, I’d say almost essential, because we stand for the truth. But I remember when the war burst out, I was like, “Do I want to continue with Ordo Blasfemia?” But there was already a lot of money there. There’s still money waiting. I didn’t use that money. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with that, because it’s people that donated it for a certain goal. But when the war started, I was like, “Holy shit, what are my problems?” I mean, in comparison with how freedom can be violently taken from other societies or other countries. So, obviously it’s important, but, at some point, I was like, “Should I maybe donate all that money to Ukraine to support them, I don’t know, to buy military or whatever?” And I was like: I’m still not that troubled because it can get way, way worse. So, if you ask me, of course, it’s important. It’s part of my mission to speak up for freedom. It’s very important, a universal goal, because I truly believe that art should never be subject to any censorship; because if you start doing that, it’s a clear and straight path to some kind of totalitarian agenda. It’s like, “Are you going to do as we tell you today?”. They basically want to dictate what you can do, what you cannot do. It makes sense when you’re driving a car, otherwise there’s going to be accidents; but when I’m an artist, I’m not really hurting any people. I don’t do any harm, unless you want that. You freely and willingly enter my kingdom and it’s really up to you if you want to contribute. For me, coming from Poland and fighting for this  ̶  I have three lawsuits happening simultaneously as we speak. Three! And I’m still spending a shitload of money paying invoices to my lawyers. And when I’m touring, there’s court meetings every few months, and every invoice is a couple of hundred euro. Throughout the years, it’s a small fortune that I’m spending on my right for free speech and free talk. That is insane. And you’re coming from Finland. You might be like, “Is this guy even fucking serious?” Yes, I am serious. That’s exactly what is happening in my country. That’s why I asked you and everyone else, “Hey, can you help me?” Because maybe, at some point, I won’t be able to defend myself because the problems are mounting up. The problems, those issues, those clenches are tightening up. And I’ve had people protesting in front of our venues. I’ve had people making venues cancel our shows. I went through that, and it’s not over, and it’s getting worse and worse. In my case, it’s the status quo that I’m fighting. But I think I’m also a part of this bigger rebellious movement: I’m talking about women’s rights and LGBT problems and all that. It’s all integrated, basically. So, I know I’m not alone here in this fight. And all these people supporting me and donating, I really want to underline how generous people were with me and with this whole campaign. I’m super grateful, and I’m still waiting for a right cause to use it. I did, like, a small campaign, it resonated a little bit. But what Poland needs is a fucking big political party that’s going to fuck up the fundamental system and just going to bring peace of mind. But knowing how rigid the system is, maybe it’s not happening within my lifetime. I don’t know. But at least I want to add a small brick to that wall.

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I got to ask you something that’s not related to that, but that everyone in the world of heavy metal is talking about. What is your opinion about Pantera’s reunion?

Nergal: I’m stoked. And it’s coming from the mouth of the guy that’s never been a Pantera fan. I mean, I’ve always appreciated the guys. It wasn’t really my thing. It was like, is this American thrash music or American heavy metal? That is definitely valuable, that is legendary already, and there’s a whole wave of bands in the same direction. I was never really fond of that, but I do respect that. There are some songs that I dig. And I’m super stoked and happy that we’ll be sharing stage on the same festival during the first shows they play. So, I’ll be there with Behemoth when they play the day before on the same stage in Mexico. So, I’m stoked. I’m happy. And I remember Phil Anselmo & the Illegals doing a Pantera set in one of the venues in Poland and, trust me, I’ve been to this venue dozens of times and I’ve never seen people going that fucking berserk before. And that was so fucking engaging. That just got me going. I’m like, holy shit. That energy was undeniable So now, seeing Rex [Brown], the original bassist, the two other dudes… People like to bitch about things, but I’m more of a yes kind of guy, so if it’s shit, it’s shit. But I don’t think it’s going to be shit. I think it’s going to be fucking awesome. Most times, I give artists carte blanche or I’m like, “Let’s see how it goes.” So, I’m definitely stoked and I’m excited.

Behemoth did two live streams during the pandemic because nobody could perform: “In Absentia Dei” and “XXX Years Ov Blasphemy”. They were amazing, two jewels. How was that experience and how is it going back on the road now?

Nergal: Well, it feels very liberating. Of course, I’m very proud of those. And I think we set the bar really high. We fucking outdid ourselves to make those as spectacular as they can be. And we got all that reception from people, and I cherish that. But hey, please, no more. I’ve done that. I’ve been there. I’m never fucking doing that again because it cost me so much energy, money, fucking stress and everything. Done that. Now please confront me with real people in real time. So, it does feel very liberating to be touring again and I really hope the universe will heed my call and no more pandemic.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans before we go?

Nergal: Suomi, Finland, perkele! I love you guys. And I always use my occasion to express how much love we get every time we play Tuska or some other festival, or we are there with tours, it’s always killer. And I also want to say that if it wasn’t for Beherit and Impaled Nazarene, I don’t know if Behemoth would be in this spot, because especially Beherit was one of the biggest trigger points for me to start Behemoth. So, thank you, Finland, for Beherit, for your beautiful nature, and, also, a shout out to your society to defend from communists, to kill fucking 200,000 communists in the Winter War and defend from Russia. And I will hail you forever for that fact, that tells everything about your nature, Finns.

Fantastic. So thank you so much for this interview, Nergal, and I wish you all the best for your future.

Nergal: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it. It was a really good chat.