Oct 182007

At first sight, this would appear to be a positive development, but bands like these are not the kind of artists that the scandalized conservative establishment would like to see acting as ambassadors for a country in which over 90 percent of the population claim to be practicing Catholics and the memory of the late Polish Pope John Paul II is still very fresh in the mind. Behemoth happen to be figureheads of the burgeoning Polish black metal scene, and Vader represent its close cousin, death metal.

The difference between the two? Musically, very little. Black metal is fast, distorted guitars with semi-hysterical shrieking vocals. Death metal the same, but with deep guttural barking vocals. Oh, and black metallers sometimes help to distinguish themselves from other genres by plastering their faces with garish makeup that makes them look like extras from “Return of the Living Dead.”The problem of course is the rather questionable lifestyle and belief systems that proponents of black metal, in particular, appear to espouse in their lyrics, stage shows and videos. These include Satanism, misanthropy, nihilism and anti-Christian sentiment. Ever since the genre emerged in the UK and Scandinavia in the late 1980s and 1990s, it has been plagued by controversy fuelled by the ritual burning (mainly in Norway) of sacred objects and churches by enraptured fans who take exhortations such as “Throw the Christians to the Lions” (one of Behemoth’s recent “tunes”) at face value.Criminal acts by fans are not that surprising, however, since their role models have themselves at times confused stage image with reality. The most high profile case was probably that of Norwegian musician, Varg Vikernes, who smirked as he went down for 21 years for arson and murdering a rival from another band.

And then there was the case of Per Yngve Ohlin, vocalist of black metallers, Mayhem, who took his stage name, “Dead,” literally and blew his brains out. His band mates gave him an unusual sending off. While one of them rushed off to buy a camera (his corpse subsequently appeared on the cover of a bootleg album), the others decided to make a necklace from shards of his shattered skull.

Since then, as black metal has emerged from the underground to become a global phenomenon, the lyrics and images have softened considerably, but the genre’s gory past provides bait for such pressure groups as the Ogolnopolski Komitet Obrony przed Sektami (“The Polish Committee of Defense Against Sects”) led by the controversial figure of Ryszard Nowak.This organization lobby local authorities when bands which they consider to be, in Nowak’s words, “propagating Satanism, inciting people to commit murder, organizing black masses and sacrificing animals” are due to appear within the area which they oversee.

Sometimes they manage to persuade those in authority to act, their biggest success probably being the cancellation of a Warsaw festival of “satanic” bands by then President of the City, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. The uncompromising approach of the Committee has lately led, however, to it becoming an object of ridicule. The list of “dangerous” artists recently published by the organization included Michael “Wacko Jacko” Jackson and passionate eco-campaigner, Sting. Lifestyle choices, such as vegetarianism, have been equated with Satanism with hardly any attempt at explanation.

Nowak also hardly distinguished himself by labeling popular child charity campaigner, Jerzy Owsiak, as a “Satanist,” because of his nervous gestures. The normally mild-mannered Owsiak’s response? He’s a “complete idiot.”But, some campaigners are making their opposition known to Black Metal at grass roots level. Behemoth’s vocalist, “Nergal,” told Dziennik Polski that he regularly receives hate mail. He portrays himself as an anti-establishment figure who is being punished for not conforming to the norms of a “backward, complex-ridden, xenophobic society which hasn’t shaken off it’s country bumpkin image.”

He feels that “pseudopoliticians” are trying to win public approval by interfering in his private and creative life.So why does he do it? His proudest moments include the time when an “ordinary” middle aged couple “satisfied with life” brought along their kids to one of his shows. Perversely, they also include the time when one of his fans told him that the performance he had just seen “bordered on madness, it was dangerous but at the same time an exciting experience.” He took this as one of the greatest compliments he has ever received.

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