With the widespread appropriation of black metal sonic tropes by an increasingly mainstream range of bands, it’s becoming easier to forget how the genre’s roots were tied, non-ironically, to strong anti-Christian, misanthropic, and Satanic views. None of that imagery or those philosophies can be found in the myriad of shoegaze, transcendental, avantgarde, and eco-black metal offshoots that dominate the landscape today. Still, even in 2015, when a mysterious black metal band crafts a record that mimics an Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows. Especially when the songs are sung in Russian and the band members are Polish.
And yet, Batushka’s Litourgiya doesn’t sound like a subversive and derisive effort, nor like a black metal band’s attempt at introducing an empty novelty to cheaply enrich their sound. Instead, the tracks, all appropriately named “Yekteniya” or “Litany,” come off as honest adaptations and amalgamations of black and doom metal with the brooding atmospheres present in the dark remnants of early Christian mysticism. There, liturgical chants become the main vessel for arcane and occult phrases that speak to something primordial in all of us. While there have been bands that incorporated Gregorian or similar singing in their music, these elements were mostly used as inessential ornaments that failed to substantially impact the overarching concepts. Unlike their peers, Batushka place these droning, ritualistic chants in the focus of their music, pushing growls and shrieks into the backseat. Around them, they weave the usual black metal tremolos, blast beats, and blindingly fast tempos that, even though familiar and expectedly unoriginal, feel strangely fresh in this new context.
The album’s seven songs all share similar patterns of alternating grandiose black metal bursts enshrined in great, goosebump inducing melodies with slower sections during which the vocals often remain alone in the dark, accompanied only by subtle church bells or submerged in doomy harmonies. Since the songs and material are slaves to the underlying conceptualization of a liturgy, there’s little diversity between cuts, making the record best enjoyed as a whole. Still, “Yekteniya 2,“ “Yekteniya 4,” and “Yekteniya 6” are clear standouts based on the songwriting alone, while “Yekteniya 7” allows the band’s true strengths to shine as it does away with black metal rasps altogether. It’s this song that also highlights some issues with the production and mastering: the fabulous vocals feel buried and lost in the meaty and bassy mix, giving it somewhat of a (perhaps intentional?) lo-fi patina.
Batushka are a mysterious bunch, allegedly featuring prominent members of the Polish black metal scene (Nergal? Someone from Mgła or Lux Occulta?), with their identities hidden in a shroud of uncertainty. While I’ve deemed the album to be “honest,” this secrecy alongside other indications, i.e. the prevailing anti-Russian stance and the illiberally-inclined new government in Poland, signal that Litourgiya might indeed carry a deeper political and ideological statement. Whichever case it might be, it shouldn’t and doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of the demonstrated musical mastery. A great record.
Tracks to check: “Yekteniya 2,” “Yekteniya 7,” and “Yekteniya 8”