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Crushing liturgy. - 93%

ConorFynes, April 6th, 2016

The whole concept of orthodox black metal has been dragged through the mud and back. Highbrow atmosphere and a consummate seriousness to the music's religious subject aren't elements with an expiry date, but it can certainly feel that way in the wake of so many dry imitators. There hasn't been an orthodox band with such an intellectual heft as Deathspell Omega, despite the budding legions they inspired. Nor has anyone wielded Gregorian chants as well as Funeral Mist, nor conjured melodies so crippling as Ondskapt. Orthodox black metal (if it's to be seen as a style to begin with) has always been entrusted to an elite few, a observation which incidentally plays into the trend's inherent arrogance.

With that cynicism in place, it is beautifully affirming to hear a new band breathe so much life into a waning trend that it deserves mention among the very best of its class. Between superb albums from Amestigon, VI, Blaze of Perdition and so many others, 2015 was a remarkably strong year for black metal. Batushkha's Litourgiya was released quietly into the last few weeks of that way. Clearly, it didn't take people long to take notice. Litourgiya already sounds like a golden ticket in theory: a black/doom hybrid in the vein of The Ruins of Beverast coloured with a dominant presence of Byzantine chanting and Russian orthodoxy. Batushka take any would-be gimmicks in their sound as seriously as they deserve. The result of this effort is one of the most passionate and authentic black metal albums I've heard in the last few years. What more or little can be said about an album that dares to leave me speechless?

Gregorian chants have been used by countless bands, and while the trick is arguably overused, I'll admit the atmospheric effect is never spent. Batushka's classical influence is better described as Byzantine chant, and while the musical differences between the two probably wouldn't be apparent to outsiders of liturgical music, you can definitely tell Batushka are operating on a different wavelength than their Western European peers. Although they're from Poland (an overwhelmingly Catholic nation by any standard) Batushka take from the Russian orthodox tradition more than anything. Their name (aptly chosen) is derived from the Russian word for "father", the chanted vocals are deeper, rougher-edged than their Gregorian counterparts. In virtually all other black metal albums, the use of these chants would not be dominant enough to be worth a paragraph. A strong part of Batushka's immediate charm is their willingness to bring this usual accessory to the forefront. The yet-unnamed frontman offers chanted vocals as convincing and throaty as you'd hear in the most pompous cathedral. The band aren't without the traditional black metal rasp, but it sounds thin in contrast with the chanted vocals.

Batushka's lean on these chants in a rare "lead vocal" role gives them an immediate character you almost never see on a debut. Alongside Funeral Mist's Salvation, this is probably my favourite use of chanted vocals on a black metal album; it's only to Batushka's credit that they focus on this strength so much. That's not to say that Litourgiya depends on this one aspect to stand out. While it's easily their most defining element, Batuskha's tactful songwriting and crushing presentation round off the debut perfectly. The similarly inventive Cult of Fire could be brought up in terms of describing their compositions, at once spiritual, eerily melodic and still every bit in touch with black metal traditions. As mentioned earlier on in this review, The Ruins of Beverast are a close mention in terms of the applied sound here. The performance is thick and oppressive

Litourgiya is only slow enough to constitute real doom metal a fraction of the time, but the band have harnessed an incredible and appropriate sense of heaviness that begs the mention. Batushka are as superb with writing memorable guitar parts as they are with their vocals. The guitar tone here is too thick to be considered truly melodic, but the hooks are there, and they had me completely drawn in from the first listen. It shouldn't go without mention that Litourgiya has an impeccable production, sans the stifling compression of some of Batushka's comparisons. Although the band have remained anonymous, the expertise they brought into this project is apparent, and I hope they keep this flame going now that the match is lit.

It is inspiring to see so many excellent black metal records coming out of Poland this past few years in particular. Litourgiya may be the best of them all. The fact that Batushka are drawing upon Eastern European orthodoxy compared to Western Catholicism makes them sound all the more dangerous. Even if they're perverting that inspiration through blasphemy, the sound is so authentic that you can't help but feel these guys at least respect some of the culture and values that sprung from orthodox Christianity. As an institution, Catholicism has been lopsided by a perpetual string of scandals and a sequence of Popes that seem more interested in pandering to a Liberal zeitgeist than upholding tradition. Between the popular conservatism of Eastern Europe and the 'no tolerance' doctrine its nations have upheld in the face of an Islamic incursion, it's clear that orthodox Christianity stands head and shoulders above its Western counterpart now in many ways. Regardless whether that is moreso a cause to celebrate or blaspheme against it, the aesthetic has resulted in a stronger brand of black metal than I'd have ever expected from any new band.

Originally written for Heathen Harvest Periodical.