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Sermons From A Blasphemous Clergy - 97%

dystopia4, February 1st, 2016

I initially avoided listening to Batuska because I was a bit put off by the all aboard the hype train situation surrounding them, with every battle-jacket clad metalloid I have on Facebook yammering on about it. To make matters worse, there was the whole hidden identity of the members thing – you know this gimmick has gotten old when a saccharine radio friendly pop-metal band like Ghost adopts it as part of their never ending attention whoring campaign. As more and more people who’s taste I respect sang Litourgiya’s praises and as I caught wind of rumors that a member of Mgla might be involved (the Polish black metal scene is a favorite of mine, with Mgla easily being one of the country’s best acts), I finally relented and gave the album a chance.

Am I ever fucking glad I did. While lots of over-hyped metal bands end up being more image than substance, I knew from the first listen that I’d be spinning Litourgiya for years to come. While this record is full of nuances and atmosphere and more of its intricacies are revealed with each listen, it’s also really fucking fun and chock-full of riffs that get the blood running.

Batushka’s feet are firmly planted in the orthodox camp, with its arms feverishly attempting to hack them off. The backbone of Litourgiya stems from a very well established black metal tradition, largely informed by the usual suspects of the second-wave innovators. However, it’s where Batushka wanders a bit from the beaten path (and not even particularly far, mind you) that really makes this album so damn memorable. The ecclesiastic vibes give Litourgiya a unique flavor very distinguishable from your average second-wave worship black metal band. Look - are Batushka the first band to use orthodox chanting in black metal? Absolutely fucking not. However, this is easily the best integration of these chants with black metal I’ve ever heard. While lots of bands choose to separate both elements, Batushka integrates the Slavonic choir parts into the black metal instead of entirely keeping them reserved for calmer moments. I suspect most bands keep them separate because doing what Batuska did here is damn hard to pull off, but they took a risk and nailed it flawlessly.

This is not where Batushka spicing up the worn-out template ends. I’ve seen the band being given the ‘black/doom’ tag a few times, which strikes me as a tad hyperbolic. This is definitely a black metal album through and through, but that’s not to say that a slight doom influence isn’t lurking in the shadows. However, what I found much more interesting was the influence of Rotting Christ, specifically when they stopped being so much a black metal and included many influences from across the extreme-metal spectrum and beyond (‘dark metal’ is the most used descriptor of this sound, I guess). This comes across brilliantly here, and helps in fortifying the atmosphere. There are a fair amount of reverb-drenched clean parts as well, which have an almost meditative atmosphere that goes well with the Slavonic choir parts.

I could rant for days about all the little things Batushka do to reanimate the bloated orthodox corpse, but let’s look at the meat of the music. The black metal backbone that forms the springboard for all these little experiments is honestly not particularly original. And I think that’s where the band really triumphs – adding to a well established sound rather than attempt to reimagine its framework entirely (let’s not forget that originality is not always synonymous with quality). This is jam-packed with tremolo riffs; sometimes rambunctious and sometimes more pensive. Very typical of the polish scene, there’s a fair amount of melody injected into orthodox black metal riffs. While there is surely lots of shitty melodic black metal out there, these sort of melodies retain lots of bite. Litourgiya is a tightrope walk between extremes – orthodoxy and innovation, accessibility and savagery and nowhere is this more evident in the production. The production is of a much higher quality than the vast majority of black metal bands and indeed feels a bit “professional”. While everything is clear and sounds big, the production is not polished to the point of sapping the album’s lifesblood.

There’s really not a lot to complain about here. The riffs are memorable and are just as likely to kick your ass as to weave a catchy melody. The drumming is incredibly tight and it knows when to unleash the savagery and when to lay down some more intricate patterns. The bass largely does its duty in a supportive role, but in some of the clean section does some really cool jangly stuff. The rasps are blistering and the ethereal clean vocals add a whole new dimension to the sound. There seems to be something here for every black metal fan, no matter what their chosen vein of black metal is. I could go on forever but I’ll just end with this – if you like black metal, just fucking check out Batushka already. The hype is not a lie, for once.