Album Review: Batushka – Hospodi
Black metal has been twisted into some weird and wonderful shapes over the decades. That feral aggression at the core of the genre has been whipped up to dramatic symphonic highs by the likes of Dimmu Borgir, and taken down to melancholy ambient lows by mysterious solo artists like Xasthur, while Norwegian legends Ulver have found themselves in the world of trippy electronica and beat-driven synth-pop.
Now we have Batushka. This mysterious Polish act have their own take on black metal, combining religious mysticism and Eastern Orthodox liturgical music, along with some more familiar elements. The result is a band with a grand vision, a stunning sound and a unique identity. Imagine if Ghost were more of a serious philosophical treatise and you’ll be in the right aesthetic, if not musical, ballpark.
Batushka are also a band that reward total immersion. When they appeared at Download a couple of weeks ago, they delivered their ceremony undiluted. In a tent largely rammed with people sheltering from a downpour alongside underground fans in the know, a set that saw the band spending half their time ceremoniously lighting candles left the majority of the audience bemused and, in some cases, audibly angry. They are, however, superb when taken in their own time and space. Hospodi is a loose concept album based on the Liturgy of Death, funeral rites and dirges, often punctuated by long passages of religious chanting. The metal tracks stand up as individual monuments of atmosphere and noise, but the whole brilliantly transcends the sum of its parts.
It starts with a tolling bell, which isn’t particularly shocking – Black Sabbath kicked off heavy metal as a whole with an ominous dong on their eponymous debut album, after all – but as opener Wozglas sets the scene with choral chanting and a sense of echoing, sacred space, it feels like it couldn’t begin any other way. That chanting is a huge element of Hospodi, but it’s not the cod-Latin, Omen-referencing type that’s more typical of any extreme metal band with a slightly occult bent. This is delivered in Old Church Slavonic, and thus has a more authentic feel. It’s also intricately constructed and wrapped around the other elements, used as an integral building block and an instrument in its own right.
The vocals as a whole are hugely impressive, whether deployed as a rasping blackened scream or a rich, clean, almost baritone boom. The music ebbs and flows behind these vocal interplays, going from lilting acoustics and floating ambient passages to fiery flashes of coruscating aggression. There are slashing riffs reminiscent of later period Darkthrone and chugging grooves that are closer to Satyricon, but the melodies are epic, and the effect is stately and grandiose.
To add to the drama of the band and in keeping with their religious aesthetic, there has already been a major schism in Batushka’s ranks. There are currently two warring versions in existence, and a divided fan base. Court battles seem unfortunately prosaic in the context of their soaring music and intriguing mysticism, but there’s still more than enough magic on display here to distract from all that. Hospodi is a brilliantly inventive and subversive work of intelligent, immersive darkness from a band that deserve your full attention right now.
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