I really wasn’t going to write about music again. I had decided to mix it up, talk about something else for a change. I was working on a piece about some of my favorite bookstores in Chicago, why I love them so much, and some great finds I’ve made in them. But that will have to wait for another day, which just gives me a chance to do more ‘research’ for it.
Why does it have to wait? It has to wait because of an album that snuck out at the start of December and that I didn’t find until a few weeks ago, near the end of January. That album is the absolutely brilliant and amazing Litourgiya by “newcomers” Batushka. Batushka is a black metal band that is supposedly made up of members from other, famous black metal bands. All the members’ identities are secret. The album is produced by Witching Hour Productions out of Poland, so everyone assumes they are Polish. But the album title, band name, and lyrics are all song in Russian; so now some people think there may be Russians involved with the band.
Either way, what’s important is how insanely good this album is. Had I known about it and caught it when it released it probably would have been my runner up on my Album of the Year list. It may have been in contention with Carrie & Lowell for my top spot, and for anyone who knows me and how much I love Sufjan and that album they know just how crazy it is I would say that. I keep listening to this album, trying to let the shine wear off, but it just gets better. I even ordered the vinyl from Poland and hope it eventually finds its way to Chicago.
Now to the music, Litourgiya is a brilliant blending of black metal with Slavonic Orthodox Church chanting, chimes, and bells. The metal is good, if not revolutionary, and has a lot of what makes a good black metal album. All the standard elements in a black metal recipe are there, tremolo picking and heavily distorted guitar riffs, a raw sounding production, quick but punchy bass, and driving, skillful percussion. On top of that all is an occasional black metal shrieking style of vocals. I honestly think black shrieking vocals may be the weakest part of the band, but they aren’t terrible by any means. There are also sections that are slower and heavier using the Slavonic chanting and singing. Batushka isn’t the first band to use chanting with metal, and won’t be the last, but they do it better than almost any other I’ve heard. The album is blended and balanced perfectly between the metal and the ancient orthodox parts. Many bands keep the two separate, using chanting in slow sections and calmer parts, but Batushka seamlessly weaves the two together throughout the album to create a really unique sound.
I must admit, I have always been a fan of Orthodox chanting in all of its forms since I first heard it. I really enjoy sacred music or chanting. It often has a very moving, beautiful quality that is different from other forms of sound. I have a huge collection of it in my music library. It ranges from Gregorian Catholic chanting, Baltic choral music, the stunning polyphonic singing of Georgian Orthodoxy, sacred heart or shape note singing from the American south and Appalachians, ancient Byzantine Orthodox chanting, English choral hymns, amazing and awe inspiring chants from Syria including both those of ancient Sufi Islam and ancient Christianity, and yes, Eastern European Slavonic Orthodox chanting. So maybe that biases is why I like this album as much as I do, but it also brings us to a point I need to make.
I’m, ultimately, not sure what this album is about and no one else seems to be either. Black metal obviously has some pretty strong anti-religious currents in its history, but many bands today aren’t in it for that. Some people online seem to think this is a blasphemous album, mocking Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Others argue that it should be considered a Christian Black Metal album because none of the chants are altered in any way from their original, lyrical content and none of the heavy use of Eastern Orthodox aesthetic in the album cover is done in a really disrespectful way. Others take the pragmatic approach and assume that there’s no strong underlying message one way or another, and the band just combined the two sounds because no one had really combined them in that way before, or at least no one had combined them as well as this. So, I currently just see it as an amazing blend of old eastern European culture (the chanting and bells) with a newer element of eastern European culture (it currently has a thriving black metal scene, especially Poland). Viewing it in that light I can appreciate it as a raw, beautiful, and powerful album that’s worth a listen for anyone who is a fan of black metal.