It’s the black metal spat that has divided the metal fraternity. Well, not really. Most people already seem to have decided – fairly or unfairly – which side of the fence they are on in the ‘Trve’ versus ‘Fake’ Batushka debacle that has spilled onto social media and webzines everywhere – not to mention the courts. The ‘real’ Batushka (Ba-Trve-Ska?) is now run solely by the band’s guitarist Krzysztof Drabikowski who took to the airwaves back in December to complain he had been legged over by bandmate and business partner Bartłomiej ‘Bart’ Krysiuk over the running of the band. Bart’s case has not been helped (if anyone was even listening) by the fact that Krzysztof quite obviously wrote the music for debut Litourgiya even though others (his former drummer who has now sided with Bart) seem to suggest he had such levels of help in the latter stages of the albums creation and the image the band would take to the stage that it became a different, more powerful beast. Judgement from the court of public opinion has probably been made worse by rumours of his reputation as a hard-nosed businessman which emerged in the aftermath with accusations he was trying to take control of the band away from Krzysztof. In Bart’s defence (and I’m doing some serious interpretation here after absorbing this saga over recent months) he seems like a man who gets things done. Would Batushka be the band it is today – at least in terms of the success around its concept and stage show – if he wasn’t involved? At least that seems to be his argument….
Well, as we all know, artists can be difficult to work with; personal spats are, well, personal. I’ve learned from a long history of getting involved in friends’ personal fallouts that picking the guilty party from a distance is a mugs game. That doesn’t mean we can’t decide who, based on the music, who is the ‘real’ Batushka. For what it’s worth, the Polish courts – who recently decided to allow Bart to continue his version of Batushka – are unlikely to give us their answer for a long time, maybe years. Not that it would necessarily tell us who is morally right (obviously my understanding of the Polish legal system is based mainly on the experiences of Behemoth’s blasphemy and Gorgoroth ‘dead sheep heads’ case, so not to be relied upon). One odd thing to note is that the Bart’s Batushka has seemed determined to not even acknowledge the existence of Krzysztof and the split – which is unlikely to win him any fans in itself. No doubt it will all continue to unfold – even though I personally have sympathy with Krzysztof whose digital-only release to date seems rather pitiful in comparison with the 10 coloured vinyl versions and wooden box have been stacked up ready for the release of Hospodi this month. But more of that later.
Saddest of all is that the veil has dropped on the band that worked so well as an anonymous group of travelling, sacrilegious monks. For the purposes of this review, however, I’m going to attempt to put all that to one side. What I do have is several years of immersing myself in Litourgiya, a couple of live performances (both identical, by the way: making the second one feel slightly pointless) and a copy of this and Krzysztof’s панихида now locked into my system. I’m determined to give a balanced view. For those new to this, and who have not yet delved into the debut, it’s worth summing it up. Litourgiya was a sublime piece of work. The concept of adding layers of Benedictine vocals from bass to tenor was the initial stand-out of the release. But that could well have sounded hackneyed in the wrong hands, particularly after years subjected to various attempts by untold numbers of artists at adding pretty much any vocals you can imagine onto black metal. But no one had ever done it this well or with this much seamless depth. The merging of extreme music and the velvet, organic vocals is at times breath-taking and the song writing that carried the whole concept through included a bunch of tracks that stood firm but with the entire album played together sounding even more convincing than the sum of its parts.
It’s since become modern classic – even though I sometimes have that feeling of vertigo, that each time they might not be able to pull it off. But, of course, they do, and the result is an album whose sheer honesty and cohesiveness means I can still listen to it from start to finish gripped by its strange mixture of sheer audacity and humility that can only be achieved through cool handed talent.
So now we have two follow-up releases – and I’ve been digesting both so it’s going to be hard to do this without comparing the two. The problem I’m having is that, after some consideration and internal torment knowing that I’m going against the grain and the many minds already made up, Bart’s attempt at a whole new Batushka is **braces for backlash** certainly not too bad. In parts. Though at its best it’s as much 1980s goth guitar rock as black metal. On that note, the two or three more purely black metal tracks that kick off the album are where Hospodi fails. It starts out poorly with the pedestrian intro Wozglas and shows scant improvement for the following couple of proper tracks including Wieczernia which sounds like a track that might have ended up on the cutting room floor from the making of Litourgiya.
Then, out of the blue, things get more interesting. Polunosznica, where the album begins to take off from its shaky start, has a nice hypnotic guitar line even if it does feel more ‘The Cult’ than ‘kvlt’ (I read that some of the new tracks have a ‘danceable’ feel live which I totally get hearing this part of the album) while Powieczerje (which you may have come across through the pre-release video single) is very much in-the-style of Litourgiya and makes you wonder why the hell it was not planted at the beginning as a veil for any shortcomings contained within the rest of the release. Sixth track Utrenia is sadly non-descript – like a hurried doom-death romp with up-tempo classic rock percussion and chugging guitars over-layered with monkish vocals. But things get back on track by the end of seventh track Pierwyj czas which has a nice riff-meets-vocal break and segues nicely into the album’s strongest few tracks – notably the final two Szestoj czas and Liturgiya which should be enough to pull the heartstrings of any ‘original’ fan and more.
But sadly, the best tracks are not enough to save this album from feeling patchy, hurried and ill-defined compared to Litourgiya whose brilliance was in part its total cohesion. At times it struggles to get a grip on the ‘black’ part of black metal and veers more into crackling doom-death. There are some good ideas that you feel would have made welcome additions to an ‘original’ Batushka follow-up record had the ‘band’ (if that’s not too controversial a word in the circumstances given most people now seem to regard Krzysztof as the soul of the project) not split. But they are too heavily relied up for this to have any real merit as a Batushka record.
By comparison Krzysztof has released his own follow-up under the name Батюшка (Batushka in Russian cyrillic, obvs). Панихида (or Panikhída, which translates to ‘Requiem’) is far more consistent – the beating heart and soul of Batushka – even if Bart claims to be the brains behind the original operation. It sucks you in to its dark and damp Medieval monasteries and all the undoubtedly questionable beliefs and practices that must have plagued many of those institutions throughout the centuries. Krzysztof’s release embodies the complex but effortlessly spun atmosphere that helped make Litourgiya such a landmark. If he was the sole creator of Panikida, there is no doubt whatsoever who span the golden silk of Litourgiya. Krzysztof’s Panikhida is not the subject or this review, however. All I would say is that it’s a worthy follow-up that more than does justice to the band’s sound without threatening to unseat the primacy of Litourgiya. If you’ve heard none of these releases yet, you should definitely pick up Litourgiya first followed by Panikhida – and then Hospodi only if you’re curious to complete your experience of the current saga.
As an aside I’m a little confused as to why a major label like Metal Blade would get involved in this situation just as the creative force has exited the band. The backlash against Bart’s project has already been, and continues to be, pretty seismic and can’t be doing anyone involved any good. Controversy is one thing but this feels like it’s gone beyond that. The message in the music and from the fans seems clear enough: whatever personal clash has happened behind the scenes, Batushka, or Батюшка, is and always will be Krzysztof Drabikowski.
(6.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)