For Fans Of
Continuing my trend of discovering cool shit far too late, I slept on the dark and ever-mysterious Batushka for some time. I actually got balls deep into the Polish band about two weeks after they’d toured Australia, which seems like the cosmos is punishing me for my ignorance. When I finally got around to listening to their debut album, 2015’s ‘Litourgiya’, I was in love with it instantly. Batushka may share some similarities with bands like Mgła and Negative Plane, but no one had adopted the gothic, church-like atmosphere quite like them, at least in my mind. Like many, I was pretty excited to learn that a second album coming out this year. Yet while the band’s newest liturgy, ‘Hospodi’ (an Old Church Slavonic word for God) certainly isn’t a bad album – it’s fine, at best – it definitely fails to live up to the impressive standards so highly set by Batushka’s incredible debut.
Some things remain familiar, that’s absolutely true. Similar to ‘Litourgiya’, this album sets the scene with similar haunting bells and arcane, Slavic chanting; echoing the record’s religious theme of old folk prayers and dirges for sending off family members around the funeral casket. Now, an obvious criticism could be that starting out a sophomore release with the same tone-setter as their debut is a bit like beating a dead horse. But, when Batushka seem to be the only band doing what they’re doing, I really don’t mind it so much. Criticising them for using atmospheric Slavic chanting and church bells would be like criticising Zeal & Ardor for using gospel and blues elements in their own brand of black metal. Running over old ground is more than acceptable when you’re basically the only damn band around currently with your own niche sound.
The production is smoother, making everything clearer and cut harder in the mix too. But the album’s instrumentation, however, differs a lot from ‘Litourgiya’, and I’m a lot less in love with it. Unlike their debut, which had music that seriously added to the album’s overall church-like atmosphere, the instrumentals and approach on ‘Hospodi’ seems derivative, and generally subtracts from the intensity of the vocals (more on them later). As I said earlier, this band shares a lot of sonic crossover with Negative Plane on their debut album. The down-tuned guitars were contrasted with these piercing high-pitched moments, and the omnipresent reverb severely added to the sinister chanting and the spectre of looming death. It sounded genuinely evil without having to obsessively use synonyms for ‘evil’ like many 90’s black metal bands did.
Yet the instrumentation on ‘Hospodi’ seems to have borrowed plenty more modern black metal. There’s much less variation in the guitars now, and the riffs sound like they’re borrowed from any other dime-a-dozen black metal band. It seems like a small thing, but they take away from the special nature of this band’s sound. ‘Utrenia’, for instance, has a 30-second passage of very little guitar work besides boring palm-muted chugging, backed by no vocals whatsoever.
When the guitarist isn’t being drowned out by the influence of derivative modern black metal, the band also seem to be primarily influenced by latter-era Darkthrone, emphasising simple, thrashy, power chord-heavy riffs. Now I wouldn’t ordinarily call that a problem – black metal’s simplicity is one of the reasons I’m a big fan – but when it subtracts from the epic atmosphere of Batushka’s grander style overall, then we’ve got a problem. ‘Hospodi‘ tries hard to be it’s own, new thing, but it just doesn’t nail the same visceral feeling as its predecessor.
In fact, compared to ‘Litourgiya’, this version of Batushka almost sounds like a completely… different… band. Huh. Okay, batten down the hatches everyone, it’s time for drama and “the tea”, as the kids say when they’re not playing Fortnite or whatever else kids do these days. I’m going to give you a short round up of the drama surrounding the name Batushka, as it’s relevant to the sound of this new album.
Following in the footsteps of Kyuss, Black Sabbath, and Queensryche, the name “Batushka” has been disputed in the last six or so months. Bartłomiej “Bart” Krysiuk, the singer of the band and head of the original band’s label, alleges to have kicked out the band’s primary songwriter, Krzysztof “Derph” Drabikowski. Now, both men are demanding that the name of Batushka be their own, with both have releasing music under the same name. Derph’s Batushka is this one, and it’s actually pretty good, if roughly as raw as a Gordon Ramsay meme. Bart’s Batushka is obviously the one behind this here album review. Look, it’s all kinda confusing, not just because of the Polish names, so I hope this Metalsucks article sums it up okay for you.
However, if like me, you listen to this album and get the impression that the vocals are the only thing similar to ‘Litourgiya’, that’s because the vocalist is the only member who was a part of that previous LP. As disappointed as I am with the whole external drama, it should be stated that the vocals on this album are downright amazing, if done by a guy who by all accounts might be a bit of a turd. This isn’t referring to just the choral chanting that is so definitive for the band either, even the black metal rasps and pained screams go above and beyond what I’d expect from most black metal vocalists these days. Quite frankly, they sound absolutely fucking rabid! If anything, the vocals have significantly improved since ‘Litourgiya’, which is a rarity for ‘Hospodi’.
I’m not going to entirely trash the instrumentals, as they certainly have their bright spots. ‘Tretij Czas’ starts with a brief Middle Eastern clean guitar lick that then gets picked up by the distorted guitar and leads into one of the more compelling riffs of the entire album. I’m a big fan of weird, Middle Eastern guitar work, so I’m grateful to find it anywhere, but the 8th track on an album is just a little bit too late. Although, said track bleeds right into the following piece, ‘Szestoj Czas’, so nicely that I was genuinely impressed. But again, all of these positive points are few and far between. I would’ve liked to see some more of this deeper, more out-there songwriting found in the earlier tracks on the album. ‘Hospodi‘ oddly makes you work to get to the really good stuff.
This inception of Batushka isn’t the same one that made ‘Litourgiya’, and it clearly shows. The weird but exciting elements that made that particular record so refreshing – the church-y atmosphere, the Orthodox influences, and the chanted vocals – are thankfully present here, but the change of instrumentals subtracts from that atmosphere, rather than adding anything to it. Batushka are still unique, but ‘Hospodi’ is not the best representation of what this group is capable of. The recent drama surrounding both versions of Batushka is also quite unfortunate, but it’ll be interesting to see how it all develops over time. Honestly, I’d rather these two feuding bands just get it over with and mud-wrestle for the moniker. Yet like most things, that’ll have to be relegated to my private fan-fiction.
‘Hospodi’ is out July 12th.