As I mentioned in my introduction, I only saw one concert in 2020: Canadian grindcore heroes Wake back in January. Everyone else was in the same boat; we all had plans to see so many bands play, but all plans and hopes were dashed to the point now where we don’t even know if there’ll be live public performances in 2021. We’re all in uncharted territory.
It’s bad enough for music fans, but for the artists themselves the global pandemic posed a huge challenge. How the heck is a musician supposed to make anything close to a living when live performances, the closest thing resembling a meal ticket, have been wiped completely off the board? Folks had to get creative, because paltry Spotify royalties don’t pay the bills. The most creative people led the way. Bandcamp staged many “Bandcamp Fridays” where they waived their cut for one day to help artists make a little more money. That first Bandcamp Friday back in April was nuts, turning out to be so popular it crashed the system. Other artists livestreamed performances, whether for free on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, or via pay-per-view. Of course, those livestreams were of varying quality but most were fun. Still, I rarely took the time to actually sit down and watch a livestream from start to finish. Save for one, and it was a biggie.
Behemoth’s In Absentia Dei event in early September will go down in metal history not only as a rousing worldwide success, but as one of the most creative, innovative, daring, and lavish live performances ever staged. The idea at its core was simple: to broadcast a live set by the polish extreme metal kings as a special treat for their fans and to help finance the band. But the band took things even farther, sparing no expense to ensure the fans were getting a true spectacle, not just four guys jamming in a rehearsal space. The setting for the event was an ancient abandoned church near Pisarowice, Poland late at night, the surrounding forest lit artfully by stage lights, the interior adorned with as many deliciously blasphemous bells and whistles as could be afforded: burning crosses, fire, performance artists, fire, costumes, fire, horses, fire, censers, fire. And for good measure, plenty of fire. It was a metal nerd’s dream.
Viewers had a couple of options how to watch the performance: they could either choose one of eight camera angles throughout the performance, or they could sit back and absorb the “director’s cut”. And that director’s cut was astonishing. Those eight cameras are right on top of the band, making for a surprisingly immersive experience, and the spectacle was so precisely staged, band members hitting their marks, and not a trace of sloppiness from the crew.
The special effects were memorable, of course. After all, what’s not to like about a simulated human sacrifice? But In Absentia Dei was still all about the music, and Behemoth tore through an incredible, 19-track setlist that was divided into four specific acts, digging deep into the band’s back catalogue to create a near-perfect, career-spanning overview. There were rarities (“Prometherion”, “From the Pagan Vastlands”), loads of fan favourites (“Conquer All”, “Chant For Eschaton 2000”, “Slaves Shall Serve”) and latter-day classics that were truly show-stopping, such as “Lucifer”, “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, and the climactic “O Father O Satan O Sun!”.
I was virtually breathless when the performance ended. In a year where many bands attempted similar stunts (Metallica staged a livestream that was broadcast to drive-in theatres but for an exorbitant price) here was a band who charged a mere 20 bucks or so for their fans to have a little diversion in a very difficult year, and they gave everyone way more bang for their bucks than anyone ever expected. This was a glorious event that raised the bar for any future metal livestreams. In fact, it was so good that I desperately want the band to release it on bluray. If they do, I’ll be all over that like a black metal musician on a case of white clown makeup.