In their formative years, Mayhem developed a reputation in the underground before committing a single note to tape, claiming to be the best and most extreme band the metal world had ever seen. Although “best” is a subjective term, they would certainly back up their claims in the highly publicized Norwegian church burnings, singer Dead’s suicide, and the murder of founding guitarist Euronymous by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes. Bands built on hype, legend, or myth run the risk of flying below the critical threshold for musical merit. Luckily for Mayhem, the post-scandal musical landscape they’ve built has continuously pushed boundaries in speed, dissonance, and psychology, aiming for the jugular with every whirlwind blast beat, minor chord flurry, and mind bending lyric.
Esoteric Warfare is Mayhem’s seventh studio album over the span of their thirty year existence, and first in seven years since vocalist Attila Csihar’s return for the critically acclaimed Ordo Ad Chao and guitarist Blasphemer’s exit, being replaced by Teloch in 2011. Despite these changes, the band lost absolutely no steam, retaining every bit of seething aggression and apocalyptic commentary they’ve become known for. Ordo Ad Chao saw Mayhem stripping down production value to the bare minimum, with no equalization on the drums and an overall lo-fi sound, providing as “necro” of a listening experience as any black metal purist could hope for. By comparison, Esoteric Warfare still boasts a raw sound, albeit with the instruments back up front and slightly equalized.
Music-wise, the hallmarks are still there: creepy, snake like vocals slithering around each trem-picked riff and double bass and blast burst, and ominous, mid-range heavy guitars belting out minor chords and lightning fast trem-picking riffs. Attila Csihar’s vocals are the strong point of the album, displaying a more traditional black metal rasp a-la Dark Throne, giving the album a classic feel. The weird intricacies are ever present in the form of low, grumbled didgeridoo sounding mantras, inhaled screams, and ghoulish whispers. The best example of this is ‘Milab’, where Csihar’s creeping hisses channel the Insecticons from the original Transformers cartoon. The effect is appropriately unsettling. Perhaps the farthest vocal stretch is the bonus track ‘Into the Lifeless’, where Attila croons like a drunken King Diamond before the song comes to a grinding halt.
Mayhem’s sound is unmistakable, readily apparent from the first chords of opener ‘Watcher’, which recalls Dark Angel’s ‘Time Does Not Heal’ with Hellhammer’s frenzied double bass slowly fading in. All guns are blazing for the first four tracks, relentless and cyclonic in their delivery. ‘Psywar’, the first single off the album, lands at track two, displaying an ambience at 2:03 that would not be misplaced on an early Emperor album. Hellhammer marathons through the songs with vicious abandon, like a runner who can’t wait to get to the finish line. Many traces of the post-apocalyptic Grand Declaration of War can be found, most predominantly in the stop-start machine gun riffing of ‘Pandaemon’. The band attempt a palette cleansing in the middle of the album, where the pace slows considerably until the middle of ‘VI.Sec.’ where blasting resumes and the signature popcorn-machine-on-meth double kick frenzies follow. Technically the album closer, ‘Aion Suntelia’ recalls post-black metal godfathers Weakling in its obscure, dissonant open string riffs, mid-paced plodding, and high pitched screams.
Perhaps the only forgettable and potentially unnecessary part of the album comes in ‘Posthuman’, which tends to drag on. Otherwise, Esoteric Warfare is a more than worthy chapter in Mayhem’s ongoing black metal legacy: very much alive, breathing, and occupying a space in the darkest corners of the mind, amidst thoughts of war, mind control, murder, and corporate conspiracy. A very impressive feat for a band whose members are three quarters over the hill.
Mayhem – Esoteric Warfare gets…