Welcome to Half-Life, a feature that gives us the chance to celebrate a selection of work from a particular artist’s discography. These acts are still alive and kicking, continuing to provide us with more material to write about and more music to spend our time gushing over.
Norway has exported a plethora of black metal titans over the past several decades, but none of these band have reached the level of controversy, influence and sheer quality as the one true Mayhem. Though not as prolific as their peers, Mayhem made an enormous impact on the genre with their formative releases before continuing to push the boundaries of the genre further with their later career. The gaps between their releases have been extensive, due primarily to lineup changes both voluntary and violent (having your vocalist commit suicide and guitarist be violently stabbed to death tend to complicate things). But while it’s unclear when the follow up to 2014’s Esoteric Warfare will arrive, it just leaves plenty of time to reflect upon the band’s existing material, ranging from raw, sloppy beginnings to polished black metal veterans:
Defining a release as a “classic” can either be done to celebrate its quality and/or its influence; Deathcrush is clearly more a case of the latter designation. But what the young Mayhem lacked in technical prowess – even by black metal standards – they more than make up for in veracity and an an unquenchable thirst for death. Hearing the band tear through tracks like “Chainsaw Gutsfuck” provides more than enough proof of where the genre’s raw, unabashed intensity is derived from, both musically and lyrically. The EP also provides the only appearance – other than the band’s first live album Live in Leipzig – of original vocalist Dead on a Mayhem record (unless you count the picture of his self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head appearing on the cover of a later live album Dawn of the Black Hearts, a pretty…interesting choice). Sure, this may not be the greatest instance of Mayhem’s talents, but its unquestionably one hell of a place to start.
Reasoning for the seven year delay between Mayhem’s debut EP and LP manifests in the two most infamous moment in black metal history, being Dead’s suicide and the vicious murder of original guitarist Euronymous by Burzum mastermind and former Mayhem bassist Varg Vikernes. But despite these tragedies, it’s hard to listen to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas today without feeling grateful that Mayhem’s remaining members pushed the album forward into the blackness of night. This album’s influence isn’t up for debate; eight tracks of ripping black metal in its rawest form remains some of the best iterations of the genre ever recorded. What is heavily debated is whether or not Dead’s traditional black metal shriek would have been superior to the off-kilter groans and rasps of replacement vocalist Attila Csihar (perhaps known better today as a frequent Sunn O))) collaborator). That’s ultimately up to each individual fan to decide (I personally prefer Attila’s approach due to how unique his style is). Regardless, this remains one of the best full-length debuts in metal history and genre-defining black metal classic.
Some key elements of Mayhem’s second EP mark it as a transitional release for the band. Their first with a relatively solid lineup, it introduced new vocalist Maniac, whose vocals align much more with what Dead sounded like than Attila’s signature style. Musically, Wolf’s Lair Abyss was the band’s most musically advanced up to that point, showcasing a more multifaceted, faster and experimental approach that would be explored and expanded upon on A Grand Declaration of War. It may have its minor flaws, but it’s a solid release from a finally stabilized Mayhem that had sights set high.
For once, Mayhem stirred controversy within the black metal community not because of their antics, but because of the the multiple-suite Nietzschean concept record that kicked of the new millennium in a perplexing fashion. Fans expecting another viscous slab of black metal instead received a slew of vocal eccentricities from Maniac, as many dense black metal dirges as blistering flurries of riffs and blasts and – I shit you not – a dedicated, five-minute electronic interlude that comes as close to trip-hop as any black metal band has come (and likely ever will). A Grand Declaration of War may not be for every Mayhem fan; that point has been made clear on forums and comment sections from across the blogosphere. But those willing to explore what oddities the album has to offer will likely find a unique and rewarding experience.
Chimera is a textbook example of a band seeking amnesty from an infuriated fanbase. Just seconds into the album and the band plummets into a black metal assault that has remained one of – if not the – crowning achievement of Mayhem’s later lineup. Admittedly, there’s not a great deal to say about Chimera: it’s fast and relentless black metal performed the way that only experts of a genre can pull off. Some fans may miss the band’s past experiments, but ultimately, Chimera is still an excellent slab of black metal that belongs in every Mayhem fan’s collection.
There’s no shortage of commentary for Mayhem’s first release with Attila back on vocals. On the one hand, it’s one of Mayhem’s most experimental releases, accented by Attila’s most varied and profound vocal performances to date. Mayhem creates a great deal of atmosphere and murkiness throughout the album, intertwined within their signature knack for crafting abrasive black metal outbursts. Plus the fact Ordo ad Chao won a Spellemann Award – Norweigan equivalent for a Grammy – isn’t too shabby either. But on the other hand…the album’s production – handled by Attila and guitarist Blasphemer – leaves a lot to be desired. An overly bass-focused sound muddies up the guitars throughout the entire record, and Hellhammer’s drumming is overpowered by boisterous kick drums and toms, swallowing his performance during every double kick pedal burst and drum fill. The album’s true genius will be more clearly revealed once it receives a proper remaster.
As hard as it may seem to replace Blasphemer, his departure after Ordo ad Chao opened slots for new guitarists Teloch and Ghul, both of whom have clearly studied both Mayhem and black metal extensively. Their integration into the band is seamless, and they assist in proving Mayhem hasn’t loss their edge even after almost three decades. Sonically, Esoteric Warfare is the band operating at maximum capacity: Hellhammer smashes his kit, Teloch and Ghul pen solid riff after solid riff and Attila does his usual incomparable vocal stylings. As was stated above, there’s no telling when Mayhem will surface again. But with latter day releases like Esoteric Warfare, their next offering will surely be worth the wait.