“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
With the newly solidified lineup of Euronymous, Necrobutcher, Dead, and Hellhammer, we enter into the second era of Mayhem. It’s a time period marred by controversy and sensationalism, but also musical development and two definitive releases. While Deathcrush had been a profound declaration of war, these years would ultimately sew the seeds of self-destruction. Writing about this therefore becomes somewhat of a challenge. Not that chronicling the music of a group that’s always been in constant rotation for me is difficult, far from it— the task ultimately becomes daunting because this is where the Mayhem of legend and popular conception takes route. Fact becomes distorted by mystique, and it’s my duty to separate the two in an objective manner.
Central to this mythology was the group’s enigmatic and controversial frontman, Dead. While his tenure with the group and his own lifetime were short, the impact he made was immeasurable. Years later, we still find ourselves drawn to him with morbid fascination. By all accounts he was eccentric, withdrawn, and deeply afflicted by depression. If we’ve learned anything from Sylvia Plath, mental illness can greatly impact an artist’s creative output and establish a window into a mindset that we might not be familiar with. Reading through any of Dead’s lyrics, we see someone greatly alienated from contemporary society and existing within their own world. Much has been made of Dead’s behavior during live shows, the self-mutilation, his use of corpsepaint, and the tendency to bury his clothes before a live set. (A practice to make the vocalist feel like a recently exhumed corpse.) Past his on-stage persona was a vocalist whose contributions were central to the development of Mayhem as a group.
The first recorded material with the new lineup appeared in 1990 on a demo tape entitled Demo Tracks. (Re-released several years later as the Freezing Moon single.) The release featured a re-recording of Carnage, which had previously appeared on the Pure F#[email protected] Armageddon demo. Dead’s unique vocal style breathed new life into the old number. However, it’s the other song on the release that officially ushered in the new era of the band. Freezing Moon not only showed the groups musical development and Euronymous’ ability to create songs fused with both ferocity and atmosphere, but allowed Dead to express his obsession with the otherworldly.
“Everything here is so cold
Everything here is so dark
I remember it as from a dream
In the corner of this time
Diabolic shapes float by
Out from the dark
I remember it was here I died
By following the freezing moon”
The same year the group traveled abroad to play a show in Germany. It’s from this performance that we have the definitive Mayhem release, Live in Leipzig. It might seem strange that a live album, and not a studio recording would hold this distinction. This lineup – regarded by many as the classic era – came and went so quickly. And there’s little material that documented their short existence. Live in Leipzig, originally released in 1991 as a live demo and 1993 as a tribute to Dead, manages to encapsulate everything in its purest form. If I were to compare it to a film, I’d choose Maniac (1980). Bill Lustig captured the bleak state of New York City still reeling from the trauma of Son of Sam, and was the finest hour for its leading man and co-writer, Joe Spinell. That’s what Live in Leipzig is—a single moment where Mayhem were at their zenith, it’s something that you could never create in a recording studio. It’s what the album doesn’t show that’s become part of the mystical lore that coincides with this particular era. The severed animal heads and Dead’s self-mutilation were on full display that night. The material on the album speaks volumes, and outshines any on-stage behavior.
Live in Leipzig begins with almost a full minute of silence, with the sounds of Euronymous and Necrobutcher warming up their instruments slightly audible. Dead then breaks the silence with “Only death is reeeeaaaaaaallll!” (A phrase first used by Celtic Frost) The group then goes into a slightly slower rendition of Deathcrush, and then comes back in full force with Necrolust. Aside from older material off of the Deathcrush EP, the album features the first appearance of titles that would grace the group’s debut full-length De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas a few years later. Funeral Fog, one of my favorite compositions that Euronymous ever wrote, shows Dead’s fixation with the gothic imagery of Transylvania:
“Every time this year
This dark fog will appear
Up from the tombs it comes
To take one more life that can be near
In the middle of Transylvania
All natural life has for a long time ago gone
It’s thin and so beautiful
But also so dark and mysterious”
Gothic themes of vampirism are entwined into Buried by Time and Dust, another song that further showcased the development of the group.
“Centuries ago, I tasted blood.
Buried by time and dust.
Many years has pasted since the funeral.
Missing the blood of human throats
So many years, ages ago
I must await, feel my bodies stench.”
– Buried by Time and Dust
Aside from Dead’s lyrical content marking a strong progression from Maniac’s gore and violence themed work on Deathcrush, it’s also here where we see the innovation and talent of Euronymous on full display. With Funeral Fog and Buried by time and dust in particular, the guitarist combined drone chord progression with single string tremolo riffing. The songs were longer, more atmospheric, better structured, and it’s here where Mayhem came into their own. By now they had left the first wave influence of Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Venom behind, and had become their own entity. From this point forward they would be a driving force for a whole new crop of groups that would spring up in the years that followed.
A topic for discussion these days that’s met with divisive viewpoints is the separation of art from its creator. I can’t think of any other perfect case in that regard than that of Euronymous. In modern terms, he was what we would now call an edge lord. Someone engrossed with his own self-image and vapid attempts at being provocative. A megalomaniac whose ego was destructive, there’s no denying his actions are one of the biggest contributing factors to the veil that obscures the truth about Mayhem. Be that as it may—his talent was without question, as was his quality control over the group’s material. (In an interview conducted with Slayer Mag he talked of taking a long time in between releases to make sure they were absolutely perfect.)
Like Deathcrush, Live in Leipzig finishes up with the title track from the first demo. Dead bellows “Come on Leipzig! Join us! Pure [email protected]#$ing Armageddon!” A defining moment to say the least, it was a piece de résistance for the lineup. In April of 1991, Dead would end his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The now infamous image of the aftermath, a photograph taken by Euronymous after discovering the body, would later grace the cover of the live bootleg Dawn of the Blackhearts. It’s also the epitome of the reputation that the guitarist attempted to formulate. For all of its sensationalism, Black Hearts and another bootleg, Out From The Dark are great releases that manage to capture this unique chapter of the band’s history.
With the exploitation of Dead’s suicide, Necrobutcher, disgusted with the actions of Euronymous, departed from the group. It’s also during this time period that the infamous string of church arsons took place. An interview with Varg “Count Grishnakh” Vikernes of Burzum had blown the activities of the scene wide open. A full spread in Kerrang! magazine painted a vivid and highly sensational picture to the world—an underground satanic terrorist movement comprised of an infamous ‘black metal mafia’ with Euronymous depicted as its godfather. It’s a story that’s been poked and prodded relentlessly, and as I stated in the previous installment, it’s been talked about to the point of boredom. Even American writer Peter Sotos covered the events in a 1994 issue of Parasite, a magazine mostly devoted to violent pornography. That’s the thing: the truth is always much more fascinating than fiction. The truth of the matter is that this time period would be marred by another tragedy, and one of the group’s greatest triumphs.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas—everything about the 1994 release is ominous and brooding. I tend to think of it in the same aspect as AC/DC’s Back in Black. It’s a requiem, a eulogy, and somehow manages to maintain an untarnished legacy. The album cover, which featured a blue rendition of the Nidaros Cathedral in Norway set against a black background, has a look to it that matches the material found on the album. While Deathcrush had an outward appearance of a group marching off to war, De Mysteriis produces a feeling similar to that of a funeral. This is a release that speaks for itself, and needs little to no introduction.
There was no defining statement, only an acknowledgment to the passing of Euronymous, who had been murdered by Vikernes the previous year. Which brings up the slight irony of the lineup that recorded the album in question. With Necrobutcher no longer a part of the group, Vikernes, whose debut Burzum album had been put out on Euronymous’ label Deathlike Silence, had handled bass for the album. Vocal duties would fall on Attila Csihar of the Hungarian band Tormentor.
The recording and production of the album itself was truly unique. Recorded at the Griegan concert hall, the location allowed for Hellhammer’s drumming to have a distinct sound. Because Necrobutcher played so loud in the mix on previous releases, his bass came to substitute a rhythm guitar. (Vikernes’ bass was lowered in the final mix, at the behest of Euronymous’ family who had requested it be removed from the album.) Euronymous’ multi tracking of guitars allows the songs to have a fuller presence about them, especially on Funeral Fog, Freezing Moon, and Life Eternal, which also features a great bass fill written by Vikernes. Life Eternal in particular is quite possibly Dead’s greatest lyrical composition, and takes the form of a suicide note.
“A dream of another existence
You wish to die
A dream of another world
You pray for death
To release the soul
One must die
To find peace inside
You must get eternal
I am a mortal, but am I human?
How beautiful life is now when my time has come
A human destiny, but nothing human inside
What will be left of me when I’m dead?
There was nothing when I lived
What you found was eternal death
No one will ever miss you”
– Life Eternal
Earlier, I mentioned Back in Black. Some might wonder why I would compare the two albums as they contain wildly different styles of music. Aside from them both serving as eulogies to deceased members, they’re both releases which feature a sharp contrast in vocal direction for their respective groups. “I never came in to replace Bonn (Scott),” Brian Johnson recalled in an old interview. “I came in because Bonn was there no more.” Attila’s vocal style is vastly different from Dead’s. While the band could have brought in a copycat to do the recordings, the decision to go with Attila really helped elevate the atmosphere of the album. Weather or not the listener likes Attila or not, one thing is certain—his voice has maintained over the years, as any live footage from any one of Mayhem’s recent tours can attest to.
De Mysteriis was indeed a landmark release, and much like Deathcrush it marked an end of an era. With the death of Euronymous, and only Hellhammer remaining, Mayhem had more or less folded. While it was an end to the group for the time being, it was only the beginning for the second wave. Around the same time period, the genre had sprouted and was in full bloom. Darkthrone, Emperor, Immortal, and Gorgoroth would take flight and take things in bold new directions. In 1994 alone, albums such as Blaze in the Northern Sky, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, Pentagram, and In the Nightside Eclipse would establish Norway as the dominant country for this new export.
The question remains, what might have happened had Euronymous not been murdered on that fateful night in 1993? History is full of theories, alternate timelines, and speculations on what might have been. While it’s plausible that Mayhem would have had a few more releases, and matured more with a new lineup, I speculate the group would have eventually imploded in the years that followed. Euronymous’ megalomania and need to sustain a diabolical outward appearance would have most likely caused further turmoil in the ranks. His inept ability at running a label and record store would have most likely been a contributing factor. However, the history that exists is the one we have.
With all the death and sensationalism that these years brought, one might assume that would be the end of the story. It was certainly the end of the group’s definitive years, but it certainly wasn’t the end of Mayhem. In a few short years the band would reemerge with familiar faces and one new in the form of guitarist Rune “Blasphemer” Erickson, formally of Aura Noir. The world would see a new declaration of war of sorts, one that would be completely polarizing.
Everyone needs more Mayhem in their life! Check out Volume One here: