The Phoenix rising from the ashes—it’s one of the most celebrated stories in mythology, and one of the best ways to illustrate rebirth. (Albeit it’s an analogy that sometimes gets overused.) In the case of Mayhem, there’s no better way to describe the task they would undergo in rebuilding following the death of Euronymous. In the past, they had been a group who had thrived on reputation and controversy. With the untamed and formative years behind them, they had an opportunity to step out from the shadows cast by sensational news reports and misconceptions held by many. And so, we enter into the second coming of the group. It’s a time period that’s divisive, with a fair amount of harsh criticism and polarizing reactions. Nevertheless, the show must go on…
The band had begun to regroup as early as 1994, and the new lineup was a reunion of sorts. With Hellhammer being the only core member during the release of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, reestablishing Mayhem was going to be a ‘building-from-the-ground-up’ type of project. Rejoining the fold were bassist Necrobutcher and vocalist Maniac, along with new guitarist Rune ‘Blasphemer’ Eriksen. With replacing Euronymous, Mayhem becomes a new group entirely. Their first musical offering appeared in 1997 with the Ancient Skin single. Just as when Dead came into the group years earlier, Maniac’s lyrical content greatly shifted the themes of the music. In the ten years since he had appeared on Deathcrush, he seemed to have crossed the abyss and come out the other side aligned with new ideals.
“In these nights of magic
Where great pain is obscured
By the fantasy dragon made real
By the powers of lingering trauma
I looked behind the dawn of day
Beyond the angst ridden faces
Into the mind captured behind
Living the lie of the weakened ones
I captured the moment given
I denied the sickening love”
The music was fast, chaotic, and showed promise of the new lineup in place. I’ve always felt that as a song, Ancient Skin seemed like a natural progression from the material found on De Mysteriis. While Blasphemer’s style is certainly different from Euronymous, his technical proficiency is without question. That same year saw the release of an EP entitled Wolf’s Lair Abyss, which begins with the noise-inducing track The Vortex Void of Inhumanity. From the very beginning, we’re introduced to a new form of warfare, one that exists completely within the mind. A form of destruction focused on one’s own psyche, Maniac’s repeat phrasing of “Militant men in peaceful times attack themselves” sets the tone for the rest of the album. This was something new, something we hadn’t seen in Mayhem before. In I Am Thy Labyrinth in particular, the group explored the philosophical ideals of Friedrich Nietzsche, which, while a staple of USBM act Judas Iscariot, was new territory for the group. In an interesting example of art imitating philosophy, this period of the band would echo one of Nietzsche’s topics, eternal recurrence. (The theory stating that events will always reoccur without end.) It’s interesting that in the 10 years since Deathcrush, Mayhem had returned with an EP to once again silence any skeptics who doubted the new lineup.
Biblical imagery is found in Fall of Seraphs, depicting the descent of the angels from heaven. While religious themes were certainly nothing new to the genre, the composition showed a great deal of progression from some of the groups contemporaries. The final track on the release, Symbols of Bloodswords, plants the seeds for an album that in a few years would paint a vivid picture of war, and divide several listeners in the process. For the meantime, Mayhem had made a return worthy of the sensationalism that had sometimes overshadowed their musical accomplishments.
While this era of the band was certainly new, and the material was going in a different direction, it was still close enough in style of the previous lineup to form a cohesive catalogue. This is evident on the 1999 live album Mediolanum Capta Est. Recorded in Milan; it was the second official live recording since the groups’ definitive album, Live in Leipzig. The new material off of Wolf’s Lair coincides well with the older songs off of Deathcrush and De Mysteriis. As a frontman, Maniac is certainly no Dead, but there’s no denying he fit the mold for what Mayhem were accomplishing during this time period. The front man’s stage banter, not impressive by any means, attempts to reinforce the Nietzschean themes found on Wolf’s Lair Abyss. “If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will eventually stare into you, where you will find yourself as God, and I am thy labyrinth!”
With the beginning of the new millennium, and the highs and lows from the previous decade behind them, Mayhem continued on with the release their first full-length since De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. The result, released in 2000, couldn’t have been more unexpected. Grand Declaration of War—it’s among the long list of albums that fans are extremely divided on. (Other being Turbo, Cold Lake, Grave New World, just to name a few.) It certainly has more than its fair share of detractors, outraged fans, and purists that are quick to spit venom in its direction. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are plenty of people who have praised it for its originality and complexity. There’s different ways to look at Grand Declaration. The first, not seeing it as a Mayhem album. The second, being a failed experiment that’s best left forgotten. However, I happen to disagree with both of those outlooks.
While Wolf’s Lair Abyss had been a progression from the group’s previous material, Grand Declaration was a complete departure. Implementing a mix of avant-garde and progressive music, chaotic drumming and Spoken word passages, it was the last thing one might expect to hear on a Mayhem release. Taking a closer look at the album, it’s a very ambitious project. Like some general gambling his final infantry reserves in the climax of great battle, it was a move that could have possibly gone either way. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “It is the move that is most decisive, it is the one drop of water that makes the cup run over.”
While the musical style might have been polarizing depending on who gave the album a listen, there’s no denying Maniac offers up some of his best lyrical contributions. In the 13 years since his voice channeled “Your stinking corpse I desire, nothing can take me higher”, he had penned complex stories of a war against Christianity fueled by misanthropy and retribution. In particular, with songs such as In the Lies Upon Where You Lay
“In the century where man dies, we the hunters of the hollow hills
Must put ourselves above pity, above self deception as law
We must be again as once were, we the soul of the earth
As reaping time descends, the sour grain of mercy withers
Into the night we must go, into the darkest abyss
To a level of consciousness unknown to Christendom”
– In the Lies Upon Where You Lay
With all concept albums, it’s best listened to from beginning to end, and has its fair share of peaks and valleys. It isn’t perfect by any means, but deserves to be recognized as an essential entry in Mayhem’s discography, because it IS a product of the band in every sense. They’ve ALWAYS been a group who constantly attempt to distance themselves from trends and convention. Consider for a moment Euronymous’ statement with Deathcrush, which firmly separating the group from the rising trend of death metal. Grand Declaration of War, for all of the negative feedback, is certainly in that vein. It possesses continuity with Wolf’s Lair Abyss and explores a self-contained mythology. However, there’s something Venom remarked about their own ambitious album At War With Satan, “Concept albums only work if you’re a concept band like Rush.”
If there’s one area where the album suffers it’s the live recordings from the supporting tour, found on the live album and home video European Legions. The material off Grand Declaration is out of synch with the rest of the set list from the previous albums. A tour comprised of only playing the songs from the album in their entirety, while feasible, might have been a complete disaster. With the polarizing reaction to the album, the group would have to limit the newer songs from any live set. And besides, if someone buys a ticket to see Mayhem, they’re going to want to hear Freezing Moon. In the end, they reached for something spectacular that ended up eluding them.
Despite the harsh criticism, Mayhem would do what they had always done—persevere. If murder and suicide didn’t halt their progress in the past, then some bitter fans and bad reviews certainly wouldn’t. It’s from this supposed failure that comes Chimera, easily the most underrated release in the groups’ discography. Chimera has a unique aesthetic to it, and a sound that manages to combine elements from the two previous releases. Gracing the cover was a still from Benjamin Christiansen’s Haxan (1922), which coincided with the lyrical themes on the album that further explored death and religion.
Blasphemer’s songwriting on the album, while possibly rushed, shows an ability to return to form following Grand Declaration of War. Similar to the same vein as Wolf’s Lair Abyss, the group opted for a slightly cleaner production, and incorporated a progressive element to the songs. The end result from this combination is an album that I feel never got a fair amount of praise. Because the previous effort had been so polarizing, it’s possible that any new release following it would be met with harsh skepticism from the fan base.
A good example of this combination is found on Dark Night of the Soul. The song integrates some of Blasphemer’s progressive style of playing, Necrobutcher’s bass loud in the mix, and the chaotic drumming from Hellhammer. Maniac’s lyrics are almost a throwback to Wolf’s Lair—with their themes centering on temptation and corruption.
“Caress the deceitful snake
The one who speaks in tongues
Of all my devastating truths
Collect the power of my dreams
Cast by the devious fire demons
A thousand whorish tongues
A fiendish lust, a hollow trust”
-Dark Night of the Soul
It’s possible that a follow up to Chimera could have developed this sound further, but it was not to be. In another example of eternal recurrence, Maniac would be gone less than a year after its release. Looking at footage from the group’s performance at Wacken that year shows a frontman with little interest and phoning in his performance. Combine that with a growing problem with alcoholism, and it was time for another chapter in the bands history to come to a close. Returning to the group would be Attila Csihar, who was last heard on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Despite the promise of a possible return to former glory, two more studio albums and a string of concert tours piggybacking on past successes would be in the years that followed.