Mayhem—they’re one of the most recognizable and influential Black Metal bands in history, and one who certainly have a fair amount of controversy surrounding them. If not for a series of events that made the genre infamous in the early ‘90s, it’s hard to say where things might have taken them. While they make for interesting reading, it’s a topic that’s been written about and chronicled to the point of boredom. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the string of church arsons that occurred, and the murder and suicide that have been covered by films, books, and overachieving bloggers. Although these events are intrinsically linked with the group, I’ll be covering something much more interesting, the evolution of the band as the years have progressed. Sure, there’s plenty of sensational material lingering about to be chronicled, but if I can put it quite bluntly—it’s been done. The story of Mayhem is one of ambitious teenagers, albums that helped shape an entire genre, and a legacy that’s still being carved out today.
In order to fully comprehend the reputation that formulated over the years, it’s important to start at the very beginning. The story of Mayhem begins in 1984, with the trio of guitarist Øystein Aarseth, bassist Jørn Stubberud, and drummer Kjetil Manheim. Devotees of what’s now referred to as the first wave of Black Metal, (Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Venom, Bathory) the three formed a group of their own. Teenagers with a fiery passion, they adopted their name from an acoustic interlude entitled “Mayhem with Mercy” off of Venom’s 1981 debut Welcome to Hell. Much like their heroes from Newcastle, two members of the trio opted for stage names. Stubberud, from hence fourth would be Necrobutcher, Manheim chose to be addressed by his last name only, and Aarseth adopted the moniker of Euronymous. While Aarseth might have chosen the name from The Satanic Bible’s list of infernal names, the same list that probably influenced Venom drummer Abaddon, it’s also likely he got the idea from a Hellhammer song of the same name, though spelled slightly different.
“Eurynomos, the prince of death
Has come to take you home
I see your fearful face
What can I do?
The sky is burnin’ red
An’ I’m losing you
The bell of Hades sounds deadly
As I run to your house
I open up the door
And feel the heat of hell”
– Hellhammer, Eurynomos
Like other groups who were forming around the time period, they broke in their musical sound by learning covers of Motorhead, Venom, Celtic Frost, and Black Sabbath. The group was also spurred on by the content of films such as The Evil Dead (1981), it appeared that all of the elements for a lethal cocktail were beginning to come to fruition. This wasn’t just going to be a band, but a reaction to the moral sensibilities of Norway. While the group continued the process that comes with refining any craft, they gave the underground tape trading community its first dose of what was to come in 1986 with a demo that cut right to the point of what they had planned. Entitled Pure Fucking Armageddon, it was an unstable concoction– volatile, unrefined, and primal.
The cover was graced by an image of O Cristo Torturado (The Tortured Christ) by Brazilian sculptor Guido Rocha. If the screams of agony in the image were silent, the cacophony of noise emanating from the tape was anything but. While many fans of the genre, myself included, enjoy low production value for the aesthetic it creates, Pure Fucking Armageddon is almost unintelligible. At the time, the trio still lacked a permanent vocalist, so duties fell on Necrobutcher. (Some sources credit Euronymous and Necrobutcher as both doing vocals, but Manheim confirmed later that all vocals were in fact done by the latter.) In keeping true with their devotion to Venom, the sides of the tape were coined ‘side fuck’ and ‘side off.’ (Venom’s 1982 Black Metal LP was sided ‘side Black’ and ‘side Metal.’)
Low audio quality aside, it’s here where titles such as Carnage and Pure fucking Armageddon first make an appearance, and would go on to become staples of the bands live set for years. The songs show a group more or less copying satanic lyrical content of similar acts like Hellhammer and Bathory. While stories of devil worship would be central to the bands reputation in years to come, subsequent releases would move away from these themes in favor of death and other related topics. Still, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
“Winds of war, winds of hate
Armageddon, tales from Hell
The wage of mayhem, the wage of sin
Come and hear, Lucifer sings.”
I’ve always found it disappointing that Ghoul was never re-recorded on any subsequent albums that followed. (The closest being a rendition performed by Carpathian Forest on the 2001 tribute album, Originators of the Northern Darkness, which also featured Emperor, Immortal, Dark Funeral and Limbonic Art.) With the release of Pure Fucking Armageddon, Mayhem had arrived on the playing field. Eirik “Messiah” Norheim would briefly front the group, before being replaced by vocalist in Sven Eric “Maniac” Kristiansen. The following release, a rehearsal tape aptly named Death Rehearsal featured the first recordings with the new solidified line up. While the recording quality was exceptionally minimal, it marked the first appearance of titles such as Chainsaw Gutsfuck and Necrolust, which would later be part of a release that’s considered by some to be their definitive album. (For me, that honor belongs to Live in Leipzig, but that’s a topic for the next installment.)
Deathcrush wasn’t just a new installment in Mayhem’s growing discography—it was a declaration of war. From its red, black and white color scheme, and cover art depicting severed hands from the country of Mauritania—it was about as bold a statement that a band could make. Separating themselves from the onslaught of Death Metal groups emerging from Tampa, Florida was Euronymous’ slogan of “No mosh, No core, No fun, No trends,” with a crossed out face of record producer Scott Burns. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and there was no turning back.
Throwing on the album the listener is first confronted with the instrumental drum track Silvester Anfang, composed by German electronic musician Conrad Schnitzler. Now the introduction for live gigs, it was clear what the intent behind this release was—a band marching off to war. The title track kicks in—Euronymous’ chainsaw guitar comes surging through the mix followed by Necrobutcher’s distorted bass, then, as if he’s gurgling on his own blood, Maniac spews forth the lyrics that everyone is well versed in:
“Demonic laughter, your cremation
Your lungs gasp for air but are filled with blood
A sudden crack as crush your skull.”
The dust barely settles, and three bass notes signal the beginning of Chainsaw Gutsfuck. Another title that’s still being performed by the band to this day, it reeks of the influence form the video nasties. (Movies banned for content deemed obscene.) Not holding back from anything, this track, along with Necrolust revel in sexual violence and sadism.
“Bleed you to the fucking core
You’re going down for fucking more
Screw your slimy guts
Driving me fucking nuts.”
– Chainsaw Gutsfuck.
Which brings up my personal view on Deathcrush—it’s the perfect progression from Venom. The trio, which coined the very term Black Metal, and handed Mayhem their namesake on a silver platter, had their own smutty edge to them, most notably in songs such as Red Light Fever and Teachers Pet. However, there was a tongue-in-cheek slyness about it all. Teacher’s Pet in particular recounts a fantasy that every schoolchild has at one point regarding their favorite teacher.
“Teacher caught me masturbating
Underneath the desk
She looked at me and winked her eye
Said ‘see you after class’
I heard the school bell ring that told
Me that the day was done
She called me back and locked
The door my lessons just begun”
– Teacher’s Pet
If there’s one single moment on the album that personifies this evolution, it’s their cover of Witching Hour, sung by Messiah. Stripping away the rock star element of Venom’s original composition, such as Mantas’ solo and lengthy bridge, Mayhem amped up the speed, leaving only the basic core of the song intact. The end result clocks in at less than a minute and a half. This was an indication of where the second wave of Black Metal was heading—no frills, nothing fancy– a dressed down product that thrived on aggression and atmosphere, as Darkthrone’s Fenriz would later describe. This was in a sense what punk had done a decade earlier, revolving against both cultural doctrines and standard musical structure.
As the EP comes to close with Messiah’s vocals on Pure Fucking Armageddon, there’s a desperate feeling of wanting more. Surely, there must be a follow up, a full-length with this sound evolved even further? While Deathcrush had certainly been a release to silence any critics about Mayhem—especially in regards to their earlier demos—it also marked the end of an era. The past three years had been tumultuous, and the group was about to undergo a major change. As anyone who’s seen This is Spinal Tap (1984) can tell you, personal changes can happen quite often, and drummers seem to come and go with the tide. Manheim, not having any interest in living the life of a starving artist would soon depart, as would Maniac.
For Euronymous and Necrobutcher, fate was about to intervene in the form of a Swedish vocalist named Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin, who was fronting a band named Morbid at the time. A crucified rat attached to a demo was his formal introduction to Necrobutcher. It was a sound indication of what the next few years would bring. Rounding out this new lineup was Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg, filling the vacant spot on drums. If this time period had been Mayhem declaring war, then the next couple of years were about to become a full-scale assault. It would also mark the start of mystique and intrigue regarding the personalities behind the music. Things were never going to be the same again.