Every style of heavy metal, or music in general, has its culminating album: recordings that capture and define a movement or era. For Norwegian black metal, Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is that record. In the early 1990's, the Norwegian scene played host to some of the most legendary and infamous events in metal history, but it also housed some of the best musical talent as well. Through its recording lineup and the quality of the music itself, DMDS straddles both aspects of this history. This makes it one of the most essential black metal albums of all time.
The history of the Norwegian black metal scene circa 1991-1994 is well documented, but a quick refresher would help provide some context. In early 1991, Mayhem’s lead singer (Per Ohlin AKA “Dead”) committed suicide. In response, the band’s guitarist and guiding force, Oystein Arseth (“Euronymous”) went into a megalomaniacal frenzy, making light of the event to promote Mayhem, his record label (Deathlike Silence), his record store (Helvete) and black metal in general. The next 3 years would see several landmark albums and demos released from scenes in Oslo, Bergen, Kristiansand and across Norway (and the rest of Scandinavia). It would also see several landmark church burnings, as what started as a way for Euronymous and Varg Vikernes to alienate trendy teenagers from the scene became, ironically, a crazed trend all its own. This eventually led to the legendary interview in Kerrang! and the closing of Helvete. Anyway, several lineup variations and recording sessions later, Mayhem’s debut full-length was finally complete. Alas, Euronymous would never get to see the record released, as he was killed by Vikernes in August, 1993. When the album was finally released in May, 1994, it stood as both the era’s crowning achievement and its closing bell.
Without any knowledge of the musicians involved, DMDS already stands as brilliant, captivating listen. But it’s worth listing off who contributed, both in the recording AND the writing process itself. So, here is the cast of characters behind DMDS:
Euronymous: Guitars. Chief mastermind/propagandist/head-of-marketing for the underground black metal scene. By 1993, Euronymous had spent several years building an international network of tape-trading, letter-writing and record deals (even singing Japanese act, Sigh to his Deathlike Silence label). This network helped to build the reputation of Mayhem, and thus great anticipation for the upcoming record. Not the best businessman of course, or choice of friends…or judgement about when to open the front door.
Atilla: Vocals. Originally the frontman of Hungarian act, Tormentor, Attila was already a well-renowned figure in the black metal underground when Euronymous snagged him to fulfill vocal duties on the record. His unorthodox style of speaking through lyrics and even singing in latin on the title track lend a unique character unseen elsewhere in black metal.
Hellhammer: Drums. A machine-like presence on the kit, and one of the only band members on the record who's still with the group (along with Atilla).
Snorre “Blackthorn” Ruch: Guitars. The man behind the Thorns project. His use of the guitar and atmospheric compositions proved invaluable to the developing black metal sound. On DMDS, Ruch helped write several riffs for the album, particularly those on “From the Dark Past.”
Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes: Bass. Varg (or Kristian, his birthname), was at one point a member of Old Funeral, along with future members of Immortal. As the sole artist behind Burzum, Varg would himself create some of the most influential black metal albums of all time (e.g. Filosophem, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss). On a personal level…well, a simple Google search will take care of that. Though for a right-wing traditionalist, he has some odd choices for the people he quotes in his YouTube videos (even Noam Chomsky at one point, but I digress).
Per Yngve Ohlin a.k.a. “Dead”: Songwriting. Former lead singer of the early extreme metal band, Morbid, and the band’s lead singer since the end of the Deathcrush era. Dead had performed many of the songs on DMDS years earlier and contributed much of the lyrical content. If I’m not mistaken, all the lyrics from “Life Eternal” are by Dead, written shortly before his suicide. His performances can be heard on the Studio Tracks demo and Live in Leipzig (his version of “Freezing Moon” happens to be my favorite).
Necrobutcher: Songwriting. The band’s original bassist (and sole remaining original member as of this writing), Necrobutcher contributed many of the lyrics and riffs to the album. And in my judgement, had the most sober assessment of the crimes committed while absent from the band (1991-1993): “vandalism, to destroy someone's property, it doesn't have any meaning to me…and the churches were just built up again on taxpayers' money…All the people involved were under twenty and I think that speaks for itself.”
And now, onto the music itself.
Each aspect of the record has a unique quality to it. This is why its sound and style has been so hard to replicate. Dozens of acts have ripped off Darkthrone, Immortal and Burzum, but few have been able to make a formula out of DMDS. There are many reasons for this, one being the lyrical approach. Good extreme metal, in many cases, uses language that talks about dark and evil things, but doesn’t shove the imagery in the listener’s face. In an interview with Metalion of Slayer magazine, Dead described the lyrics to the album’s opener, “Funeral Fog:”
it’s about a legendary place in the middle of the Carpathian horseshoe. A swampland called Shurlock Basin which is surrounded by fearful superstition and the weirdest beings are thought to haunt the place. That I thought about when I wrote that song and I started to imagine the heavy fog lit up by the full moon. This fog oozed up from that place. Drifting woefully in silence to extinguish the lives of the local people.
This air (or should I say “fog”) of mystery, terror and evil can be felt across the entire record. Dead also contributed lyrics to “Freezing Moon,” “Buried by Time and Dust” and “Pagan Fears,” and his touch of dark weirdness helps to define the sound. “Weird” is a good way to describe Atilla’s vocal approach as well. Of all the songs on the record, “Buried by Time and Dust” is the only one where Atilla uses the usual throaty growls (similar to those on Tormentor’s Anno Domini) black metal is known for. The other tracks show his rasping, drawling and even singing in an operatic style (in Latin no less!) on the title track. This takes some getting used to and can even drive listeners away, but it’s a change of pace that gives the songs their own voice. And it captures a creepiness and foreboding a lot of other bands miss or choose not to explore. “In the Shadow of the Horns” and “I Am the Black Wizards” already exist on other records, they need not be replicated here.
As is to be expected, Hellhammer’s drumming here is simply phenomenal. And the atmosphere produced by the record at Grieghallen in Bergen only adds to this, as Atilla noted in an interview for Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult:
“Euronymous had specific ideas about each instrument and he had specific ideas about echoes,” recalls Atilla. “The drums were recorded in a huge concert hall, solos were recorded in a room and he was moving round all the time and saying, ‘Okay, there we have it.’
Though much of the drumming is at a furious pace, Hellhammer has such a mastery of when to time his fills that you can almost pick out your favorite floor-tom hits (mine are on “Buried By Time and Dust”). It says a lot about a drummer when his parts can be remembered and anticipated by non-drummers, especially when they don’t come in the form of “drum solos.”
As for the guitars, Darkthrone’s Fenriz once noted in the documentary, Until the Light Takes Us, that Euronymous pioneered a style of black metal playing. In this style, he would often play the entire neck, using bar chords rather than just individual notes or power chords. This gives his style a fuller, more enveloping sound, yet one that is still ice-cold, as the higher notes pierce through the smoke created by the lower ones. The riff on “Freezing Moon” is so simple, but is an irresistible use of the triad, also known as “The Devil’s Interval.” The combinations of sounds Euronymous and Snorre put together on “Life Eternal” and “From the Dark Past” sound like nothing else, almost resembling a dark symphony of guitars. The bridge riffs for “Buried by Time and Dust” are particularly hypnotic. It’s true what Dayal Patterson once said, you really could listen to this album all day.
And finally, there is the awkward subject of the bass parts, performed by Vikernes. Originally, Hellhammer had promised Euronymous’ parents that he’d remove Vikernes’ bass tracks. But he decided not to, opting instead to have murderer and victim present on the same album. Something tells me he was just so sick of having the album delayed that he didn’t want to take the time to have Necrobutcher come and re-record everything. Varg’s bass is podded down in the mix, but you can still hear him. He plays well enough, though the credit for the actual parts goes to Necrobutcher, as Varg was only on the album as a session musician. In an eerie way, the fact that he remains unacknowledged on the album sleeve makes him even more present.
Though “Freezing Moon,” “Funeral Fog” and “Pagan Fears” are all rightly celebrated as fan-favorites, listeners should pay particular attention to the lesser-known tracks as well. “Life Eternal,” “From the Dark Past” and “Cursed in Eternity” all have moody, almost contemplative and ponderous passages that take the listener to places he or she might not have expected on a black metal release. The presence of these thoughtful and evocative tracks help DMDS stand out even more from the rest of the Norwegian pantheon.
But to me, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” is the highlight of the album, even above “Freezing Moon” and “Buried by Time and Dust.” The roaring drums, the ominous and powerful riffing, and Atilla’s excellent and unexpected Latin singing all make the track the crown jewel of the album, one that is possibly the crown jewel of black metal itself. In one record, the listener is exposed to all the power, glory and contradictions inherent in Norwegian black metal, thus making it a fascinating artifact from the dark past, and an essential piece of black metal listening.