In a world of bands releasing albums every one to three years, it can be hard to drum up much excitement from even the most restless of fan bases. Our "now now now" mentality of social media and piracy makes waiting hard. But truly great statements of art are rarely churned out assembly line style, so a new Mayhem album is most certainly a big deal. The band has thrown enough curve balls at us to make the anticipation a bit uneasy for some, but with Mayhem one thing is always certain: be it the more avant-garde experimenting of Grand Declaration of War or the stripped down laceration of Chimera, a new Mayhem record is an ugly, misshapen thing. It is a portent of doom as insidious as murder, and as divisive to its fan base as a rash of ethnic cleansing.
The trajectory of certain musical career paths can be a bit confounding. It isn’t often a band so feared and reviled by the press in its homeland wins a Spellemanprisen award, but that is exactly what happened to a group of young men known more as artificers of violence and chaos than for any musical ability. Oslo’s own Mayhem, who so closely orbited the birth of the second wave of black metal, had come a long way from a certain Deathcrush EP in 1987 to being handed Norway’s most prestigious music award.
There is no need to outline the cavalcade of murder, arson, suicide, prison sentences, alcoholism, accusations of Nazism, and other mischief which took place in those intervening years. If you don’t know most of what happened in this band’s history, there’s a good chance you are not a regular reader on this site. If you happen to be new to this game, however, the merest of Google searches will set you straight.
It’s been seven years since Ordo Ad Chao engulfed metaldom, won an award, and entrenched itself into the annals of music history. The album was only the band's fourth full-length, and it saw the return of the serpentine vocals of one Attila Csihar to the ranks. A much more stable human being than previous vocalist Maniac, the album was clearly the work of a far more grounded unit.
2014 heralds the release of this most anticipated of albums in the form of Esoteric Warfare. Like a sarin gas attack, Mayhem’s fifth studio full-length will pollute the blooms of spring on the 6th of June, courtesy of Seasons of Mist records. It features the apocalyptic lineup of Attila on vocals, Necrobutcher on bass, and Hellhammer on drums, rounded out by Charles Hedger and Telloch (1349, Gorgoroth) on guitars. Absent is long-time guitarist Blasphemer, as Esoteric Warfare marks Telloch’s first studio effort with the band.
“Watcher” starts things off here, a questing two-note riff hanging in the air like the smell of cordite as the barrage of Hellhammer and Necrobutcher builds up from nothing to shatter the silence. And god damn is that rhythm section tight. You couldn’t squeeze a mouse fart between the robotic snare, the hyper-fast double-bass, the freezing cold picking, and the buzzing bass guitar. It is then that the bilious rasp of Attila drops in, putting his impossible-to-imitate kiss once more onto the freezing cold lips of black metal.
“Psywar” is a briefer barrage, the sound so reminiscent of Thorns that anyone who worshiped that band will surely be pleased. Black metal can and has been formulaic at times, but fans will be hard pressed to label the material on offer here as such. The atmosphere evoked is one of humanity’s destruction, and while this is nothing new, Mayhem manages to straddle two worlds in order to spread their message. On one hand you have the traditional element of Norwegian black metal in place, but on the other you have that militaristic coldness evinced by such acts as Aborym, Mysticum, and of course the aforementioned Thorns.
The first song that takes these elements and truly makes it Mayhem’s own is on “Trinity.” Beginning with a sample of Robert Oppenheimer’s “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” spoken atop the panicked wail of an air raid siren, the song simply rips. The imminent threat of nuclear destruction may seem like a tired trope, but damned if Mayhem can’t inject fresh paranoia into the idea. The siren waxes and wanes as the song blasts along, building its tension, shining like searchlights into every corner, and rooting out all who flee just to be cut down. That mean as f**k chorus kicks back in at the end of the song, and no one can do it like Attila – no one.
“Pandaemon” is more of the same, until the oddly titled “Mylab” begins with a clicking reminiscent of something from a Japanese horror movie. Attila’s vocals take us to the depths of a cold chamber out of sight of the world, where unspeakable things are done in white rooms with no windows. The slower pace creeps along like blood flowing into a drain, led by some dark riffing and a few vocal antics similar to those employed by Arcturus back on “Aspera Heims Symphonia,” with growls and deep grunts tracked beneath Attila’s leading bellow. It speeds up though, giving it the Mayhem flourish we have come to expect.
The rest of the tracks experiment with atmospheres and pacing; the band is unafraid to use dynamics to tell their story. Ambient parts mix with guitar driven blasts and the ever-perfect battery of Hellhammer, who, let’s face it, most likely is not entirely human. On “Posthuman,” right around the 2:00 minute mark, Mayhem goes from slow and brooding to a blast section rather creatively, without losing an iota of dissonant terror. The song slows back down to a menacing rumble as Attila makes noises an unmedicated schizophrenic on his first of hit of meth could only dream about.
It’s all strong material, with Mayhem’s primacy manifesting in their ability to breathe tension into their compositions, teasing us into complacency with their sci-fi atmospherics and slower, quieter parts, before detonating like an IED right in our path. But there is nothing more disquieting, more utterly effective than the voice of Attila Csihar. It cannot be overstated. He encapsulates the very zeitgeist of genocide in the liquor and nicotine embalmed tissues of his syrinx. Mayhem has crafted a wonderful ode to the nausea of war around this voice, their claustrophobic din never better articulated than when the Hungarian veteran mans the microphone. Die-hards may never accept a successor to the throne occupied by De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but with Esoteric Warfare and Ordo Ad Chao before it, Mayhem is building a new throne made of melted human corpses. That being said, the Thorns worship is very noticeable, and while the end result is a magnificent black metal album, one has to wonder how deliberate this was and whether it counts as a creative innovation or a demerit.