Skip to content

cover-mayhem03.jpg

 

After the band imploded due to the extracurricular activities from its members in the wake of the “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” release – it was surprising to see Mayhem resurfacing so unpredictably quick after what would have killed any lesser underground band, or any band whose history or its alleged legend and underground reputation far outweighed its actual musical output. For this session, we have de facto leader Jan-Axel Blomberg (Hellhammer) - the sole survivor of the previous incarnation of the band, and now the inheritor to the Mayhem brandname - returning behind the drums. Early vocalist Sven-Erik Kristiansen (Maniac) was redrafted along with original bass guitarist Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher) to give an aura of credibility to the proceedings. Replacing late guitarist and main songwriter Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous) was a then-unknown guitarist by the name of Rune Eriksen (Blasphemer), who had a comparable but far more technically proficient playing style than his predecessor. His substitute was the next best thing in absence of the original. So, what is “Wolf's Lair Abyss” exactly? It is a structural and musical retread of “Deathcrush” in more ways than is healthy.

3059807_640pxTo get the most obvious thing out of the way, this is a modern interpretation of what “Deathcrush” was. Like that EP it starts off with a semi-industrial, martial intro here being the track ‘The Vortex Void Of Inhumanity’. The intro in effect foreshadows the direction the band would explore on the polarizing 2000 concept record “Grand Declaration Of War”. Like “Deathcrush” the EP kicks off with the most violent and abrasive track of the record, namely the uniformly crushing ‘I Am Thy Labyrinth’ and just like its famous predecessor “Wolf's Lair Abyss” will then throw another fast song at the listener with ‘Fall Of Seraphs’, before giving a slight breather with ‘Ancient Skin’. Like “Deathcrush” concluded with ‘Total Fucking Armageddon’ this EP ends with another notable blaster in form of ‘Symbols Of Bloodswords’. Then there’s also the fact that Maniac screeches his way through this EP and the earlier, arguably more legendary one. The overlap in personel only serves to emphasize the similarity in terms of composition and overall architecture. The differences are only superficial, and besides Maniac’s incessant screeches and a few riffs here and there it’s hard to tell apart from contemporary death metal as far as intensity and technicality is concerned.

‘I Am Thy Labyrinth’ opens with same Aarseth-written riff that fellow Norwegians Emperor had used the year before in tribute to their fallen comrade on ‘Ye Entrancemperium’ on its second full-length “Anthems To the Welkin at Dusk”. One thing you’ll instantly notice is how violent the band sounds on this EP. Where “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” was just a basic ‘90s death metal record with slightly different riffing, ghoulish vocals and abstract occult lyrics, this new EP is black metal of the Norsecore variety: percussive, dense and speed-based more than anything. The drumming on the last record was thrashy, and tasteful in regards to fills and rolls – here it sounds as if Blomberg is auditioning for the likes of Angelcorpse, Krisiun, Hate Eternal or Nile. The whole thing becomes considerably less impressive when considering that Swedish former death metal band Marduk had written two records in the same style a few years prior. Just like “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” before it, and like the Swedes in Marduk, this EP is incredible in its pumping bass-heaviness and overall level of clarity.

Maniac sounds even more depraved and demonic than on his first recording with this unit. The early singers for Dark Funeral, Marduk and Gorgoroth all sounded ghoulish and unearthly, but here Kristianesen takes it to a whole new stomach churning level. Assisted by the delicate clean vocals and monk chants of Kristoffer Rygg, the vocal performance on this EP is second to none. This easily matches Attila Csihar’s psychotic and strange vocals on the preceding “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” album on every aspect in schizophrenic delivery and overall weirdness. The fact that Mayhem here sound exactly like everybody would imagine they did isn’t very surprising. The band needed to re-establish its brandname after the extended hiatus of the previous recording, now overshadowed by its reputation and criminal record, there was no way the band could just return with an “okay” album or EP. No, this needed to sound familiar and relentless.

This is meat-and-patatoes, completely unadventurous Norsecore by one of the Scandinavian scene’s most enigmatic practitioners when it comes right down to it. The fact that this EP does little of interest musically only serves to prove that Mayhem the legend was more interesting than Mayhem as a band. The added injury comes with the fact that despite black metal was never meant to be commercialized and commoditized here its most famous unit gladly cashes the cheque that its non-musical activity had brought them in terms of marketability. Mayhem never was the most gifted or the most impressive of the Norwegian black metal hordes, and this EP doesn’t really change that fact. First, it proved that even death, incarceration or lack of members can’t stop Mayhem and second, Mayhem was never above imitation. “Wolf’s Lair Abyss” sounds nothing like the Mayhem of the past - but like a carbon-copy of “Heaven Shall Burn…” Marduk and “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” Dark Funeral, both released the year before in 1996. These innovators have a trackrecord of imitating the day’s popular sound – and “Wolf’s Lair Abyss”, like the two infamous releases before it, is not any different.

The EP was recorded at Studio Studio and Far Out Studio in Norway with Kristoffer Rygg producing. No stranger to controversy and perennial provocateurs the EP lends its name from Wolf’s Lair, Adolf Hitler’s secret headquarters on the Eastern Front. The lay-out was handled by Stephen O’Malley.  “Wolfs Lair Abyss” is a fitting return for a band that has always been eclipsed by their non-musical activity, and scene importance. That “Wolf's Lair Abyss” is nearly identical in construction to “Deathcrush” is no surprise, as the band needed to re-establish its musical relevance after the disastrous events of the preceding record tore the band apart. This sounds both familiar and reinvigorated, and it isn’t very surprising that Mayhem chose to go into a different direction after this EP.

This EP sees the return of the ‘The True Mayhem’ in its logo, a gimmick which the band continue to milk to this very day, mostly through their merchandising. This is the most flat-out ridiculous and downright silly thing when you stop to think about it. There aren’t many outfits called Mayhem today with same amount of notoriety, scene clout and industry leverage. Every single original member of Mayhem was either deceased (Øystein Aarseth), or ousted (Kjetil Manheim) long before Blomberg took over the creative – and business aspect of the Mayhem brand. Blomberg, who didn’t appear in the picture until “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, wasn’t even an original member himself! This pushes this whole “The True” business into the realms of the absurd, the comical and the preposterous. Kristiansen and Stubberud were the only original members. That makes 50% of “The True” line-up hired guns, or paid employees, whatever you want to call it. There was nothing ‘true’ about this Mayhem, and if it weren’t for the economic viability of the brand - this band would have remained buried, as it probably should have been.

cover-mayhem01.jpg

 

As historically (and retroactively) important as this EP is for the genre it helped define, its actual musical content and quality is open for debate. “Deathcrush”, the first real Mayhem release after a string of demos, is – despite its truly hostile and aggressive nature – a rather standard, and conformist exercise in early death/thrash metal. Taking cues from the formative acts as Death/Mantas, Necrophagia, Possessed and Sepultura. Its only defining factor is its lo-fi production values, and inhuman level of aggression. From a musical perspective it is hardly as revolutionary as its legend has it made out to be. Granted, it was more misanthropic and unhinged sounding than most – but it was also an EP trapped in a form of creative stasis, being the very thing it rebelled against. Essentially it is a primitive and heavily underproduced speed/thrash metal recording with screeching vocals that gets by on attitude more than actual skill or songwriting.

groupe_36Formed in 1984 during the genre’s first wave Mayhem defined the second wave of the genre quite like no other. While hardly black metal by today’s standards, the crudeness, misanthropy and hatefulness that would come to define the genre as a whole drips from every pore of this recording. “Deathcrush” is as uncompromising musically as it is aesthetically. The band's name was taken from the Venom song ‘Mayhem with Mercy’ – and like that UK proto-death/black metal band it is more about sheer shock value than actual musical merit. “Deathcrush” is often named as the first Norwegian black metal release. Although Mayhem was the most visible progenitor of the second-wave black metal movement the genre’s defining characteristics had already been established by Swedish outfit Bathory, particularly on its “Under the Sign of the Black Mark” album. Marketed and promoted locally towards a close-knit group of like-minded individuals and friends/supporters of the band “Deathcrush” captures one of Norway’s most controversial (and influential) underground metal bands at its embryonal stage.

Since there were at least nine different bands named Mayhem worldwide putting out independent demos in the 80s the Norwegian unit defined themselves in another way. This led to this particular Mayhem to declare themselves "The True Mayhem", as they were the only band worthy of the moniker, and this is something they still use today for websites, publicity, and in their logo. The band mostly seemed to thrive on instability, as “Deathcrush” is as musically volatile as its membership. The core trio at this time consisted of rhythm/lead guitarist and main creative force Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous), bass guitarist Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher) and drummer Kjetil Haraldsson (Manheim) with a revolving vocalist cast. Each side of the EP features a different vocalist with Sven-Erik Kristiansen (Maniac), a self-confessed alcoholic and flagellant, providing vocals to the majority of the material, while Erik Nordheim (Messiah) would be lending his vocals to the Venom cover song ‘Witching Hour’ and ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’ as Kristiansen spent time in a psychiatric ward after recording the “Deathcrush” EP.

The intro is a martial sounding electric drum composition by Conrad Schnitzler of German electronic music group Tangerine Dream. Contrary to popular belief, Schnitzler did not create the piece specifically for Mayhem: when Euronymous asked for an intro he just gave him a random piece of music he found in his archives, it became ‘Silvester Anfang’. The first thing you’ll undoubtly notice is how out-of-control, and sloppy the whole thing is. It’s leagues better than the initial “Pure Fucking Armageddon” they put out earlier, but it still isn’t very good beyond its immediate crudeness. It does harness the hateful spirit, youthful exuberance and intent that would come to define the genre during its second wave. These songs certainly are unrepentant, and misanthropic to a fault – but once the smoke clears there’s very little here that stays in the mind. All songs whiz by at a truly breakneck pace, and only the Venom cover song ‘Witching Hour’ offers some brief respite. On some editions, ‘(Weird) Manheim’ and ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’ are combined into one track. The brevity hinders more than it helps.

Euronymous-MayhemThe lyrics on the juvenile side with colorful explorations of sordid death metal subjects as dismemberment, gore and necrophilia. The fact that they are riddled with needless expletives doesn’t help the band’s case either. Most lyrics were penned by bass guitarist Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher) and it is puzzling of how much they conform to the standards of the genre Mayhem intended to get away from in the first place. Mayhem would adopt darker lyrical themes upon the joining of Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (Dead) after the defection of both Sven-Erik Kristiansen (Maniac) and Erik Nordheim (Messiah).  Although the EP is famous for its condemnation and rejection of the then-nascent death metal scene, famed Tampa, Florida genre producer/engineer Scott Burns and UK label imprint Earache Records in particular, it apparently has no problem with imitating the early US and European death metal sound. In retrospect this condemnation of the genre is a bit puzzling as it is fairly well-documented that Mayhem figurehead Øystein Aarseth was very interested in both death metal and grindcore.

The EP was recorded at Creative Studios in Kolbotn, Norway during February/March 1987. According to accounts by the band producer Erik Avnskog expected a raggae band to come in and record. This explains the shoddy and make-shift production, as Avnskog didn’t know how to handle the abrasive, chaotic and sloppy music that this band wrote. Mayhem uses instruments descriptions that would later be adopted by death metal bands in general during the late 90s and early 2000s. Frontman Kristiansen was dubbed “gutpuking”, bass guitarist Stubberud chosing “4-string crushfuck”, creative force Aarseth became “deathsaw” and session vocalist Nordheim describing himself as “Iron lungs”. Interestingly Kjetil Haraldsson dubbed his drums “hellhammers”, no doubt inspired by the Swiss band of the same name. His eventual successor Jan-Axel Blomberg would use Hellhammer as his own stage name probably in respect to both. While these superficialities are interesting, it doesn’t change the fact that “Deathcrush” is an incredibly sloppy, underproduced and underwritten first recording of a band that thrived more on its extracurricular activities than its musical undertakings.

Released on Aarseth’s own label imprint Posercorpse Music - the label imprint that would later transform into Deathlike Silence Productions, which in turn would re-issue the EP on CD/LP in 1993 – in 1987 because the industry wasn’t yet ready to invest in a band as over-the-top and extreme as Mayhem. The Deathlike Silence version of this EP is notorious in its supposed condemnation of standards and practices of the nascent death metal scene with its “anti-Scott Burns” image appearing central. The band had not yet adopted the usage of corpse paint, as this would only happen when Per Yngve Ohlin (Dead) joined the band. Ohlin was involved in early Swedish death metal act Morbid, which also included Lars Göran Petrov and Ulf Cederlund (later of formative Stockholm death metal act Nihilist and after that the lamentable Entombed). Mayhem’s actual transformation, philosophically more than musically, happened in between recording sessions. The follow-up to this record didn’t so much cement the band’s musical merit as it forever etched its name into history due to its enduring legacy of non-musical infamy.

That isn’t to say that “Deathcrush” isn’t worthwhile, if not for its rabid intensity then certainly for its historic importance in the genre it helped define. In actuality "Deathcrush" is immensely primitive and chaotic that Sepultura’s “Morbid Visions” sounds accomplished and nuanced in comparison. The EP is sporting a grim photographic sleeve of two severed hands setting the standard of ghastly imagery that would come to define the black metal genre for many years to come. As historically important this EP might be, it doesn’t change the basic fact that it isn’t very good from any rational, or technical point of view. History has placed a substantial amount of importance on this sloppy little speed/thrash metal exercise than that it probably deserved, or warranted. Were it not for the infamous non-musical activities of the band that wrote it they probably would have been just another footnote of the genre, as they probably should have been in the first place.