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Whereas “Deathcrush” was instrumental in crystallizing the essence of the first wave of black metal, Mayhem’s legacy as “innovators” would be cemented with its proper full-length debut. Draped in mystique and legend “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” is more famous for the events that surrounded it than the actual music present. Even though half the line-up has been replaced it is the writing of Øystein Aarseth, the gloomy lyrics of the late Per Yngve Øhlin and a star-making performance by Hungarian transplant Attila Csihar that make the record as memorable as it is. It is the debut performance for new skinsman Jan-Axel Blomberg, who would become the band’s creative leader just a few years later. “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” is a worthwhile for what it is, and its enduring legacy cannot be understated – but that doesn’t change the fact that is also kind of bland. For a band supposedly so rebellious and non-conformist, it does sound quite conformist.

dead3This record is loaded. Not so much with creativity or original ideas, per se – but with a history of infamy few records in metal can wish to match, or surpass. Financed by funds generated from Øystein Aarseth’s record store Helvete in Oslo the record was beset by a number of logistical problems. Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher, bass guitar) opted out after the suicide of original vocalist Per Yngve Øhlin (Dead) and Kristian Vikernes (Count Grishnackh of one-man studio project Burzum) laid down bass guitar tracks in his absence. That the same Vikernes who would end up murdering Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous) over supposed “contractual disputes” is a story had has since eclipsed the very band and much of their music at its center. Next to the late Øystein Aarseth, there are contributions from Snorre Ruch (of Thorns) who would commit church arson not much later. The vocals were provided by Hungarian transplant Attila Csihar from the band Tormentor. Sitting behind the drums is Jan-Axel Blomberg (Hellhammer), the de facto bandleader, but not an actual original member in any shape or form.

Notorious in its supposed condemnation of standards and practices of the nascent death metal scene, Mayhem made a name for itself with the “anti-Scott Burns” plastering all over its “Deathcrush” debut EP. It is then surprising that the first Mayhem full length “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, recorded at the Grieghallen Studios, sounds nearly identical to the Morrisound Studios and Tampa death metal sound. Wasn’t this supposed to be the antithesis to that very thing? Given the band’s infamous reputation it is perhaps not strange that no label in the right mind dared to touch them, and thusly “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” was released through the band’s own label imprint, Deathlike Silence. That is not to say that it isn’t great, because “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” is probably the one of best records in this genre. It’s just that, well, it sounds more death metal in terms of playing, construction and overall aesthetic when it comes right to it. Only in retrospect would this be considered black metal, in actuality it is only minimally so.

Exactly how much black metal is “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” then? Well, to be entirely honest, not a whole lot. In fact, you’d be hardpressed to call this black metal at all, because outside of the musicians involved, there isn’t a whole lot that actually qualifies as such. This sounds a lot more like a better produced, better developed take on the Old Funeral death metal sound more than anything else. What is black metal about this album? Attila’s strange croaks certainly fit the tag, and some of the scales and riffing is darker, suicidal and more malevolent sounding than a lot of the death metal released at the same period of time. The abstract evil lyrics help too, but that’s about it. In terms of music this is death metal through and through. In the album’s second half the black metal stylings appear to prevail, especially with Blomberg delivering an insane amount of blasting, a testament to his stamina and expertise as a drummer – while the riffs get more stripped down, barbaric and cold sounding. While each track is a classic in its own way, it’s post-‘Pagan Fears’ that the record truly reveals its enduring strength.

Where this record differs from most standard death metal is the riff set, which already is bordering on early black metal territory – and the whole thing sounds downbeat, sodden and nihilistic on all fronts. The wailing solo in ‘The Freezing Moon’ carries so much depraved emotion, that combined with Csihar’s schizophrenic vocals resonates with everybody on both spectrums of the genre, death – and black metal alike. There’s also the notion of just how bass-heavy and bass-centric this record really is. This could easily be mirrored with Mortification’s “Scrolls Of the Megilloth” or Kataklysm’s “Sorcery” in terms of thundering low-end heaviness. The opening section of ‘Pagan Fears’ is almost rock ‘n roll-ish in its playfulness, and it’s the type of thing you’d expect in US or European death metal, not in an early progenitor of Scandinavian black metal (even though, it is excuseable here as both genres share similar roots). Attila Csihar stays as close as humanly possible to the vocal patterns laid out by Yngve Ohlin on the “Live in Leipzig” release, and on other tracks he mimics his style to utter perfection. The early black metal stylings truly come to the fore in the slow building dirge that is ‘Life Eternal’.

If there’s one thing, it is here that black metal started its decade-long fixation with Latin song – and album titles. The album title roughly translates to ‘Of Lord Satan’s Secret Rites’. This tradition of using Latin would later be held up by the likes of Abruptum, post-David Parland Dark Funeral, latter-day Gorgoroth and a number of underground hordes. What also would come to characterize the genre are the absolutely atrocious band logos. Thankfully, Mayhem here is tasteful with that. The logo looks sufficiently evil, but it remains identifiable and instantly recognizable. In all “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” is a record legendary for the events surrounding it than the actual music. Once again, the album is very strong and exceptionally wellwritten for what it aims to do. Only in retrospect would it be considered black metal, as from a technical – and construction point of view, it obviously has far more commonalities with death metal.

The instrumental part of the album was recorded at Grieghallen Studios during late 1992 with Aarseth, Blomberg, and Vikernes laying down their respective parts with producer Eirik ‘Pytten’ Hundvin. The vocals were recorded in a week’s time in 1993 as Csihar flew in from Hungary for the sessions. The album itself wasn’t released until 1994 upon the aftermath’s of Aarseth’s slaying by Vikernes, and the latter’s incarceration. Half of the album was composed by former bass guitarist Stubberud with input from Øhlin, Ruch and Aarseth. The cover depicts the east side of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, which the band had devised to blow up to coincide with the album’s release. Those events didn’t quite transpire the way the band had envisioned, and ended up tearing the band apart in the process. Since controversy is the best fuel it wouldn’t take long for Mayhem to resurface in a reconfigured form in the aftermath. If it weren’t for the infamous happenings surrounding this release it would have probably been forgotten and written off as a commendable footnote in the history of the genre.

It is rather telling that Mayhem only opted to settle into a more blast-oriented direction after other bands (Dark Funeral and Marduk, to name the most obvious) had paved the way. As supposed innovators of the genre Mayhem certainly has no problem imitating which sound is popular in the day. They did so on the “Deathcrush” EP, continued the trend here, and likewise with the reunion “Wolfs Lair Abyss” EP. Interestingly to consider is that Mayhem only integrated electronic and industrial sounds after fellow Norwegians Mysticum laid out the pioneering groundwork with “In the Streams Of Inferno”. The more impressionable often call Mayhem innovators, which they clearly are not. That they are more marketable because of their history of infamy should be obvious. As far as talent and musical merit goes this band’s importance is debateable. Its legend had long since eclipsed its actual musical accomplishments (that are precious few to begin with). Each member masters its instrument of choice to a considerable degree, and the ghoulish vocals are a wonder to behold – yet the band is barely more than the sum of its parts. “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” certainly manages to captures the desolate, barren essence of the black metal genre despite its overall European death metal formatting.

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.

The 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.