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.
To 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.