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Mayhem for beginners (part 1)

Mayhem is one of the bands that make up the metal and extreme branch of the 2012 San Miguel Primavera Sound programme. But it is not just any band; it is - in Javier Calvo’s opinion - the last great revolutionary band of the 20th century, the maximum expression of black metal. Enter the circle...

1.

How can we calibrate the relative importance of a band that plays extreme music? This is a question that I’ve asked myself many times, and there is no easy answer. The problem isn’t that extreme music groups are a minority, or that critics don’t take them seriously. In fact, it’s highly arguable whether a single canon even exists in the appreciation of popular music of recent decades. If we were going to formulate one based on the music media and “cultured” audiences, nevertheless, we would find the usual procession of Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Wilco, Tom Waits and other sacred cows. We wouldn’t find Burzum, Merzbow, Throbbing Gristle and the rest of the sacred cows of noisy screamers. But although they may not appear on the lists of albums of the year, this second group is praised by a sector of specialised criticism and occupies a small but respected position in the “independent” press. There is, however, a generalised belief that they are not playing in the major leagues of musical creation, and that their goal is not necessarily to make good music, but rather to satisfy the unhealthy urges of their somewhat disturbed audience.

I believe that the main explanation comes from the attitude of extreme music bands themselves. It may be that in many cases, musical extremism (noise, to be clear) is approached as a sound exploration, but there is no doubt that it also has an element of confrontation, a desire to scare away the respectable and reject the music scene in general. Noise is only one of the self-excluding strategies of extreme music. The extreme music scene has traditionally used many more. The facial make-up of black metal or the tattoos, piercings and military clothing of neo-folk and industrial groups are elements clearly designed to alienate the uninitiated. In this sense, although one can’t speak of subcultures to define the extreme music scene, it has always behaved like a subculture, even when it is more intellectual. Another of its self-excluding strategies is the creation of musical patterns where innovation barely comes into play. This is why all neo-folk bands sound like Death In June, or all black metal bands, sound like Mayhem sounded in ‘89.

So all of these (obvious) arguments explain why today it’s hard to ask oneself how historically important Mayhem is, or to what extent it’s a classic or canonical band. Obviously it’s a vital influence within the black metal subculture, and its history of violence has been integrated into popular culture. But in general, if I go to a “serious” music critic or listener and I talk about how great Mayhem is, they invariably give me a patronising smile. It makes no difference if I tell them that you needn’t like metal to understand and enjoy Mayhem. I suppose the reaction is understandable. With these notes, I intend to explain (at least in summary) why I think that Mayhem is one of the best bands of the last 30 years. Not one of the best extreme music bands. Not one of the best metal bands. Possibly one of the five best contemporary music bands in the last three decades. This is, therefore, like the title says, a proselytising column. Something designed to be read outside of the subculture, passing right over the noise and the corpse paint and the onstage eccentricities and other sinister, often parodied stage elements used in black metal. If you are a black metal fan, don’t read this column. This is Mayhem for beginners.

2.

Before I forget about black metal, I would like (of course) to speak briefly about black metal. For many years, I have been saying that I think that BM is the last great musical vanguard of the 20th century. If we compare it with a previous revolutionary movement like punk, the differences are plain to see. Punk was a vanguard generated in the centre of the musical system, in the metropolis, with marketing machinery at work, with media attention, and with a clearly commercial purpose. BM was born absolutely on the outskirts, in a basement in Oslo, invented by a dozen teenagers without any training at all, disaffected Tolkien and metal fans, like the ones there are in all of the suburbs in the world. It was a genuinely pagan movement, in the sense of barbarian, outside of the frontiers of the empire. Both punk and BM created music largely disconnected from tradition. Freedom from the technical requirement of performance gave punk its Dadaist energy. BM followed a similar course: setting aside the idea of knowing how to play instruments, it invented a trademark sound that had nothing, or almost nothing, to do with metal - but more to do with minimalism, noise, and drone, to which it added its famed ghostly voice and an eccentric show of make-up, gore, and medieval weapons.

"Its famous burning of churches was in reality based on the fact that these same churches were built on the sacred sites of the old religion"

Punk was born with an ideology, a strange mixture of anarchy, teenage rebellion, amphetamine bounce, and the personal ideas of one John Lydon. BM cloaked itself from the very beginning in an ideological device. The way the dozen teenagers who invented the genre chose to rebel against the system was to revolt against the official Christian Lutheranism that informs Norwegian ethics, and they did so blandishing Viking ethics as a sort of antidote. As it is a tremendously violent ethic, it became an (excessive, as would soon be seen) vehicle for the angst of its believers. Their neo-Viking ethic had elements that were very exciting from a cultural point of view. Its moral cornerstone was the vindication of the indigenous religion annihilated by Christianity between the 11th and 13th century, one of the richest, most fabulous old European religions in mythological terms, and which had lasted the furthest into the Middle Ages before being eradicated. Its rejection of Christian ethics in this sense - as something foreign, strange, and malignant - was no more preposterous than the historical revisionism of feminist or post-colonial academia. Its famous burning of churches was in reality based on the fact that these same churches were built on the sacred sites of the old religion, which were symbolically re-appropriated in this manner. The most fascinating thing about it, though, is that BM came to all of this in a purely intuitive way, without any type of training or intellectual baggage. They were literally a handful of teenagers, led ideologically by Varg Vikernes, who carried out a campaign of religious affirmation unparalleled in modern Europe. Not an affirmation of theoretical paganism, but rather a temporary resurrection (from 1990 to 1994) of the Viking world, including the famous burning of churches, suicides, and murders. It was a shock to the system whose echoes are still resounding today in Norway.

As a popular phenomenon, BM has followed a different, paradoxical course. First it underwent a period of enormous unpopularity, from the moment that the media spread news of the first violent actions until Vikernes went to prison; during this phase BM became a violent, satanic, Nazi caricature. After some years and the passing of the trauma of the violent legend, came a period of popularity. BM was glamorised by a later generation of creators, starting with Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” and continuing with best-sellers and films like “Lords Of Chaos”, and BM’s integration into mainstream popular culture. To me, Peter Beste’s luxurious book of photographs represents the epitome of the genre’s adoption by trendy culture. Currently, and for about the last five years or so, much of independent, experimental rock has been permeated by BM, taking it in as a growing influence.

Much has been said about the evolution of BM, but the truth is that the very idea of BM is contrary to evolution. The later invention of musical precedents for the genre was carried out with the intention of dignifying the music by attributing a tradition to it, especially a tradition of musicians who knew how to play instruments and who were Anglo-Saxon. The operation seems absurd to me. The alleged precedents were metal bands, speed or thrash, or those 80s subgenres, while Mayhem - from the first album - was not a metal band. Chroniclers who invent the genealogy of BM skip over the most important thing. In the same way, BM as an idea cannot evolve. It can only evolve by not being BM, by giving up its minimalist, catatonic approach to go back to being metal, Gothic rock, punk, folk or any of the other paths taken by BM bands that stopped being BM bands. Strictly speaking, there were only half a dozen true BM bands, the ones that made up Euronymus’ Black Inner Circle – Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, Inmortal, Darkthrone and Thorn s– and they were only BM in their early years. Later bands, even pioneers like Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, Gorgoroth, Ulver or Carpathian Forest, of the so-called “True Norwegian Black Metal”, limited themselves to repeating a formula, or popularising it, or even diluting its ideas (although many of them are fantastic bands). BM was something too intense and wild, a unique explosion that left an expansive wave that was not soon forgotten; even so, it didn’t last longer than three or four years. In 1994 BM no longer existed. It had killed itself off.

So what is left of Black Metal today? What is left, beyond that pop image of tall, slim Norwegians with corpse paint, stereotypes, jokes on YouTube and the infinite replication of the same music and stage formulas? The answer is very simple. One thing remains. Mayhem.

3.

Burzum became a folk musician, possibly the most important European folk musician of the new century, reclaiming his Norwegian roots and mixing drones with mythology. Immortal became a conventional metal band. Darkthrone went punk. Emperor embraced symphonic music and broke up. Everyone went in different directions. Very few artists today continue to do anything interesting in the line of BM, although many use it as a banner for seeming dark or dangerous. Mayhem, on the other hand, never stopped being Mayhem. For a quarter of a century they have continued to make the same music, and even though they are the ones who invented it, they are the only ones who have never fallen into formulas or repeated themselves. With a working rhythm that is slow and thoughtful, (four albums and two mini-albums in 25 years), they have never released an album that wasn’t wild, strange, controversial, and intended to alienate both strangers and their own. To talk about their career is to talk about a band that has unceasingly reinvented itself, that has always experimented, yet has never managed to stop sounding like itself - although the changing of vocalists (the two main vocalists have alternated over the years) has threatened to tear down one of its basic identifying features. But although the later evolution of the Mayhem sound deserves an attention that it has almost never, in my opinion, been given outside of the specialised metal media, one cannot understand what Mayhem is without first speaking in-depth about its legendary first album, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” .

When “DMDS” was conceived of in 1990, its two main ideologues, Øystein Aarseth, alias “Euronymous”, and Per Yngve Ohlin, alias “Dead”, were embarked on a real crusade against what they saw as the falseness and stupidity of the music world. They wanted to make the best album in history; to do so, they surrounded themselves with the best musicians in their inner circle and they gave themselves up to a tortuous composing process (the first album ideas and plans date back to 1987). They were considered the great cult band on the scene, legendary for their savageness and evilness, and had dozens of vulgar imitators who had more albums and played much more often than they did. Their only official album at that time was “Deathcrush” (1987), an EP with five singularly brutal, dark death metal songs; songs that would later become classics, like “Deathcrush”, “Pure Fucking Armageddon” and “Chainsaw Gutfuck” (which the magazine Blender voted years later to contain the Most Repulsive Song Lyrics in History).

Aarseth and Ohlin agreed that it wasn’t enough. They wanted things to be “ more serious and extreme”, and they repudiated death metal for having become popularised and dealing with “social problems” and “normal things”. Those two were interested in “making evil music for evil people”, in setting up a “cult to death” and achieving “the most brutal show possible on a stage”. There were few Mayhem concerts and they were disappointing for the band, who found themselves unable to create a satisfactory level of brutality, something that must have been a continual challenge to the musicians’ imaginations. In his famous final interview before his death in 1991, in the midst of the process of conceiving of “DMDS”, Ohlin said the following:

We haven’t had a real gig yet, three shows in Norway, only one with parts of our stage show. We had some impaled pig heads, and I cut my arms with a weird knife and a crushed Coke bottle. We meant to have a chainsaw, but the guy who owned it had left when we came to get it. That wasn’t brutal enough. Most of the people in there were wimps and I don’t want them to watch our gigs! Before we began to play, there was a crowd of about 300 in there, but in the second song, “Necrolust” we began to throw around those pig heads. Only 50 were left, I liked that! The non-evil wimps shall not listen to our music. We had a great time throwing the heads on each other. I got angry at some idiots who had their heads up in the air, so I wiped the blood on my arms all over again. We wanna scare those who shouldn’t be at our concerts, and they will have to escape through the emergency exit with parts of their body missing, so we can have something to throw around. Some imagine for some weird reason that Death Metal is something normal and available for everyone.

"I suppose we’ll never know for sure whether Aarseth really fried a piece of his friend’s brain or made ritual necklaces with splinters of his skull, although there is no lack of witnesses to corroborate it"

As everyone knows, neither Aarseth nor Ohlin was around to see the album released. Dead was the first official victim of the wave of black metal deaths. Aarseth knew how to exploit his friend’s death, quickly buying a disposable camera after finding his body (he had slit his wrists and blown a hole in his head with a shotgun) and setting up the scene for the photo session from which would come the cover for “Dawn Of The Black Hearts”. I suppose we’ll never know for sure whether Aarseth really fried a piece of his friend’s brain or made ritual necklaces with splinters of his skull, although there is no lack of witnesses to corroborate it. Aarseth survived a couple of years longer. After Ohlin’s death, Euronymous seemed to lose his head and, according to his allies, “he tried to be as extreme as he had always said”. He took the helm of black metal and “under his reign, the black metal scene began its obsession with everything evil”. He became the idol of a new generation of teenagers who quickly left everything behind to form black metal bands and spend their time in the basement of Helvete [Hell], the record shop that Euronymous had just opened. He called that group of youths his “Black Inner Circle”, from which would come the first Black Metal bands. Of all of his disciples, the most outstanding was Varg Vikernes, a former Nazi skinhead five years younger than him, whom he took on as a bass player in Mayhem and gave his first solo opportunity as well, under the name of Burzum. Vikernes was with Aarseth at the majority of the wave of church burnings perpetrated by black metal musicians. It seems that he developed a certain enmity with his mentor before murdering him by stabbing him 23 times, fascinated with Aarseth’s ideas and his own ideas of Viking supremacy. By then, however, the stabbings and fires had already spread throughout Norway. Vikernes was found with 150 kilos of explosives and 3,000 firearm cartridges when they went to his home to arrest him. Vikernes declared that he killed Euronymous when he found out that he had plans to murder him. By 1994, Aarseth and Ohlin’s dream of unleashing brutality had become a reality.

The deaths of Euronymous and Dead delayed the release of “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” by almost three years. When the album finally hit the streets, though, it turned out to live up to its original mentors’ wildest dreams. Dead two years earlier, Ohlin hadn’t recorded vocals for the album, so he was replaced by a young Attila Csihar, who changed Ohlin’s style of blood-curdling screams and howls of agony (see the live show “Live In Leipzig”) to strange, hallucinatory voices, somewhere between whispering and the guttural yelping of a stifled throat. But it was the music that had changed to an extreme that no one could have imagined. Today we are familiar with the original sound of black metal - what there was before all of the artifice and keyboards and symphonic touches - but hearing it for the first time must have given people those goose bumps that you get when you are witnessing a turning point in history. The rhythm section alternates spells of hair-raising funereal catatonia with insane furies of blows so fast that the human ear can’t distinguish them and experiences a profound feeling of stasis. The guitars raise a wall of indistinct sound, a single buzzing chord whose slow chord changes sound completely mystical. A minute into the first song, “Funeral Fog”, one is practically hypnotised by the atmosphere and the magma of noise, and then the voice comes in. Again, today we know this vocal style called “necro”, but I couldn’t help imagining listening to that album for the first time without ever having heard all of the later imitations. Its eight classic songs, each lasting about six minutes, operate in a certain sense as movements of a larger piece, a feeling intensified by their similar themes and musical writing, but they also give a strange (and placid) feeling of deepening, like eight levels of a liturgy, or perhaps eight chambers of a mystical progression. It can’t be a coincidence that both Aarseth - before his death - and Vikernes admitted themselves to be religious souls who were working on music to give voice to their respective faiths.

Because in a way horror is present in “De Mysteriis Dom Satanas”, but it is not at all the dominant sensation - at least not in the same way as in the ultraviolent, tearing “Deathcrush”. There is something fabulous here, a journey down into a remote, hidden world whose promise is as horrible as it is desirable. The subject of the lyrics that Dead wrote for “DMDS” is the past; the past that returns, which one enters of his own free will, often through sacrifice or suicide, or rather one that arises out of the darkness to take his revenge. Although they are not as sophisticated or as informed by myths as Vikernes’ lyrics for Burzum (the former skinhead Vikernes was always the closest thing to an intellectual that the group had), Dead’s lyrics transmit the idea of a liturgy of communion with the past fabulously, a bloody ritual where Viking cadavers and anti-Christian deities invade the present:

The bloody history from the past / Deceased humans now forgotten / An age of legends and fear / A time now so distant. // Less numbered as they were their lives / So primitive and pagan / Superstitions were a part of the life / So unprotected in the dark nights. // Pagan fears / The past is alive / The past is alive. // Woeful people with pale faces / Staring obsessed at the moon / Some memories will never go away / And they will forever be here”. ( “Pagan Fears”) .

The theme of the desire for death, which already appeared in “Deathcrush”, appears here transformed into a clearly mystical desire for self-annihilation and fusion with the absolute:

A dream of another existence / You wish to die / A dream of another world / You pray for death. // To release the soul one must die / To find peace inside you must get eternal. // I am a mortal, but am I human? / How beautiful life is now when my time has come / A human destiny, but nothing human inside / What will be left of me when I'm dead? / There was nothing when I lived”. (“ Life Eternal”)

Once again, the most astonishing thing about this album is the fact that the young men who made it came up with its key points in a completely intuitive manner. There is nothing in the music that they could have heard during those years or in the books that they could have read that would have given them any clue for the musical or thematic discoveries that they were making. Their handling of the legends, for example, can be understood as an allusion to a fantasy world that still informed most metal imagery. However, the lyrics of the album manage to skilfully redirect this world of legends to the subject of a repressed Norwegian historical memory:

Ancient times legends stories so dark / Blackened his sight / Now not even the memories are left / Back after such a long time / The stone is cold as death / But what formed its true fears / Only the wind is able to tell. // Tell me - what did you see there / In the darkness - of the past”. (“ From The Dark Past”).

Years later, after Burzum, Immortal and Darkthrone, that Nordic mythological-nationalist component would be explicit, but in this album it is something fresh, a revolutionary idea. The same can be said of its handling of figures like that of the vampire or the dead being dug up from the grave - alluded to by the corpse paint, blood on their mouths and arms, and the hangman’s ropes. In “DMDS” that man dug up is clearly the violent Norwegian ancestor annihilated by Christian ethics: “I've been old since the birth of time / Time buried me in earth / centuries ago I tasted blood / Buried by time and dust” (“ Buried By Time And Dust”). It’s perfect that the album ends with the title song, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”; the most explicit exaltation of ruins, pagan magic, and a warrior past in the entire album, even though it is in the (tenuous) guise of a satanic hymn:

Welcome! / To the elder ruins again / The wind whispers beside the deep forest / Darkness will show us the way (…) / Heic Noenum Pax / Here is no peace / De Grandae Vus Antiquus Mulum Tristis & Arcanas Mysteria Scriptum / The book’s blood written pages open / Invoco Crentus Domini De Daemonium / We follow with our white eyes / The ceremonial proceeding”.

[To be continued]

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