Style: Black Metal
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
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For being one of the most influential bands in extreme metal, Mayhem are far from the most prolific, this being only their sixth studio album since they formed way back in 1984. Their debut, 1994's De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, is a pivotal black metal classic and I remember them from before that. I wish I'd bought a copy of their Deathcrush EP when Tommy Vance played the title track on the Friday Rock Show back in 1987. I hate to think what that's worth now.
One of the benefits of only knocking out an album every five or six years is that it allows for easy reinvention with less likelihood of pushback from a rabid fanbase. This is Mayhem trying something different yet again, even as they combine the dynamic play of more recent releases like Esoteric Warfare with formative approaches taken back on that debut album, which they've been playing live in entirety for a few years now.
What's new here is how impressionistic this all is and I'm not just talking about the lyrics which make zero specific sense in isolation but combine to create a broader impression than any one song can provide. In this instance, we're talking about Hell, which we're presumably looking at from a different point of view, that of the daemon of the title and the gorgeous cover art by Daniele Valeriani.
The classical style of that cover art seems important to me because this is less of an album to me, a collection of songs, and more a performance piece, like an opera. I found it hard to just listen to the music, because I saw it too, unfolding on a carefully furnished stage in an ornate European theatre. It's in the music but especially in an array of otherworldly sounds that are conjured up within it and the versatile vocal performance of Attila Csihar.
I adored what Csihar did here. There are points where he provides the usual black metal shrieks, but he stalks that stage with a commanding presence, as he orders and explains, reacts and sneers, suggests and gloats. I also felt that he wasn't just playing one part, but all of them. He's the torturer and the tortured both, plus the daemon responsible for what both of them do. The effect sometimes conjures up opera singers, Orthodox liturgy or even ritual sacrifice. It's a heady mix and it's the primary reason this performance art is so effective.
While the most obvious comparisons on a Mayhem album are to previous Mayhem albums, it's worth bringing up Celtic Frost once again here. When the early Mayhem wandered around the extremes to trawl in outrageous sounds, the most obvious source for what would become Mayhem was probably Bathory, hence the classification of black metal, but they took a lot from Venom and, arguably more than ever on this album, a heck of a lot from Celtic Frost.
This dark ambient emulation of fires and stakes and pain all came from them and it's rarely been done better because it's not here just in one track of sound effects, it's here in hints and impressions buried to the exact right degree in many of the songs. Was that a guitar or a scream? Was that a drum roll or the kindling underneath another personal inferno? Was that an aside from Csihar or the response to the arrival of a fresh soul to torment?
It takes a while for any Mayhem album to fully soak into our souls, but I'm half a dozen listens into this one and I'm feeling the flames of damnation flickering at my toes. It's in the stubbornly slow bass in The Dying False King and the grandeur of the summoning drums in Invoke the Oath. It's in the ritual elements of Daemon Spawn and the tolling mantra of Everlasting Dying Flame.
This is hardly music for every rock fan, but those who have been waiting for it since Esoteric Warfare in 2014 will be in heaven now that it's here. OK, maybe not literally; what an unfortunate choice of words that was! Suffice to say that this is already my favourite Mayhem album and they set the bar pretty high when they started out.