The long-revered Norwegian band called Mayhem was formed 30 years ago by guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, bassist Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, and drummer Kjetil “Manheim” Manheim, and over the past three decades, that band (or, more accurately, that band name) has experienced unparalleled turnover. There is no such thing as a classic-era Mayhem lineup, even though the band is responsible for three of black metal’s truly seminal documents: the Deathcrush demo/EP, released in 1987; the live recording Live In Leipzig, recorded in 1990 but not released till 1993; and the debut LP De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which was recorded in 1993 and released in 1994. During those years, Mayhem employed six different vocalists, four different bassists, three different drummers, and two different guitarists. The only member of Mayhem to appear on all three of the band’s classic records is Euronymous, and he was dead nine months before the release of De Mysteriis. Euronymous had been killed by the person who played bass on that album, Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grishnackh, aka Burzum), who was eight days into a 21-year prison sentence when De Mysteriis finally came out. Also behind bars by that point was Snorre “Blackthorn” Ruch — who played rhythm guitar on De Mysteriis — sentenced to eight years for serving as an accomplice to Vikernes in the murder of Euronymous. Also dead was Dead, aka Per Yngve Ohlin, who was Mayhem’s singer when they recorded Live In Leipzig, but killed himself in 1991.
That’s all Black Metal 101, of course, nothing unfamiliar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre, but it’s still essential to recount that stuff when talking about any of Mayhem’s incarnations — simply because there have been so many of them over the years, and through it all, the Mayhem brand has somehow retained a great deal of its value. Except for a brief period between 1993 and 1995 that immediately followed Euronymous’ passing (during which time De Mysteriis was actually, you know, released), Mayhem has continued to exist in some capacity: touring pretty frequently, and releasing compilations, live recordings, merch, and even, occasionally, a new album. Since the death of Euronymous, Mayhem has released three LPs — 2000’s Grand Declaration Of War, 2004’s Chimera, and 2007’s Ordo Ad Chao — and quite remarkably, all those albums are actually worthwhile. Whether they deserve to be attributed to Mayhem is open to debate. (By way of comparison, hypothetically: If this band were to release an album next year, would it be reasonable to sell the thing as the new Nirvana record?) Regardless, the band calling itself Mayhem has been held together since 1995 — presumably quite lucratively — by Necrobutcher (who played on Deathcrush and Live In Leipzig) and drummer Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg (who played on Live In Leipzig and De Mysteriis). Since 2004, they’ve been joined by vocalist Attila Csihar (who sang on De Mysteriis), making the Mayhem lineup of the last decade actually kind of … consistent.
Not totally consistent, though! While Necrobutcher, Hellhammer, and Attila give Mayhem a face and legitimate connection to Euronymous, they’re not the band’s primary songwriters: From 1995 – 2008, that role was played by guitarist Rune “Blasphemer” Eriksen (also of Aura Noir), who left Mayhem after 13 years due to creative and personal frustrations. In 2011, Mayhem recruited Nindingr’s Morten “Teloch” Iversen to play guitar and write songs, and this year will bring the first Teloch-penned Mayhem album (and the band’s fifth official LP overall), Esoteric Warfare. Teloch is a gifted guitarist with an ear for disquieting, nontraditional, progressive black metal, and his skills are put to good use in the Mayhem, whose music had always been disquieting, and had grown increasingly nontraditional and progressive behind Blasphemer. At this point, the band’s identifying component (beyond their name and logo) is Attila’s voice, one of the most unique and iconic in the history of the genre: It’s a croaky, mumbly, gurgly, deeply unsettling death rattle that feels like both high art and B-movie schlock; it’s totally inimitable yet frequently imitated, never to any great effect. Coming from the chest and throat of Attila, though, it’s a powerful thing. We’re premiering Esoteric Warfare track “Throne Of Time” today, and while it might not be Euronymous’ Mayhem — indeed, Euronymous almost certainly would not have approved of any of this — it absolutely captures the chilling, blackhearted spirit of the historic band at their brief, impossibly influential peak. Listen.
Esoteric Warfare is out 6/10 via Season Of Mist.