Woe to the man who tries to utter the name ‘Mayhem’ without also inviting the band’s redudantly notorious history into the conversation. Yet that is precisely what we will do in the present Throwback Thursday. We will take a stab at Mayhem’s 2014 album Esoteric Warfare rather than Euronymous. This essay will explore the band’s most recent album to date and take a look at just how much of the band’s reputation relies on continued musical prowess, while also asserting the state of the Norwegian black metal scene.
Old habits die hard. My university professor used to denounce — with a fair degree of regularity — my custom of gauging my initial interest in an art piece based on its geographical origin. He asserted, in the spirit of Roland Barthes, that the roots of the artist are irrelevant because his art is an entity in itself. Then again, this particular professor was a zealous post-modernist; a typical case of an academic who stacked theory upon theory, gradually losing all contact with reality, unbeknownst to himself, like a boiling frog in a study room. I live by a simpler principle: ideas that serve a pragmatic purpose in the real world have a right to exist.
Thus we arrive in the dog-eat-dog world that is black metal. With a supply that outnumbers the demand to the point of absurdity, you are forced to make a priori decisions about which artists and scenes are worth exploring, lest you bathe in mediocrity for the rest of your petty life.
A microcosm that never got over the impact of its heyday, the Norwegian black metal scene ran out of steam somewhere during the mid-nineties. Classic black metal bands either moved on to other styles or ceased their activities altogether. And while a few promising ‘avant-garde’-labelled releases hinted towards a bright future, most of their experiments had devolved into kitschy circus music by the time the millennium was drawing to a close. Realising just how futile it was to keep exploring the Norwegian scene in hope of finding a hint of its forlorn glory, I decided to just ignore all metal releases from Norway unless there was a genuinely auspicious release on the horizon.
Eventually I broke the promise I made to myself by succumbing to the buzz surrounding Mayhem’s recent work. With singer Attila Csihar having rejoined the band a decade ago, every subsequent release was surrounded by talk of music that rivalled their classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. So when Esoteric Warfare arrived in the summer of 2014, I wondered if this could indeed be the release that would end the sensation of profound, near-comatic boredom I experienced whenever someone dragged the Norwegian scene into a music discussion by its pretty blond hair.
Unfortunately, my negative bias was all the more confirmed. Every aspect of Esoteric Warfare tells the story of a band that fell into a permanent state of autopilot long ago. Compositions rely on frequent changes in tempo and rhythm, but do little in the way of building atmosphere or tension.
This lack of direction manifests itself on the opening track “Watcher” already. A few minutes in, the song’s mid-section sees the guitars play a variation of the main riff, as we are provided temporary relief from the mechanic percussive pounding of Hellhammer. However, this is where the composition ceases the exhaustion of its potential: there is little in the way of profundity or contrast, so when the main part kicks in again, we have been offered nothing to augment our understanding of the song. It is mere repetition, a technique that is justified when it manages to entrance the listener. Bluntly put, however, the riffs on this album are simply too uninspired to possess such qualities; rather than becoming entranced, the listener feels the urge to simply doze off.
Where DMDS was a work of urgency, Mayhem 20 years down the line delivers a standard, albeit technically apt exercise in black metal. It is a patchwork of dissonant riffs that express little sentiment, drowned in a uniform, bland production that makes Mayhem sound like any random ‘extreme metal’ band currently operating under a major label. Even after playing the album back-to-back multiple times, it remains extremely difficult to distinguish songs by means other than the samples they use.
It is both surprising and painful that Csihar’s performance underlines the complacency of this record, as his early work with Mayhem was controversial and divisive. His pseudo-operatic, off-key droning on DMDS made the music even more unsettling than it already was. Granted, not everyone liked it, but it stood for something. At the very least, it was a unique performance that has since never been duplicated. On Esoteric Warfare, however, Csihar’s vocals lack their former dominance and become part of the instrumental noise. Instead of commanding the music, he is pushed around by it. This time around, even this great artist fails to hit the target.
Let it be clear that yours truly respects all artists involved in the making of this album for their technical proficiency and their many monumental feats. But to maintain that Mayhem are the “reigning kings of the underground”, a claim dreamt up by the marketing division of Season of Mist during a delirious attack of PR platitude, holds no ground in the midst of a scene that has accrued so much evidence to prove the contrary. Whatever Mayhem offers in technical competence it concedes in spirit, with their latest full-length being a particularly lamentable example of form without essence. It is bitterly ironic that an album which alludes to esotericism in its title should turn out so generic and mundane.
I dug, and I found nothing. Except for confirmation that any focus on the Norwegian scene generates frustration. It either results in a hopeless quest for a spark of lost brilliance, or lamentation of what once was. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, the professor’s voice echoes in my head. And I will do no such thing. I will henceforth go back to simply ignoring the book by its cover and leave the judging to those who find more enjoyment in wading through mediocrity.