If pressed to provide a bullet-point history of Norwegian black metal, you’d most likely include the following: The singer from one band blew his head off with a shotgun, and his fellow band members made a stew of his brains and a necklace of his skull; several members of the scene were implicated in a series of church burnings that spread across the country in the mid ’90s; and a band’s temporary bass player killed that same band’s guitarist by stabbing him 23 times, two of those through the skull. The incidents are remarkable by themselves, a testament to a scene born in violence. What’s more remarkable is that all of them happened to the same band.
For much of their early career, Mayhem was the dark locus around which most of Norwegian black metal’s most notorious activities spiraled. It was their vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin — or Dead, as he preferred to be called — who killed himself, and it was guitarist Øystein Aarseth — Euronymous — who bragged of making both the bloody supper and the skull necklace (only the latter, it turned out, was actually true). And it was Burzum’s famous racist Varg Vikernes, arguably the scene’s most reprehensible character, who played bass on Mayhem’s classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and who stabbed Euronymous nearly two dozen times for reasons that, while generally unclear, do not seem to have warranted such an extreme reaction.
The problem with all of this is that when these kind of stories begin to swirl around a group of musicians, at a certain point, they go from being a band to being an archetype. In the endless recounting of the suicide (“He left a note that said, ‘Excuse all the blood’!”), the arson and the murder, the gruesome incidents become fantastical. You start to forget that they happened to real people.
Attilla Csihar, Mayhem’s frontman, has not forgotten. “It’s a very deep feeling for us,” he says, speaking via Skype. “These people were our brothers. They were our friends. And they passed away. People forget that this band was burned down to ashes. People died. Our friends died. It’s not a joke. It’s a dark and painful story. The band was ruined. The band was gone.” Up to this point, we’ve spent most of our conversation talking about Mayhem’s excellent seventh record Esoteric Warfare, easily the best album to bear the band’s name since the genre-defining De Mysteriis (on which Csihar also sang) and the first to make an ironclad case for their continued existence. For much of the call, Csihar has been enthusiastic and insightful, running me through the album’s knotty — and, frankly, brain-bending — themes. The minute the conversation turns to the past, he goes quiet. “We still feel a connection to those people, and we stand for the legacy of the band,” he says finally, “but we don’t like to talk about this too much.”
In some ways, this is understandable. Not only do the stories carry incredible emotional weight, but “the past” is also the starting point for most metal puritans’ complaints about modern-day Mayhem, and how far the group has strayed from their original blueprint. Their debut EP Deathcrush was a queasy, sickening distillation of concentrated evil. Featuring ghastly, decaying gasps from vocalist Maniac, the album catalogs a series of violent mutilations, each coldly, dispassionately relayed. Its tinny recording quality only adds to the aura of the forbidden, creating the sense that you’re listening to something you weren’t meant to hear. It’s the aural equivalent of accidentally stumbling across a grainy videotape depicting a ritual murder. Its follow-up, the harrowing De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, (or, About the Mysteries of Lord Satan) adds to Deathcrush‘s homicidal misanthropy a fierce devotion to Beelzebub. Devil worship and heavy metal have been intertwined since the genre’s earliest days, usually for little more than empty shock value, but the way it’s employed throughout Sathanas feels unnervingly real. On its title track, Csihar hisses, “In the circle of stone coffins/ We are standing with our black robes on/ Holding the bowl of unholy water/ Heic Noenum Pax (Here is no Peace)/ Bring us the goat.” Sathanas matches Deathcrush‘s crypt-cold production, but its songs are more frenetic and hellish. “Funeral Fog” is a grisly pileup of riffs, cutting jagged like a chainsaw over artillery-fire percussion. It is ruthless and malignant. Csihar’s vocal performance is the album’s centerpiece. Syllables get stuck in his ruined larynx and come out animalistic and inhuman; it’s the sound of a man with a direct line to the underworld. Some of the album’s bleak power undoubtedly comes from the knowledge that you’re listening to musicians who would, within months of recording the album, be the participants in a particularly brutal, violent crime; De Mysteriis stands as a kind of note from the afterlife from a band that should have ground to a full stop.
That Mayhem survived — in one form or another — to make more records couldn’t help but blunt the impact of the first two. Deathcrush and De Mysteriis feel like they were made by people who are either long since dead, or were never truly here to begin with — the covert recordings of some ancient ghoulish gathering. In the end, though, Mayhem were men, and the supernatural patina of those first two volleys soon gave way to the very human act of record-making. Six years later, after the stopgap EP Wolf’s Lair Abyss in 1997, the group released the spectacularly wrongheaded A Grand Declaration of War, a strange, sprawling concept record featuring strident, spoken-word vocals by Maniac, who comes across like a devil-worshipping Jean Valjean, over steadily-chugging death metal riffs. That AllMusic compares the record to Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime — and means it as a compliment — is perhaps the greatest indication of how far afield the band had drifted.
Chimera, released in 2004, was an attempt to right the ship, returning to the panicked riffing and infernal vocal delivery that characterized the group’s best work. But, though it was celebrated at the time, 2007′s Ord ad Chao ultimately feels like another misfire. The group talked up the album’s deliberately muddy production as an attempt to return to their primitive roots (“the production sounds necro as fuck,” is how Hellhammer described it in an interview with Extreme Drumming), but all it really does is make the songs sound muffled and bottom-heavy, drowning in a swamp of aural muck. On songs like “Deconsecrate,” the balance is so askew that the guitars and drums seem to liquefy into a kind of gurgling black river.
The one upside to Chao is that it marked the return of Csihar. By this point, the group’s lineup had mostly stabilized. Drummer Jan Axel Blomberd (Hellhammer) and bassist Jorn Stubberud (Necrobutcher) had mostly been on board since De Mysteriis and Deathcrush respectively (trying to keep more specific track of the various comings and goings of Mayhem members is a master statistician’s task). Though Maniac had provided vocals to three songs on Deathcrush (including “Chainsaw Gutsfuck,” which is more or less Mayhem’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”), Csihar’s voice — a toneless growl that sounds like someone attempting to grunt while sharply inhaling — is unquestionably creepier.
And he’s in fine form throughout Esoteric Warfare, on which Mayhem — with guitarists Teloch and Ghul taking over for the departed Blasphemer — exude a seething vitality. “I think I probably sang 70 percent of the album in one take,” he says. “With Ordo, it was really progressive, really complex. We thought [for this record], ‘Let’s find a way back to our origins, and make the new songs more punchy and aggressive.’”
And that’s exactly what they are. Opening with a chilling, two-note minor-key guitar phrase like someone leaning on hell’s doorbell, Warfare manages the trick both Grand Declaration and Ordo bungled — it aligns Mayhem with the current crop of more adventurous metal acts while keeping their dark core intact. “Trinity” is a sickening fit of bent, detuned riffing that first slows to a steady march, then speeds up to a heart attack, and then repeats the pattern over and over. “Pandaemon,” which opens with a whisper from Csihar, is three minutes of cold fury, the band pounding away wildly as if trying to jackhammer through the surface of the earth.
It’s an apt image for a band whose interests have always been decidedly infernal, but on Warfare, Mayhem begins to drift away from its decades-long war on Christianity. “Funeral Fog,” the first song on De Mysteriis, opened with Csihar hissing, “A dark fog will appear up from the tombs…to take one more life.” But the first four words on “Watchers” are as follows: “Nexus, Astral, Archon, Portal” — each conjuring images of outer space — and in its first verse, Csihar sings of “The ancient covenant outer races made upon mankind/ The genesis of human race…hybrid of alien genes.”
What follows is essentially a treatment for a black metal science-fiction film, in which the human race is manipulated, tortured and oppressed by malevolent alien beings. If that sounds hokey on paper, think about it this way: For the entirety of their career, Mayhem have been focused on attacking the ways in which people allow themselves to be manipulated by supernatural forces — namely, Jesus. Warfare takes that same notion and makes it metaphorical, shaking loose language that has, by this point, become metal cliché and finding ways to make their feelings about power and control more sinister.
“I have to find something that’s interesting for me, or I’d go crazy,” says Csihar. “Back in the ’80s, we just picked up occult stuff, and went, ‘Satan is blah blah blah’ — and that was very new and fresh back then. At the time I had maybe two books about the occult. But today, if you type ‘occult’ into Google, you have hundreds of thousands of pages. So I have to keep it fresh. I have to keep it true for myself.” The origins of Esoteric Warfare began with an idle investigation Csihar — who has a jones for the wilder end of historical theories — had been doing about geopolitics in the 1950s. “When I started digging into the Cold War, I discovered the theme of mind control,” he says. “And I really liked that — it worked on many levels. If you can control someone’s way of thinking — and if the person doesn’t realize they’re being controlled — you don’t need weapons anymore. It’s enough just to control people’s mind. I dug into it and found a lot of interesting stuff. And of course, it’s a Mayhem album, so I tried to find the most obscure and crazy things around this theme.”
Which brings us — naturally — to aliens. Or, rather, a specific race of aliens, the Vril-ya, who were the subject of an 1871 science fiction novel by the British writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who is perhaps more notable for having coined the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword”). In the novel, called Vril, the Power of the Coming Race, the aliens live in a series of underground catacombs and harness the all-conquering energy of a fluid called “Vril” to exact control over the human race. As it turns out, only the Vril-ya are able to control the Vril due to the power of their superior genetics. If all of this sounds uncomfortably like the notion of racial supremacy, that’s not exactly a coincidence: During the 1960s, a fringe theory held that the Nazis had communicated with the Vril-ya, who helped them build UFOs and harness the power of the Vril — again, owing to their superior genetics — to achieve world domination. It all comes off like some rough draft for Battlefield Earth, or a conspiracy theory cooked up in the loonier corners of the internet. It’s also awfully precarious ground for a band that has its roots in a scene noted for its obsession with “racial purity.”
“Well, it’s a bit spicy,” allows Csihar, perhaps understating things. “But let’s face facts — these are historical things. And I think Nazis are crazy — I say fuck that shit. It’s fucking bullshit. But the Nazis called their spacecraft ‘Vril.’ And then I learned about ‘Vril,’ and it was this form of energy — which I think refers to atomic energy — this form of esoteric energy that can blow up the whole world. You know, before they detonated the first atomic bomb, nobody knew what was going to happen. There was a whole secret operation around it that was almost like a ritual.”
On Warfare‘s “Trinity,” the code name for the secret detonation of the first atomic bomb — that ritual is re-enacted, with Csihar and a demonic chorale chanting: “Vril! Babylon. Vril! Antichrist. Vril! Rocketeer. Vril! Trinity.” The theme carries over into “MILAB,” which gets its name for the acronym for “Military Abductions.” In the song, a patient awakes on an alien gurney impregnated with an extraterrestrial baby, but if you take the aliens as stand-ins for racial supremacists, its lyrics become more harrowing: “The seed is implanted/ I was chosen to carry/ They told me to be proud/…hall of nightmares/ Dark rift of the soul.” The album also references the Velon, an alien race believed to be controlling the Illuminati and the Masonic Order to bring about world domination.
“With the alien stuff, it’s close to religion,” Csihar says. “Nobody’s seen a god before, but lots of people believe in God. It’s the same with aliens or UFOs, nobody’s seen it, but there are millions and millions of people who claim to have been abducted. Even I’ve had some visions that I couldn’t explain — these light things, this strange feedback. When so many people talk about it, I think it’s interesting. It’s the same themes that every Mayhem record is about, but this time, instead of using demons, I put it in extraterrestrial context.”
According to Warfare, alien civilizations on earth — be they Vril, Velon or otherwise — predate the human race by centuries, and have been lurking undetected ever since. “I’m pretty sure there was a civilization on this planet which had advanced technology that we don’t know much about,” says Csihar. “I’ve seen evidence of that, like monoliths in Lebanon — these 900-ton pieces of stone that were transported before the Roman times. Or if you go to Bolivia, this 4000-meter-high plateau — it looks like a Star Wars set, man. It’s something unexplainable. We know today one would need a laser or diamond-edged cutting machine and this is thousand-year old stuff. In Turkey, they found this surface buried in the ground that looks like Stonehenge — big monoliths with sculptures and stuff. It probably goes back to the Ice Age. This is something you can touch — it’s not a book, it’s not a legend.”
The rest of the record deals with mind control, and its implications, during the time of the Second World War. In “Throne of Time,” hypnotic radio waves result in Satanic ritual abuse. In “PsyWar,” humans are used as lab rats. “There are so many dark stories about the secret operations after the Second World War — kids with psychic abilities being abused in the Second World War and thereafter,” he says. “I think they realized that if you start a nuclear war, you finish the whole world. I think that’s why they went into mind control more and more — this psychological warfare was going on. They were trying to find out how to control people’s minds. And then you get to this ‘Perfect Soldier’ idea, where you erase someone’s mind and reprogram them — that’s very heavy.” Csihar’s fascination isn’t hard to understand. All of this squares with themes that have recurred throughout the band’s work: That people are easily led, that there are sinister forces — disguised as benevolent authority figures — bent on control, and that the end result of all of this is sad, final, total annihilation. “There were a lot of experiments with sleep deprivation, people ate and then were kept in hunger; they could sleep, they couldn’t sleep. They were breaking their will.” On Warfare, the brainwashing plays out in real-time, always to devastating results. For a band that once thrived on being the aggressors, Warfare‘s solemn take on the aftermath of brainwashing is a marked about-face. “Lost chance for life,” Csihar declares grimly in “Posthuman,” “Mass extinction/ Coffin planet thrown away.”
“The mind is really crucial on many levels,” Csihar says. “So I was thinking, ‘Put it in a Mayhem context, and let’s suppose this isn’t positive. Suppose it’s very negative. Someone could really abuse these techniques.’ There are extreme theories. Some people believe that microwave ovens are controlling our minds.” He pauses briefly. “I mean, I don’t believe in anything, but I think it’s really interesting.”
Like most Mayhem records, Warfare ends with no resolution. Its protagonists — namely, us — are “lost in a lost world,” endlessly, hopelessly wandering through a “labyrinth of time.” It all feels appropriately purgatorial — dead souls moving trancelike through time, neither being nor not being, stuck somewhere in a state of suspended consciousness. And though the set dressing scans like a ’50s B-Movie, there’s something unnervingly real about it — an uncomfortable truth lurking behind the prop spaceships and secret government laboratories. “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” goes one particularly well-chosen sample on the record, and its appearance brings into sharp relief Mayhem’s most uncomfortable attribute: They force us to stare at death. Whether it’s the bloody suicide photo of former frontman Dead, his brains spilled on the carpet, appropriated for the cover of the live album Dawn of the Black Hearts or the masses marching to a funeral pyre on Warfare‘s “Corpse of Care,” it’s always there, knit into the band’s DNA from the beginning. And it’s not a peaceful journey into the light or a passing from one world into a better one. It’s brutal and empty, and it stinks of rotting flesh. It is cold and terrifying and inevitable.
“I think sometimes about the members who passed away,” Csihar says. “And I try to incorporate their spirit into what we’re doing now. When I sing or record or write lyrics, I try to keep that feeling. I try to remember what was the driving force. And I hope that feeling is still there. And I hope we succeed.”