Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

Being of the intrepid type, I’ve always found myself driven towards plundering the deepest, darkest depths of underground music in a search for audio thrills. In my pursuit, I have stumbled upon a good deal of music that invokes levels of fear the likes of even a good horror movie (as oxymoronic as that may have become in the age of cheap scares and shaky cams) could accomplish. Whether swimming amid the turgid sea of wavelengths contained within Sunn O)))’s Black One and more recent Monoliths & Dimensions, bearing the bone-chilling screeches and distorted death cries on Prurient’s Black Vase or Wolf Eyes’ harrowing Human Animal, or cowering before the discordant riffage on Zu’s Carboniferous, my ears are no stranger to the needles and hammers doled out by the best of horror-friendly musicians. Sometimes, I even like to up the ante and listen to these records in a dark room or in the desolation of a forest at midnight. I enjoy these records for the thrill of the deranged mental place they can put me in: one of simultaneous terror and delighted fascination.

This record, however, deals in a different breed of terror entirely.

All of the aforementioned groups and records manage to convey fear through the careful use of eerily-toned instruments, deep, dark pummeling riffs, unconventional song structures, or some combination of all of these things, among others. Even if it was the explicit intent of the artists behind the music to strike fear in the intrepid listener, which, in most cases, it undoubtedly was, knowledge of the artists themselves is largely irrelevant to enjoying its frightening qualities. That being said, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas itself is not inherently creepy or disturbing. Seated firmly within the thrash/black metal trends of the era from which they hailed, Mayhem display their influences on their sleeves, with tremulous drumming and aggressive guitar riffage the likes of Bathory, Slayer, and Venom. Except Mayhem is different; all the stereotypes of wickedness and Satanism associated with heavy metal are true (or at least were true in their earlier years) in the case of this Norwegian black metal group. They sacrificed animals. They drew blood onstage. They burned down churches. Mayhem redefined “extreme metal.”

This record doesn’t strive in overt attempts to terrorize; in fact, it was never made with the intention to strike fear in the listener, at least not specifically. And yet, it could be one of the most disturbing albums I have ever listened to. This doesn’t sound like I’m in a horror movie; it captures not darkness like the others, but evil, as lame as it may sound. The source of this album’s frightening aspect comes from the perspective it gives on the darkest page in this malevolent group’s blackened history.

For those that are unfamiliar with the infamous Norwegian group, they became notorious in the early 90’s for a number of controversial events surrounding their earlier days. The group, being overtly Satanic, held underground concerts, often with the severed heads of cattle set up on pikes around the stage, and practiced their material in a cabin deep in the Norwegian woods. While De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was in recording, the band went through a number of line-up changes as a result of their violent tendencies. Their lead singer, nicknamed “Dead” for his general apathy for life, was, ever true to his name, found dead in this cabin, his wrists slit and his head blown apart by a shotgun by his own hand. Interviews with the guitarist Euronymous suggest that they did things that were “not normal” with the corpse, leading to rumors that the band made necklaces out of bits of his skull and meals out of his brains. That is, before Euronymous was brutally stabbed to death by bassist Varg Vikernes (aka Burzum) while they plotted to sabotage Nidaros Cathedral, depicted in the album cover.

It’s not simply the fact that the band was wicked that makes this album noteworthy. If the album was laughably bad, it would be no more interesting to me, or perhaps anybody else, than, say, the new Aiden album. No, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is so hauntingly infectious because, as a 90’s black metal album, it’s outstandingly good. After all, there’s a reason why every metal band this side of the millennium tries to prove their cred with a token Mayhem cover. This conflagration of distortion and avalanche of snare and cymbal threatens to tear you apart with an indefatigable energy from one song to the next.

From the get-go on “Funeral Fog,” they do nothing short of throw a wall of noise at you, with cymbals and snare that ring with the volume and frequency of a machine gun and gothic power chord melodies. Attila Csihar’s singing alternates between guttural belts and whispering that sounds kind of like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Unlike most other contemporary black metal acts, Mayhem possessed an air that delved beyond the whole “woe is me, to hell with the world” melodrama. They sounded like a band that has seen the depths of hell itself and is ready to rend the ground apart to shove it in your face. Just listening to the record makes me fear the capacity for wickedness in myself. I acknowledge the evil the band has dealt in and yet find myself more fascinated, perhaps even intrigued, than repulsed while listening. From the writhing demonic voice of Attila Csihar (who remains a member of the band today in between doing vocals for Sunn O)))) on opener “Funeral Fog” to the technical musicianship of “Pagan Fears” to the thrash and tremolo picking on “Buried By Time And Dust,” every riff plunders further and further into the dark abyss, I tagging along in mischievous anticipation.

Rather than wanting to call the cops and send these guys to prison, I feel as if I want to rock on that bloodstained stage alongside them, right between the giant pentagram and the dead goat. I want to know what goes on in their “black circle” for no reason other than morbid curiosity. And that’s what makes the album more frightening than what any screeching cacophony could pull off; it’s the sound of evil incarnate, but an appealing evil at that.

Though there have undoubtedly been better black metal albums both before and since this one, few are quite as terrifyingly dark as it is. The last time I heard this record was a loooong time ago and I’d forgotten why. Mayhem has bested me; I’ve found the one album that’s too scary for me to listen to again and again. Unlike all the other bands I’d heard, this one dealt in more than rage and darkness; Mayhem truly burned with the fires of hell. Listening to this record is like having a staring contest with the devil himself.

With the Count Grishnackh himself freshly out of prison for the first time in over 15 years and with a new Burzum album on the way, it seemed like as proper a time as any to write this look back on one of the strongest, most intimidating black metal albums ever made. My fellow writer Trevor has heard this new Burzum album Belus and apparently it’s very good, a first for Burzum, so keep a sharp eye for his new review. In the meantime, find a copy of Sathanas and delve in if you haven’t already. But make sure you have headphones, as you don’t want any passersby to think you’re a crazy murderer or anything.

Mason “Not a crazy murderer” McGough


1 Comment

  1. New Nostalgia Trips! « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, by Mason McGough […]

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