Chaos to Order to Chaos Again

Mayhem get a bad rap (dear God, pardon the paradox). Truth be told, that’s mostly their own fault, considering that they spent the early part of their career burning churches along with killing themselves and eachother. And during that burnin’ and killin’ phase, unsurprisingly, their music was rather lackluster. Actually, to pretty much anyone outside the scene, the music was terrible.  Like with most “true” black metal, I consider it a had-to-be-there kind of thing.

Of course, having your bass player stab your guitarist (who also wrote most of your music) is something that would sink most bands, as it did Mayhem… for a while. The band returned in the late ’90s to put out by far the best and most diverse music of its career, which of course was overshadowed by the music made by the God-deflin’, stabbin’ incarnation of the band. This is a shame too, as the band’s latter work shows a lot of forward-thinking, something almost universally absent in black metal.

The main reason why they got so significantly better was due to Blasphemer (who along with former bandmates Maniac and Necrobutcher easily have the worst pseudonyms in black metal), the man who would replace Euronymous (actually, add him to the worst pseudonym list as well) on guitar. While Euronymous’ work has probably suffered due to 14 years of being regurgitated by every Johnny Necro in the black metal biz, Blasphemer’s writing seems to go above on beyond not only black metal standards but metal standards as well, probably coming closest to evoking Wagner without getting an orchestra or synthesizer involved (and, in fact, even closer than them, as metal and orchestras have yet to yield any decent result, as far as I’m concerned). His riffs manage to be both stately and raw, the precise middle point that all things heavy should aspire to. Add to that that Blasphemer took the reins as head songwriter as well transformed Mayhem from a bunch of guys in face paint worshiping Satan and occasionally killing eachother to a dare I say mature black metal band trying to push the genre past its inherent silliness and genuinely try to make it a force of fucking nature.

Ordo ad Chao, Mayhem’s latest album, is the best representation of this era of the band, as the band’s former vocalist (the one that was kicked out of the band for drinking and getting thrown down a flight of stairs, not the one that killed himself and had bits of his skull worn as jewelery by the other band members) Maniac sounded a little like a chain smoking ally cat being gang raped. The music and production on the last album he appeared on, 2004’s Chimera, was astounding enough to make the listener not as focused on that (well, after a few listens). But Ordo ad Chao hearkens the return of Attila Csihar, the vocalist on Mayhem’s first full length De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. But while Attila’s vocals on that album are certainly atypical for black metal– certainly a considerable feat, at the time– they were also laughably bad. And while one got the sense that they were meant to be that way– more performance art than botched sepulchral emoting– it hindered the experience of listening to the album. The Attila Csihar of Ordo ad Chao is the fully realized version of his De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas predecessor, using his vocal quirks to go along with the music instead of separating itself from it. He jumps back and forth between postapocalyptic carnival barker to weeping asylum inmate to seemingly typical black metal rasping and death metal growling to finger-wagging prophet, often in the course of one song, as Ordo ad Chao‘s near 10 minute epic “Illuminate Eliminate” would suggest. Csihar managed to bring enough avant garde to black metal to keep it interesting, yet still manages to work within Mayhem’s savage heaviness. That in itself makes the album worth it.

Of course, what makes Ordo ad Chao such an exceptional record is that all the elements are there. Hellhammer’s drumming has also matured, seemingly taking a page from the “throw some mind-blowing fills in there whenever the riffs are at risk of becoming stale” chapter of Mastodon’s How-To book, keeping the album at an almost constant forward momentum. Blasphemer’s playing is both metal-heavy and punk rock sloppy, yet never at a point where it doesn’t sound like the man doesn’t know what he’s doing. And as far as his composing goes, Ordo ad Chao seems to be a direct response to the relative-accessibility of Chimera, creating a thick wall of blackened apocalyptic madness that seems almost impenetrable on the first few listens. Part of this wall is the production, which is terrible. But terrible production is the norm in black metal; that being said, I don’t think a band has ever used grimy production to its favor as well as Mayhem has on this album. The music is easily the most elevated, technical, and intense in all of Mayhem’s catalog, but one never gets the sense that it’s not being created by any more than a few Norwegian guys (well, and one Hungarian, as Attila Csihar is literally from Transylvania. I hear they have a great Quizno’s there) in a room together: the drums are unequalized, meaning they sound as drums usually sound when you’re standing right in front of them (also meaning the ride symbol is often the loudest thing you’ll hear, which is something I’m used to associating with Songs in the Key of Life more than anything); the guitar’s a fuzzy mess and ripples with reverb  every time the full band comes to a halt, something that’s usually shaved off in post-production. At first, it sounds like the band rushed this into existence, not bothering to take the extra week to master the album. But further listens make the band’s intent clear: the album just sounds fucking RAW without proper production values, hearkening back more to hardcore than their basement kvlt black metal brethren. It’s music that doesn’t need gloss to make it appealing, something the likes of their contemporaries in Darkthrone have been striving for for years and yet have never actually achieved.

So, with what could very well be Mayhem’s best album yet, Blasphemer has quit the band, citing that he doesn’t think the band has a future. Seeing as both Attila and Hellhammer play in dozens (no really, actually dozens) of other bands and Necrobutcher (yes, I take the bass stylings of Necrobutcher to task!) didn’t even play on Ordo ad Chao, he may have a point. A Mayhem without Blasphemer really signals the end for the band, as third incarnations tend to take advantage of the good will of the band’s fanbase as opposed to resulting in anything remotely good (see: Genesis, Van Halen, Chicago– Jesus Christ, who the hell is even in Chicago anymore?). And that’s a damn shame, as Mayhem had just made an album that harnesses the kind of evil and endtimes chaos that black metal has been meandering around for the last twenty or so years.


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