Black to the future 

Mayhem outlives its dark metal past

Despite all its trappings, heavy metal is just another form of rock 'n' roll. And virtually every notable rock band has a good story or two behind it. Mayhem, one of the innovators of a strain known as black metal, has a storied history that rivals just about any rock act in memory. Their past is a web of characters and events seemingly born in the mind of a thriller novelist. In the early '90s, against the backdrop of the frozen hills of Oslo, Norway, two members of the group lost their lives. Vocalist Dead fulfilled the destiny implied by his chosen moniker by taking his own life with a shotgun. Two years later the band founder and guitarist Euronymous was stabbed to death by another black metaller.

These tragic events might not have been considered newsworthy were it not for the many circumstances surrounding them. First there was the morbid and violent nature of Mayhem's music and image. Begun in the mid '80s, the group attempted to up the ante of their mentors Venom and Bathory by churning out a dark, sickeningly primal form of anti-Christian heavy metal. Plus, they surrounded themselves with weaponry while cloaking their bodies in leather and ghastly make-up, appropriately called "corpsepaint."

When others in the loosely tied group of Oslo-area black metal enthusiasts became involved in the incineration of several ancient churches and yet more murders, Mayhem found themselves caught up in a nationwide satanic panic. Norwegian tabloids splashed shots of demonic-looking young men next to stories of criminal deeds nefarious enough to make the activities of our Ozzy-controlled suburban teenagers look timid in comparison. These sensational events eventually found their way to America in the form of articles in Spin, Penthouse and eventually a full-length book.

But to be in a band that makes aggressive, anti-authoritarian music is one thing. To perpetrate crimes is another. And while Mayhem was, along with Emperor and Darkthrone, one of the core groups bonding the local black metal heads together, it shouldn't be forgotten that they themselves broke no laws.

As I spoke on the phone with Maniac, the original vocalist for the now reunited Mayhem, we reflected on the effect this unbelievable history has had on the group as they gear up for their first-ever tour of the U.S. "It's quite a few years ago now so we really just have to put it behind us," he says. "We used to joke around saying Mayhem is cursed and stuff like that. Who knows, maybe we are!"

Back when the notorious misdeeds were taking place, though, nobody was joking. Key scenester Euronymous was simultaneously running his heavy metal record store, the band and his record label. Maniac, still in his early 20s, had long since left Mayhem, opting to maintain his residence in a small mountain village outside of Oslo. He was there when he heard the news.

"I was watching television," he says, "when his face popped up all over the screen with a reporter saying he had been killed. I was like, 'What the fuck?' I knew things had been cooking a bit down there. ... I was obviously aware of what was going on with the churches. I really didn't imagine it would go that far, you know. I really didn't know what to think. The really weird part of it was that the day after it happened I went down to the post office and there was a letter from him. In that letter he said everything was going really great with Mayhem and his record label. ... It was really strange. It took a long while to actually realize he was dead."

Now, seven years later, the band is once again making waves with their new disc Grand Declaration of War (Necropolis Records). Original members Maniac, Hellhammer (drums) and Necrobutcher (bass) have been joined by new guitarist Blasphemer to make a record that diverts from the black metal standards they helped create as much as it reinforces them. The machine gun riffs and deep-throated screeches of old are mixed with militaristic barks of oratory and the occasional foray into nonmetal realms, like the darkwave-inspired "A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun." The result is a record that, despite it's intensity, remains surprisingly listenable to the very end.

"We really needed something to create a very cold atmosphere of a total wasteland," Maniac says of "Bloodsword." "We listen to a lot of kinds of music. I couldn't survive with just listening to metal. We could have done an album that sounded like something from 1990 but that wouldn't have been a challenge and we have to move on."

So has the band outgrown the black metal tag? "I'm not quite sure," Maniac says. "We stopped using corpsepaint and stuff like that, but to me black metal has always meant the wolf in opposition to the sheep. So I would say we're still a black metal band. In some ways we may have outgrown it and in some ways we're still trying to carry it with us, because I feel it's very important."

Mayhem performs at the Masquerade, Sat., July 15, with Hate Eternal and Exhumed.


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