Black Metal Essentials: Mayhem “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”

It has been a long, bitter winter and the frostbitten weather and lack of sunlight has given me a seemingly endless craving for black metal. But, in my musical wanderings in the winter woods, I’ve discovered something important — a lot of what passes for contemporary black metal is utter crap.

I won’t name names here, but I recently received a copy of a well-known Swedish black metal band’s new album – and it was so unoriginal and contrived it immediately bored me senseless.

Meanwhile, while I enjoy Ihsahn’s new album “After” quite a bit, I’d have to say Ihsahn – lyrically and musically – has long since left the black metal formula behind. Frankly, good for him; there’s already a world full of pale Emperor clones out there, ripping off the sound Ihsahn helped create. Have you ever heard Abigail Williams? Ihsahn and Samoth ought to sue Abigail Williams for theft of style.

Now, there are more than a few high-quality contemporary black metal bands out there … but those bands are the ones that are largely blazing their own trails, rather than just copying something Emperor, Immortal or Burzum did 16 years ago. I’ll be talking about a few of those eventually in the future.

But today, I want to kick off my “Black Metal Essentials” column by recognizing an album that both you and I know is one of the best releases in black metal’s seedy sonic history – Mayhem’s “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.”

You likely already know Mayhem’s back story – but if you don’t, I highly recommend you track down a copy of Ian Christe’s awesome, Sound of the Beast: The Complete, Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. Christe writes, after Mayhem singer Dead killed himself in 1991, guitarist/songwriter Euronymous, drummer Hellhammer and bassist Count Grisnackh (along with session second guitarist Blackthorn) recruited vocalist Atilla Csihar from Hungary for vocal duties on “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.” The album was recorded in 1993 and released after Euronymous’ untimely death.

Of course, Grisnackh – also known as Varg Vikernes – murdered Euronymous only a few months after the album was recorded, for reasons that are still unclear (Vikernes was sent prison for the crime and released in 2009). Death sometimes makes an artist more popular than he would’ve been if he hadn’t died young … so it’s legitimate to ask: Does “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” deserve its classic status?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” “Mysteriis” is a vicious, misanthropic, yet monumental masterpiece of blazing, nightmarishly twisting riffs, powerful drumming and vocals that cause skin to crawl. Dead’s lyrics are suitably sinister – but it’s the music and performances here that really make the album important to metal history.

“Funeral Fog” begins with hurricane rage, with Hellhammer smashing a speeding beat out of his drums while Euronymous’ guitar searches for the minor keys. The song shifts quickly into a thrash riff and Atilla’s first vocals are half-whispered, half-hissed. Atilla might be the most unique singer in metal; his voice lifts and reaches for high notes at moments that seem completely wrong, but manage to be devastatingly effective. “Funeral Fog” is a chaotically nasty piece of work. Unbelievably, the rest of the album is just as earth-shaking and intense.

“Freezing Moon” is sinister and slow at first, with a descending Euronymous riff and impressively intricate drumming from Hellhammer. Euronymous’s guitar work here deserves careful attention; the notes slide away and he fills his riffs with grace notes that are easy to miss if you’re not fully listening. The track also contains a discordant yet powerful guitar solo – a rarity in black metal, then and since. This is the music of pure winter isolation and evil.

“Cursed in Eternity” also features outstanding drumming by Hellhammer … but it’s Atilla’s performance that make the hair on my neck stand up. Atilla croaks out the lyrics like a man possessed. As Atilla tells Ian Christe in Sound of the Beast, getting the vocals just right was a high priority for Euronymous.

“I remember dedicating an entire day to recording ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, a most difficult song,” Christe quotes Atilla as saying of the recording session. “Euronymous explained to me how he wanted me to sing ‘a demon flies’ (on ‘Cursed in Eternity’). They were great musicians …”

“Pagan Fears” is a stomp to the head, with another great Atilla performance. It’s also the only song were Varg Vikernes’ bass playing is really noticable. After Euronymous’ murder, his family requested Vikernes’ playing be removed from the recording. It wasn’t removed, but was dialed way down in the mix.

“Life Eternal” has a great riff that Euronymous shifts, disfigures and finally accelerates into supersonic speeds. Atilla is great here, especially with his inhuman delivery at the six-minute mark – but it’s the bridge, after the dual guitar solos – that Hellhammer and Euronymous really turn on the power. It’s brutal and, believe it or not, beautiful. The “black metal” only comes at the very end, with a sudden launch into treble picking and double-bass pounding … and then the song gets faster in its final seconds. Brilliant.

“From The Dark Past” is simply a good song. It’s not the best track here – it’s probably the weakest, at least in the sense that it doesn’t break new ground like all that comes before it – but it’s certainly well-performed by Euronymous and the band, and Atilla growls his way through passionately.

“Buried by Time and Dust” is pure black metal – fast, with intricate riffs, merciless drumming from Hellhammer and unearthly barking, rumbling and screaming vocals from Atilla. It’s a song that barely gives you time to catch your breath.

The title track closes the album with epic style. Atilla swings from rabid growling to operatic yet unsettling high notes and the main riff is pummeling yet (again) filled with sonic treats for close listeners. At the three-minute mark, the tempo changes to a march. This is a classic song of the genre that hasn’t been surpassed.

Is “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” for everybody? Uh, no. It’s too challenging for people who want safe music and far too brutal and uncompromising to be adequate party music. This is music that Euronymous, Hellhammer and Atilla sweated and likely bled over during the course of the recording. Even if they didn’t bleed, they certainly gave considerable thought to every note and beat. This is music that deserves to be remembered.

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