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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Varg Vikerness denounces black metal and minorities, thus demonstrating he’s an idiot

Apparently, I can’t follow my own advice.

Several months back when it was announced Norwegian black metal boogeyman Varg Vikernes was being released from prison, I suggested the best thing the metal community could do was ignore him. The hope was Vikernes would fade quietly into obscurity so the metal community wouldn’t be tainted by his loony outbursts.

Well, naturally that was too much to hope for, because now the man is free and shooting off his mouth. If Vikernes simply wanted to diss modern black metal and talk up his upcoming musical project, that would be fine. But no: The doofus had to fire off a rant filled with racist and homophobic garbage.

So it’s time to respond. Silence is consent, after all – and we don’t want the entire metal world to be tainted by Varg’s nutball rants.

If you’re not up on your black metal history, you might be wondering, “Who is Varg Virkernes?” At one time he was Count Grishnackh, bass player for Mayhem, Norway’s most important (at the time) black metal band. In addition, Vikernes also produced several albums of his own as Burzum.

The big deal is this: In 1993, Vikernes stabbed to death Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, who was the founder of the Norwegian black metal scene. A variety of reasons have been floated for the crime, ranging from a dispute over a girlfriend to the theory that Virkenes believed Euronymous wasn’t truly as “evil” as he claimed. Motive is immaterial now: Vikernes stabbed Euronymous 23 times and was arrested a short time later. He was convicted of murder and arson for his involvement in three of the many church burnings that swept Norway during the black metal years. Then, he was sent off to rot in a Norwegian prison until he was paroled earlier this year.

In prison, Vikernes became a Nazi sympathizer and wrote his own version of “Mein Kampf,” called “Vargsmal” – which I guess means “Varg’s War” or “Varg’s Battle” or something equally epic sounding … as if stabbing a guy 23 times is the foundation on which great philosophy is built.

Anyhoo, all those  years in prison apparently haven’t mellowed Vikernes’ unsavory bigoted beliefs. Here’s a bit of blog entry Varg wrote a few days ago about the upcoming Burzum album “Den Hvite Guden,” – which translates as – wait for it – “The White God.” The post was picked up by Blabbermouth.net.

“As you might already know, my dear ladies and gentlemen, and others individuals too, I am no friend of the modern so-called black metal culture. It is a tasteless, low-brow parody of Norwegian so-called black metal anno 1991-1992, and if it was up to me, it would meet its dishonourable end as soon as possible.

“However, rather than abandon my own music, only because others have soiled its name by claiming to have something in common with it, I will stick to it. The ‘black metallers’ will probably continue to ‘get loaded,’ ‘get high,’ and in all other manners too behave like the stereotypical Negro; they will probably continue to get foreign tribal tattoos, dress, walk, talk, look and act like homosexuals, and so forth.”

Oh boy. What a load of crap.

For the record, I do own the Burzum album “Filosofem” and think it is a very strong piece of ambient black metal. “Filosofem” was the best piece of music Vikernes ever produced and it’s hard to ignore the influence the album had on other black metal bands … but let’s also be completely honest: “Filosofem”  isn’t in the same league as Euronymous’ best work on Mayhem’s “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.” Euronymous apparently had more talent in his finger than Vikernes had in his entire body. My theory on the murder: Vikernes killed Euronymous out of professional jealousy.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge Vikernes is … well, was … an important figure in the creation of the black metal sound. Unfortunately, he’s also a racist, bigoted dolt.

When you look at Norway’s demographics, it seems obvious Vikernes knows absolutely nothing about cultures other than his own. Norway has almost no minorities … which is a another way of saying they’re all white as ghosts up there by the North Pole.

Varg grew up surrounded by light-skinned people like himself. He’s never experienced any other culture than his own. He’s ignorant.

Does ignorance excuse racism, however? No. Ignorance is cured through education – by consciously working to learn about cultures and ways of life that are unfamiliar to you. Racism can be based on ignorance – but it also involves a deliberate decision to not educate yourself about other cultures. That’s not valiant or laudatory: That’s hiding your head in the sand, or in Vikernes’ case, in the snow.

If Vikernes wants to be ignorant and willfully delusional, no one can force him to do otherwise. But it would be nice if Vikernes didn’t blast his pig-headed stupidity all over the Internet: Somewhere out there, someone is going to read Vikernes’ screed and paint the entire black metal community with the entire racist brush. That’s not what metal fans need, because it’s not an accurate picture of who most of us are. 

I don’t listen to National Socialist Black Metal and I know no metalheads who are also racists. None. Zero. Yes, I know metal fans who dislike hip-hop music, but hating a form of music isn’t the same as hating a culture or people based on superficial differences in skin color.

While metal was once predominately a white boy’s genre, that has changed quite a bit over the years. Look at bands like God Forbid, or Suffocation or even Living Colour (who may not exactly be metal, but are certainly heavy). Metal isn’t weakened when it draws on other cultures, it’s made stronger. Sepultura, Orphaned Land and Acrassicauda prove that traditional Arabic and South American music can be blended with metal to create something powerful.

Across Africa, I imagine metal bands are working with traditional African music to create a unique style of their own. If those bands already exist on the Web, let me know, because I’d like to hear them.

As for Vikernes’ jibe about homosexuals, I have two words: Rob Halford. In a fight (without Vikernes’ trusty knife, of course), I imagine the Judas Priest frontman would beat Varg V. black and blue and then stuff his scrawny ass down a garbage disposal. When Halford came out, the metal world didn’t throw a fit. We shrugged, moved on and welcomed Halford back when he finally reunited with Priest.

Perhaps I’m sheltered, but I don’t know any homophobic metal fans. Neither do I know metal fans who hate Jews, Arabs, Native Americans or people from Asian or Central-South American cultures. We’re smarter than to fall for that crap … largely because metalheads are usually outsiders and underdogs themselves. We don’t hate the “other,” because we identify ourselves as part of the “other.” To be corny as hell, metal accepts all cultures, creeds and sexual orientations under its black umbrella of unified outsiderness. We have difference preferences in metal subgenres … but we’re all united under the music. There’s no other musical culture in the world that can make that claim, but we can, with complete honesty.

Again, if Varg wants to hate gay people, no one can really stop him … but good lord, keep your homophobe garbage to yourself. Dummy.

Black metal doesn’t need Vikernes soiling our name. I hope he keeps disowning us, because I don’t want us to be dirtied by the association.

In short. Vikernes, shut up and go away. That is all.

Black metal boogeyman Varg Vikernes to be released from prison: Let’s ignore him

This was bound to happen sooner or later.

Blabbermouth.net reported earlier this week that black metal boogeyman Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, is about to be released after 16 years in a Norwegian prison.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know Vikernes’ violent, meaningless story. In August, 1993, Vikernes – who was then bassist for the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem – stabbed to death fellow band member Euronymous (real name Oystein Aarseth). Euronymous was a godfather of the black metal scene: When not playing in Mayhem, Euronymous ran a black metal record store and his own record label, Deathlike Silence. Vikernes’ first Burzum album “Aske,” was released by Deathlike Silence.

Vikernes was also convicted in participating in three of the church arsons perpetrated by some of the black metalists that destroyed 24 historic churches across Norway beginning in 1992.

In Sound of the Beast: The Complete, Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, author Ian Christe writes that Vikernes’ had been criticizing Euronymous as being a “fat, lazy communist.” Christe writes that Vikernes believed Euronymous’ “lifestyle failed to uphold his ultraevil persona.”

The trial was a media sensation. Christe writes that Vikernes told the court: “I want to create a large following, burn all churches and throw Christianity out. My church-burning army is to consist of young people.” Once in prison, Vikernes apparently turned to Nazism and wrote “Vargsmal,” which Christe describes as Vikernes’ “Mein Kampf.”

Behind bars, Vikernes wasn’t exactly a model prisoner – he attempted to escape in 2003 – and was denied parole four times. In prison, Vikernes became something of a Nazi martyr – but has been quoted in interviews saying he has not been in contact with Nazi groups for some time.

What do we do now that Vikernes, this ghost of black metal’s past, is once again back to haunt us?

After reading the latest press accounts on Blabbermouth, my initial impression is that Vikernes is not terribly smart. I know that’s a caustic statement, but don’t get mad yet, hear me out.

The murder of Euronymous still stirs up emotions and – if reading Blabbermouth is any gauge – there are a lot of people out there who are not happy to see Vikernes released. However, the Burzum Web site has been quick to publish details about Vikernes’ family (he has a wife and young children: Apparently, murderers get conjugal visits in Norwegian prison), and owns a farm in the Norwegian town of Bø, where he and his family will be living after his release.

I ask you: If you were a perpetrator of a crime that still inspires violent emotions in people 16 years after the fact, would you release information about your family and voluntarily all but allow your home address to be posted on the Internet? By doing so, isn’t Vikernes all but asking for trouble for himself and – even worse – for his children?

If someone can explain how Vikernes’ decision to allow the release of such details on his own Web site was intelligent, please do so. From where I sit at the moment, those actions look plain dumb, if not actively hazardous to his health.

I’ve heard some of Vikernes’ work as Burzum. “Aske” was underwhelming, but “Filosofem” had some very impressive ambient black metal moments – particularly “Jesus død” and “Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament.” It’s easy to listen to “Filosofem” and hear how the album influenced some of the black metal bands that followed. I’ve heard bits and pieces of other Burzum albums (some that were recorded after Vikernes entered prison), but none of it measured up to the best moments of “Filosofem” … which is my way of suggesting that Vikernes ceased to be musically relevant 16 years ago.

The best thing that could happen would be for Vikernes to disappear quietly from view by retiring to his farm and staying there – not appearing in the media and not making music.

He has nothing to contribute, and his presence in the media is nothing more than a reminder of the stupid crimes the Norwegian teens committed in the early 1990s in the name of black metal. Frankly, the genre has moved on, and doesn’t need Vikernes, with his bloody, burning past and Nazi baggage, dragging it back down to the level of tabloid, television talk show “journalism.”

I’m not discounting the belief that the early Norwegian black metal bands actively felt repressed by modern society. I also understand they had strong objections to the way the Viking culture of Norway had been brutally destroyed by Christianity between 995 and 1015 A.D. (again, I’m citing Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast for those dates). The early black metal bands of Norway felt that injustice acutely – perhaps in the way only teenagers, who are often passionate beyond reason – could feel it.

But Vikernes wasn’t a revolutionary: He was a highly disturbed teen, who committed vapid, pointless acts without reason or justification. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered, and surely shouldn’t be idolized.

Maybe being released from prison will have the effect of defanging Vikernes’ power as black metal’s “symbol” or icon. The smartest thing people who listen to black metal can do is pretend Vikernes is invisible. His detractors should do the same – the world doesn’t need Vikernes as a martyr for National Socialism.

The best way to take away Vikernes’ power is to ignore him.