It can be said of many groups that the sweat and tears of the collective members were poured into a body of work. It is an entirely different thing to state that the literal blood of the members were spilled over that piece of art. That is, however, the terrifying and visceral truth we've come to embrace behind MAYHEM's titanic debut, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
It is a modern marvel of the extreme music scene; born of the bitter rivalries of two men struggling to eclipse one another in a creatively-destructive pattern of making insidious sounds, and setting alight the Christian structures that they both believed to represent an oppressive faith that held a vice-grip over virtually every facet of their own country. That view, we shall leave up to the readers to decide on its accuracy. Our story today is of the monumental achievements of the men behind the group — the musicians — and their trailblazing methods towards birthing a new sub-genre of metal.
In retrospect, the inspirations that made DMDS what it is aren't so unfamiliar to the allusory elements that have inspired countless Heavy Metal bands to greatness over the past few decades. The same geek-culture references that range from high fantasy, to cult horror classics provide both the imagery and the lore behind the tales that groups like MAYHEM came to treasure. Tales of Transylvanian terror, and the dark recesses of Tolkien's Middle-Earth collide, bring to life the unimaginable soundscapes of strange dimensions wrought with the tyranny of undead oppressors and demonic beings. The ruins of ancient cities buried after eons of cataclysmic war make up the setting to ominous, and dreadful tones that stutter and moan beneath the wide, cavernous maw of a darkened, growing presence that looms in the background of virtually every track.
Marked for posterity with its unmistakably ambient sound-production trademark by the illustrious Grieghallen studio in Bergen, the effect of a musical score being carried ironically through the halls of an ancient Christian cathedral are coincidentally part of its appeal. Much like its peers in the catalogue produced by famed producer Pytten, the album echoes and booms with a purpose from start to finish, the artificial backdrop of a Satanic temple taking the place of any such preconceived notions of what a normal recording process is delivered as.
It's hard not to appreciate the journey taken from the start of MAYHEM's career to where they wound up in 1994. As a group that knew each other from the earliest points of adolescence, it is difficult to overlook the profound impact that each of the members had on each other, especially when that closeness turns from a simple familiarity, to the ubiquity of an immortal image. Per Yngve Ohlin, known eternally as DEAD by his peers, friends, acquaintances, and every generation since, could arguably be considered a household name by this point; his face, a symbol more synonymous with the idea of corpsepaint than Arthur Brown himself, and undeniably more representative of the genre as a whole than most of his successors.
Abyssal, enigmatic, and tragically the centerpiece of a counter-culture he himself helped give life to, Dead was the personification of every clinically-depressed metalhead who has ever felt isolated to their environment. Though his contributions to the group's studio releases only ever amounted to two tracks in his short residency with MAYHEM, the lasting effects of his musical cooperation with Euronymous, Necrobutcher, and Hellhammer have proven invaluable in the shaping of the genre itself. Yet though he stands tall in the halls of fallen veterans of the scene — he would come to reside in the thoughts and dreams of those would-be contenders for the throne of "trve" Black Metal.
One of the common misconceptions about the imagery surrounding DMDS, and by extension of many groups from the early Black Metal scene, is that Satanic indoctrination brought about the change in extreme metal groups. This wasn't true then — nor is it now. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The formation of the Norwegian Black Metal scene was almost entirely comprised of the children of atheistic families who held deep sympathetic convictions towards Germanic Heathen cultures who had been assimilated into the Christian religion more than a millennium before. Oftentimes, anti-Christian views were expressed solely out of the perspective that a sort of "cultural hijacking" had taken place, and it was a shared viewpoint of the early Black Metal groups that merely expressing their discontent wasn't enough of a statement in regards to fighting against the omnipresence of Christianity in Norway. Though controversial, and lacking in direction, many individuals felt that the kind of Black Metal that MAYHEM brought to the scene was a kind of protest. This view would inevitably lead to a strange paranoia within the band and its associates, one that would end with the brutal murder of Euronymous, at the hands of Varg Vikernes.
On its surface, DMDS appears to only loosely embody the sound, and appearance of what Black Metal as a whole exists as today. The tremolo picking made famous by Euronymous, the larger-than-life drum kit that stands slightly over its partners on the stage, even the vocals made famous by Dead are re-imagined and reformed into a new creation by the talented, and versatile Attila Csihar. The decayed, and unholy growling of Per Ohlin is a thing of the past, now resurrected by an operatic Igor-like figure whose vocal tone can bring shivers with every Gregorian-esque chant, and Latin verse. Combine it with the stunning revelation that the hauntingly smooth bass-line in the background is none other than Varg Vikernes himself, and you have a volatile chemistry that resulted in a funeral, a prison sentence, and one of the finest pieces of musical mastery to ever bring about a counter-cultural phenomenon.
MAYHEM's contributions can not be overstated. To quote the brilliant scholar Dayal Patterson, "Their name has become synonymous with groundbreaking musing, strong personalities, Satanism, church burnings, suicide, murder, and perhaps most importantly, the unification and rebirth of the black metal movement in the early nineties."
Chances are, if you're a fan of Black Metal — you can spot their influence. Their innovation and determination to produce content in an environment unsuited to their needs bred a musical renaissance from a tired youth who had been feeding on the safe remains of the early 80's traditional Heavy Metal scene for more than a decade. That effect can still be felt to this day. Their lines are scripture now, and their sound signature is a staple of every album that has ever attempted to cross the line into darker territory.
Twenty-five years ago, amidst chaos and tragedy, something magnificent and malevolent smashed through all the boundaries, and the face of Metal was changed forever. Today, we celebrate that achievement.