Album Review : Mayhem - Deathcrush (1987)
I love black metal and always catch an awful lot of flack for it. It's too loud, cacophonous, vile, played by silly looking people in leather and fishnet gear, blah, blah, blah. There's nothing I haven't heard and every argument against black metal is usually the reason why I love it. If you want to understand why the genre sounds the way it sounds, there's one album you need to listen to: Deathcrush, the legendary first EP by Mayhem. It created a number of weird rules Mayhem never really followed, yet became super famous for. Deathcrush is unique, weird and unsettling like a LiveLeak video. It was often (poorly) imitated, yet I know nothing even remotely similar.
The greatest misconception about Deathcrush is that it's a black metal album. It's a death metal album that didn't quite pan out for various reasons: recording issues (it accidentally redefines lo-fi), critical personnel swaps and Maniac's trademark bizarre, shrieking vocals that were unheard of, back then. Mayhem didn't adopt a black metal sound and aesthetic until their notoriously intense frontman Per Ohlin * joined the band in 1988. The lyrics are gore obsessed and depict violent deaths the way traditional death metal and grindcore bands often do, yet it doesn't sounds quite like these genres. Deathcrush could've easily been dismissed as amateurish and unlistenable given the right circumstances, but it's not what happened at all.
So, what makes Deathcrush so unique and disturbing? Euronymous' buzzing guitar is one thing. The dissonance between his creativity and the sloppiness of the recording gives a strong identity to songs that are mainly guitar-driven. I wouldn't say it's virtuosic because it doesn't feature many complicated solos, but moments like the mid-tempo, groovy guitar riff at the beginning of Deathcrush (the song) or the thrash metal influences in the riffs of Necrolust are examples of how unbound by conventions his songwriting was. There's also a cover of Venom's song Witching Hour on Deathcrush, which foreshadows their interest in black metal themes and aesthetics. It's played at such a high speed, frontman Messiah (who sings on this one and Pure Fucking Armageddon) seems to have a hard time keeping up.
Maniac is another reason why Deathcrush works so well. He's reputable for singing like a donkey being mutilated and this album is largely responsible for this perception. Songs depicting gruesome acts of violence like Deathcrush, Chainsaw Gutsfuck and Necrolust wouldn't stand out in the death metal landscape if they weren't sung with such pain and urgency. Maniac shrieks and howls like what he sings about is actually happening to him and that makes otherwise blandly violent songs terrifying. The brooding, mid-tempo Chainsaw Gutsfuck, with its almost tribal drum work gets the work done for me with Maniac on it. To be fair, he improved his singing technique a lot since Deathcrush, peaking on the immortal Wolf's Lair Abyss (arguably Mayhem's best album), but his performance is really raw and muddled here. And it's great, in context.
There are many other reasons why Deathcrush is such a strange and enthralling record. For example, why is there an electronic intro on it? I don't know of any other death metal album featuring a song like Silvester Anfang. I don't know why they choose to put it on, but it destabilizes the listener from the get go. Same for aptly named interlude (Weird) Manheim. It just throws you off. Deathcrush became famous for being the starting point of Mayhem's illustrious, groundbreaking career. Many bands have dedicated their own existence to copy its raw and lo-fi aesthetic without ever succeeding. That is because Mayhem is a creative and resourceful band that evolved musically with every album, but Deathcrush will forever remain its foundation.
I'm not going to link to it, but you can find Deathcrush for free online if you're curious. It's a short, twenty-something minutes listen. I don't think it's an album you can conventionally "love" but it's haunting in the best possible way and it'll follow you for a long time.
* Better known as Dead.