Classic Album Review : Mayhem - De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
Mayhem is primarily known for three things: 1) the murder of their co-founder and lead guitarist Euronymous, by their neo-nazi bassist Varg Vikerenes 2) the suicide of their frontman Dead, which ended up on the cover of a bootleg album * and 3) being the unholy soundtrack to church burnings in Norway. They are, musically and culturally, of the utmost importance to black metal and perhaps none of their albums exemplifies that better than De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which they were recording when all that craziness was happening.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is the culmination of Mayhem's first era, where they played fast, grimy and primitive black metal, originally inspired by the likes of Venom. It has this heavy, unhealthy atmosphere that so many bands have tried (and failed) to reproduce since then. There are three key elements which can explain why De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas sound the way it sounds: Hellhammer's precise and relentless blast beats, Euronymous trademark lo-fi guitar and, last by not least: Attila Csihar's iconic, bone-chilling vocal performance. He's the voice of your worst nightmare come to life.
And I want to stress out how important Attila is to this record, because he exemplifies Mayhem's reckless and organic approach to their music. He's not a traditional black metal singer by any means. To a certain extent, none of Mayhem's frontmen were, but Attila has this bizarre, cavernous croak that sounds like the fucking dead just raised. On the title song, he alternates with hymn-like vocalizing, which contrasts so fiercely with the ongoing thunderstorm of sound, you'll think the soil is splitting open and that the endtimes are upon us. This dude doesn't fuck around. Every Mayhem fan had a difficult time getting used to him, but he's probably the best, most original vocalist they're ever had.
Themes are another reason why De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is so fucking haunting. Earlier Mayhem was gore-obsessed, but since Dead took over lyrics-writing duties, his bizarre obsession with death started transpiring in songs like Funeral Fog, Life Eternal (which he wrote the day he killed himself) and most notably Freezing Moon, Mayhem's most recognizable song. Even if he's not performing on the record (because he was fucking dead and buried by then), Dead's influence can be felt in its dark imaginary. While most black metal bands went through excruciating pains to be as antichristian as possible, Mayhem created this dark realm based on a crazy person's visions on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
The music on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is deliberately simple, but it's put together in a complex and sophisticated way. The chaotic often mid-tempo guitar riffs clash with Hellhammer precise and intense drumming, Attila's otherworldly chants intersect and rise above the wall of sound like a malevolent spirit. There's clearly a lot of thought that's been put into the production. It's meant to fuck with your brain and create this powerful atmosphere the album is reputable for. It works best on the better composed songs, like Freezing Moon or De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (the song), but it's just downright creepy. The band made the most out of obviously limited financial means.
Mayhem has changed a lot since De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Their primitive musical philosophy more or less died with Euronymous and better, more creatively ambitious musicians were hired to replace the departed members. It's a good thing they did, because they could've never topped this album's pitch-perfect atmosphere. We're left with the very best. Perhaps not the most influential Mayhem album, but the darkest, grimiest and most deviant for sure. It's why De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is a true classic. It's an album that came from a lineup that was too evil/tormented to last. It feels weird to say, but it feels even weirder that it's true.