Ranking Mayhem's Frontmen from Worst to Best
Norwegian black metal icons Mayhem are a complicated band to love because they have a reputation that precedes them. They are the band who’s singer was featured on a bootleg record after killing himself. They are also the band who’s bassist killed the guitarist and leader over an obscure money dispute. But I love them anyway, because they’ve overcome what would’ve killed 99,9% of bands, improved their sound and pushed the boundaries of their musical genre. Shit, they’re still pushing them three decades after the events that preceded the release of their masterpiece of evil De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
One thing that divided their audience over the years is their revolving door of vocalists. They had four in total: Messiah, Maniac, Dead and Attila, and nobody agrees on who was (or is) the best. To be honest, I had a different favorite at different eras of my life. But things have come full circle and I’m finally ready to crown the best Mayhem vocalist of all-time, because I’m now an OCD list geek who’s into classifying everything and nothing. Here are the four objective (or I’d like to think to) criteria I will use to determine a winner:
- Vocal ability: Is the candidate able to deliver a song with technical and performative skills?
- Presence: Is the candidate embodying Mayhem’s ethos of destruction on stage and in popular culture?
- Productivity: Did Mayhem release anything with the candidate at the helm or was it too much trouble to keep him disciplined?
- Historical significance: Was the candidate occupying his functions when Mayhem released its best music and did he participate in the writing in any significant way?
Keep in mind this is no hard science and that you can have your own opinion about these criteria. For example, you might have a different favorite album than me. But I think my arguments are good in general.
4 - Messiah
The sample size is quite small, here. Messiah performed only on two official Mayhem songs, on Deathcrush: Pure Fucking Armegeddon and their cover of Venom’s Witching Hour. And what is there to say about it? It was not very convincing. Messiah’s low, gravely growl is partly lost to the lo-fi production. It’s difficult to hear through the fuzzy guitars and oversaturated drums, but he sounds like he’s talking.
It’s hard to know how well he embodies Mayhem also because it’s impossible to find photos or footage of him with the band. To be fair, he seemed quite disinterested with black metal and quickly left to pursue a career in Oi music. Given that Messiah recorded two songs on Deathcrush in 1987 and that Euronumous and Necrobutcher performed the vocals themselves on their first demo in 1986 because they didn’t have a singer, Messiah’s time with the band couldn’t have been longer than a couple months.
3 - Dead
Unpopular opinion #1: Dead was not the best frontman Mayhem ever had. He was the most gifted and by far the most creative, but also the most conventional sounding. Coming from a Swedish death metal band, Dead has a lower registry than most black metal performers, which gave his interpretations a lugubrious aura. His interpretation of Mayhem’s classic songs like Deathcrush and Freezing Moon are spellbinding… and perhaps a little artificially enhanced by his tragic fate?
I’m just throwing it out there. Dead was Mayhem’s frontman with the most presence and perhaps the black metal frontman with the most presence ever. Stories of him being fucking weird live on today. But he wasn’t featured on any of Mayhem’s hallmark releases. Dead’s claim to fame is Live in Leipzig and Dawn of the Black Hearts, two live albums. Of course, he wrote songs too like Life Eternal, but he never got to perform them on a studio album.
So, Dead clearly had the most potential, but accomplished little outside of setting the bar for black metal urban legends.
2 - Attila
Unpopular opinion #2: Attila was not the best frontman Mayhem ever had. He is the most beloved and the very reason why Mayhem is still active today, but Attila is a quirky guy that always eluded definition. Performing a savant mix of throaty rasps and growls and Gregorian chants, his style is memorable and not that different from band to band he’s performing with. When he came back to Mayhem after Maniac’s departure in 2004, the band’s sound was slightly altered to fit his skill set and experimental sensibilities.
Attila performed on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (arguably Mayhem’s most notorious album), Ordo Ad Chao and Esoteric Warfare, which is quite the resume. He’s also their most theatrical frontman. He loves to wear disguise and to give a show, even if his musicians aren’t wearing anything special in the background. Attila is an loveable oddball, who helped Mayhem work through some of the greatest challenges of their career and he’s damn close to #1 position, but when real fans think about the band’s discography and pick hallmark moments, he’s not the one performing on the majority of them….
1 - Maniac
Unpopular opinion #3: Maniac is the best frontman Mayhem ever had. The math is simple, he’s the one delivering the bone chilling performances on Deathcrush and their post-apocalyptic revivial Wolf’s Lair Abyss, arguably the best albums in Mayhem’s discrography. His performances sometimes leave to be desired, but when his trademark high-pitched shrill is on its game, he sounds like a damned soul trying to scream while swallowing glass. It latches into your soul like rusty meat hooks.
Of course, Maniac is also featured on some of the weirdest, most inexplicable moments in Mayhem’s career, notably the über-experimental Grand Declaration of War, which angered the crap out of fans upon release. He was also at the helm during the European tour, which gave classics such as Mediolanum Capta Est and European Legions, where he looked like a demon’s spawn on scene. That is the story of his tenure with Mayhem, really. The highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, but when we look back and remember the game changing moments of Mayhem’s career, we think about Maniac’s tenure more often than not.