What record would you make if your last one had just defined an entire genre?
This is not an easy question, and has been the ruin of many bands who just couldn’t take the pressure.
It was however the question facing Mayhem as they settled down to record the follow up to what more or less everyone regards as the single most canonical work of Black Metal: ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’.
And they answered it better than anyone could have thought possible – probably including themselves.
They answered it with a brief outburst of the most caustic, challenging, evil and fundamentally different music they could conjure up.
And for that reason – alongside the vicious quality the songs – it deserves a comparable place in history. Yet it will never get it.
Contentious? Allow me to explain.
Mayhem, and black metallers generally, are not evil spirits. They are not true ghouls, or ghosts, or even for the most part actual misanthropes. They are just lads in a band. A crazy band.
Despite the utter insanity of what Mayhem went through in the early 90s, they were still just a bunch of guys – damaged guys, in fact.
You would be as well if two of your mates were dead in horrific cirucmstances in the space of four years.
‘De Mysteriis…’ was of course the stuff of magic. But the Mayhem that wrote it were history. Their chief songwriter was dead, their former bassist in jail and their charismatic singer gone.
Finding victory in the jaws of seemingly absolute defeat, a stroke of genius occured that would change the music and history of the band for good.
All In The Runes
His name was Rune Erikson – or Blasphemer as he’s more widely known.
The music he began writing with perennial drummer Hellhammer, in the band’s darkest hour, would come to bring a focus and absolute individuality to Mayhem that was almost unimaginable in the ‘De Mysteriis’ era.
The confidence and thundering heavy metal grandiosity of ‘De Mysteriis’ would be replaced by a jittery, angry, introspective and tortured musical expression.
In fact, ‘Wolf’s Lair Abyss’ really couldn’t be more removed if it tried. Blasphemer’s guitar style was complex, nuanced, backward, coming more from the Ved Buens Ende and Voivod school of riffing than anything else.
Hellhammer’s drumming had gotten enormously more technical as well, diverting off in intricacies and pummels hitherto undreamed of.
The lock of those two things is the magic at the heart of this EP.
These songs are ferocious. After the waves of jarring electronic turbulence that serve as this album’s opening (also serving to reintroduce the divisive squawk of returning vocalist Maniac), the tom roll and riff cascade of ‘I Am Thy Labyrnith’ is explosive.
The wah-wah bass of its undercurrent again suggests the kind of black psychedelia the band would come to move to many years into the future. It is huge – massive – almost a wall of water in tone.
Proclaim The Fall Of Seraphs
I used to think that ‘Ancient Skin’ (which we’ll come to) was the pinnacle of these five tracks. Yet the more I listen to it, the more the electrifying ‘Fall Of Seraphs’ comes to take the real crown.
The harsh, brittle and determined coldness of this track distils the best of what they were at that time. And what they were was punishing.
Just hear how it rises, uncomfortably and almost gingerly. Maniac doesn’t exactly sound on top of things with that half whisper. Yet then a pause, a blasting build and suddenly… all hell breaks loose with Maniac at the centre.
His Gollum like shriek is chilling, while the track continues to pummel, fusing militaristic chug with his bipolar existential angst. It is an absolutely mad combination.
This, more than the others, hints best to Mayhem’s true masterpiece of psychodramatic necro metal, ‘Ordo Ad Chao’, that would come years later.
The Piece De Resistance
I return to ‘Ancient Skin’, the most recognisably traditional Black Metal track on here.
The fullness of the guitar riff gets you in a way that you can never forget. Let me repeat: once heard, you can never forget this riff. It is itself as canonical as anything on their much more feted classic record.
Its opening lyrics are embedded into my brain:
‘In these nights of magic / where great pain is obscured / by the fantasy dragon made real / by the powers of lingering trauma…’
And it is magic. Blasphemer’s guitar conjures it, after that thick and full initial riff gives way to a minor chord progression that actually sparkles like stardust.
It is excitingly fast, punishingly intense and all in all one of the most scintillating tracks in black metal. They havent done anything like it since: perhaps it was their cathartic moment of writing one last, and final accessible BM track.
De Mysteriis was an album full of them. Everything since has been almost deliberatly difficult. Ancient Skin was the last hurrah for this style. What a way to do it.
The production is an overlooked facet of this EP. A look at the inner poster reveals that it was actually done by Garm of Ulver – and it’s an odd one.
Whereas ‘De Mysteriis’ was nigh on the last word in perfect Black Metal power, this is completely the opposite. Somehow thin and thick at the same time, brittle yet full, gritty and unorthodox, it still suits the music perfectly.
The Telling Year
Time and place are important here. It is hard to overstate the excitement caused by this EP coming out in the same year as Emperor’s own reformation and release of the astonishing ‘Anthems’ album; and Enslaved’s ‘Eld’ the same year too.
The underground was feverish with excitement for it.
I remember in my own case literally waiting by the letter box for this and ‘Anthems’ to drop, and being rewarded with what’s been a lifetimes bond to both releases.
But enough reminiscence, the point about From The Vaults is to reassert the value and context of these albums in the here and now.
So if you’ve never heard this, and there are a great many who now haven’t – you must.
I said at the start that it should get something close to equal acclaim to it’s celebrated predecessor. Of course it wont. I would also say that ‘Ordo Ad Chao’ should as well. Neither will it, although in many respects it is massively more revealing, affecting and intriguing.
Neither of them rock as much as their big brother, however, and that’s all it comes down to.
As an insight into Mayhem’s collective mental instability, the darkness in their hearts that the rest of us will never understand, the distillation of their horrendous shared experiences and the venting of a volcanic aggression and pitiless misanthropy…
… this is essential to own.
Hail to Tiziana and Misanthropy for releasing it. What times.
– Earl Grey ::: 22/07/15