Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mayhem - Grand Declaration of War

Mayhem - Grand Declaration of War
2000, Season of Mist/Necropolis

Undoubtedly one of most heavily anticipated albums ever in the black metal scene (or what's left of it), this album has been a very long time in development, and serves to mark the first really cohesive statement of the new Mayhem, or rather, Mayhem without the steadying dark influence of its founder, Euronymous. How interesting that this album should come out now, when the black metal scene is definitely on the wane (stylistically, and in terms of enthusiasm, audience participation, and compositional originality) worldwide - as a sort of bookend, much in the same way that the album 'De Mysteriis...' could be seen as one of the scene's founding works of art ten years ago. Mayhem, as a band, survived the entire black metal movement, trend, and its subsequent exploitation, even while the two most important members of the group (Dead and Euronymous) passed into the next world before they even got to see the flourishing of what they had fostered. Ironic? So here we have what could be easily summed up as the ending salvo for the black metal movement, the last gasp, a dying final exhalation (although the band probably doesn't see it that way), a death rattle prolonged over the course of thirteen songs and almost fifty minutes. Is it worth listening to? I believe so.

Already this album has been attacked on a wide scale because of its stylistic departures from what Mayhem had accomplished in the past - people (self-styled metal 'critics', yawn) are saying that Mayhem has moved too far ahead of the scene's common grounds of evolution, too fast, too much, too soon. That's ridiculous - there are no limits on a band's sense of personal progression and evolution, other than internal cohesion and the legibility of the resulting material. What this album offers is not really that far advanced from the material they had showcased on their last release, 'Wolf's Lair Abyss' - it just pushes the ideas encapsulated on that (admittedly excellent) EP even further, to their logical conclusions. If you are confused by this, or fail to understand, go back and listen to that release and then compare it to the new one. The guitar sound, the riffs, the drumming techniques - are they that different? Has the progression here really been that radical? I'm sure that a fairly knowledgeable black metal enthusiast could have extrapolated the sense of that album's aesthetics and, using his imagination, come up with something in his understanding very close to the sound of this new album. Besides, with a band as enormously influential as Mayhem (and you can be sure they are aware of their position) would anything less than 'revolutionary' really be acceptable?

Mayhem have stripped their sound and sense of melodicism down to its very essentials, its basic elements, and rebuilt their approach from those characteristics - achieving a very machine-like, cold, ruthless, misanthropic, sterile feel to their music (much like the new Satyricon): a sense of melody and a concentration on building song structures that doesn't really offer any concessions to the listener. The guitar sound is remarkably lifeless, arrogant, robotic, and aloof. Playing this over and over, I never arrived at the conclusion that Mayhem were really trying to communicate anything to me, whether it was malice, hatred, anger, disgust, or whatever. The melodies on this album are all very small, shriveled, stunted, rambling, and without any sense of warmth - on purpose, of course. At their worst they seem to just be challenging technical exercises for the guitars (a little like Meshuggah), oscillating through preset patterns, following completely idiosyncratic themes of development. At their best they are beautifully depressing, isolated examples of musical solipsism - almost as if Mayhem are playing completely for themselves, and this album was captured through eavesdropping on their rehearsals. Much like the last EP, the music here really only serves to remind you of this band's complete separation from anything and everything, wrapped up in a cocoon of hatred, misanthropy, and despair. To listen to this work is to feel your isolation and loneliness made manifest...

Because this is a concept album of sorts, centering around the band's rabid hatred of Christianity, all the songs are connected not only through their internal stylistics but also through a very loose running narrative that stretches through the entire album. It is difficult to pick out individual songs and analyze them - this album is better heard all the way through, as a progression from the first moment to the last. The songs are more easily understood in that context.

There is a very strident sense of militaristic efficiency throughout this release, starting from the pulsing march of the first song, where the rhythms are meant to evoke a sense of a battle being joined, a war initiated (or at least declared), or a challenge being offered. Hellhammer's stupefying drum work is never less than perfect, and it sounds here like he has even increased his potential for speed while widening his range of rhythmic techniques. Never satisfied to just blast in a straightforward manner, his hyperactivity is translated here into multiple fill techniques (the sheer speed of which you probably will not believe), an original approach to changing patterns and beats beneath the guitars almost schizophrenically (but with a freezing precision that belies any sense of madness), and an effort to do as much as he can to expand the evocative range of the music. His contribution here is as great as it was expected to be, and shows very effectively once again why he is considered the best drummer in black metal.

Maniac has tried here to expand his potential for drama by using different techniques as well. Sticking most of the time to a mid-ranged shout or scream (when he's not reading off the lyrics like an apocalyptic apostle preaching to a damned congregation), his vocals, for the most part, fit in very well with the music as they offer very little in the way of emotion, even though his black snarls are some of the most bestial ever heard from this band, reminding me a lot of Attila's work on the 'De Mysteriis..' opus. If Dead's motivation in Mayhem was to 'create a style of emotionless, flat, singing' then Maniac is following in his footsteps in a professional manner, not abandoning his legacy, while trying to advance the possibilities his position offers him.

About the inclusion of 'electronic influences' on this album: they are not as important in the style of this release as they are being represented to be. In fact, they are hardly ever present except on a few songs, and on those they are used to spread an atmospheric effect more than anything else. Yes, there is a 'darkwave' or 'industrial song', with a slow techno feel to it, but that is only one song out of thirteen. 90% of this album is pure new wave Norwegian black metal and features no keyboards or added industrial elements, and while stylistically it may not be what you would expect from this band if you only knew Mayhem from recordings that are now almost ten years old (this really is a completely different band, after all), it is directly in the pattern of progression that they offered for perusal on their last release, as I stated above.

So, in my final summation, I think this is a very worthy release - not really what I would have wanted from this band, but something that doesn't surprise me at all. I believe the logical outcome of a sense of aesthetics that calls for a blistering, isolating, misanthropic sound is a type of music that is more machine-like than human. That makes sense, doesn't it? I don't know how much farther Mayhem can press this sort of concentration and musical commitment, but right now this is state of the art (for Norway) and makes perfect sense in the greater scheme of things. I recommend listening to it, and I am sure it is going to be massively influential.