Music News

Mayhem’s History Is Painted Black

If it's true, as Billy Joel once famously said, that dying is the best career move a musician can make, then the same apparently rings doubly true for musicians who play black metal. Case in point: Norway's infamous Mayhem, which still attracts just as much (if not more) attention for the gruesome deaths of two former members as it does for its music. Certainly, Mayhem still gets press coverage largely based on the notoriety it gained from the well-documented suicide of former singer Per Yngve "Dead" Ohlin, the fact that his bandmates claimed later to have kept fragments of his shattered skull to wear on necklaces, and the subsequent murder of founding guitarist Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth by then-bassist Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes. (Vikernes stabbed Aarseth almost two dozen times, and the surrounding details implicated the pair in a rash of church burnings.) Factor in homophobic and racially charged fascist sentiments and, well . . . Mayhem takes the cake for taking rebellion to a new extreme.

Which, of course, accounts for much of the band's enduring appeal, despite considerable efforts of latter-day members Rune "Blasphemer" Eriksen and Attila Csihar to foster Mayhem's musical evolution. Both Csihar and Eriksen — who left Mayhem in 2008 after serving 14 years as its main creative force — have at various times lamented the focus on the band's past. Both have also maintained a staunchly experimental streak that often flies in the face of black-metal tradition. Before quitting, Eriksen spoke of how "difficult" it was to convert new fans wary of Mayhem's blood-tarnished reputation, on the one hand, while also alienating black metal purists on the other. Csihar has referred to the band's extracurricular violence as "crap" and even goes as far as to refer to Satanism as "bullshit," preferring instead a more "naturalistic" brand of occult: anti-authoritarian mysticism.

Still, by choosing to not distance themselves from the band's violent history, Erikson and Csihar are, in a sense, guilty of exploiting it. And the band continues to serve, however grudgingly, as an unfortunate reminder of how desensitized audiences have become. For a lot of Mayhem's fans, real-life death is shrugged off as just another mode of rebellion or — even worse — entertainment. And for the music press to perpetuate Mayhem's mystique in this regard is undeniably troubling, if not outright disgusting. Not to mention how black metal still holds cachet among hipster intellectuals thanks to publications like Arthur, or the Of Montreal song "A Sentence of Sorts in Knogsvinger," which portrays black metal as an irresistible, exotic curiosity.

As aggravating as it all may be, Eriksen and Csihar have masterminded Mayhem's migration from a bunch of nihilistic punks with laughably primitive musical skills to an experimental outfit that not only continues to define how black metal gets redefined but even draws comparisons to, say, the work of avant-garde artists like John Zorn. Whether or not Csihar represents Mayhem's latent conscience is debatable, but clearly the man has a brain. Csihar's interest in the spiritual practices of ancient Hindu and Mayan civilizations, for example, and his search for dark energies in nature, elevates Mayhem's work far above the blunt, idiotic brutality of its earlier work. If anyone in the band is positioned to bring some musical credibility and leave its legacy of cheap shock, uh, dead and buried where it belongs, it's Attila Csihar.

An auxiliary member of Sunn O))) with a long list of experimental and non-metal recordings and projects to his credit, Csihar brings a broad musical palate to the table that simply wasn't imaginable with the band's previous frontmen. Additionally, his Peter Gabriel/Maynard Keenan-like variety of costumed stage personas transcends the simple whiteface favored by his clownish black-metal peers. (To put it in perspective, Csihar claims that the first band he ever saw in whiteface wasn't a metal band, but Alien Sex Fiend.) But the departure of Eriksen essentially puts the future of Mayhem on his shoulders. Csihar himself has given Eriksen credit for being the visionary primarily responsible for repeatedly re-inventing the band's sound. But, if nothing else, Mayhem has proved its resilience. The band appears Stateside featuring two new guitarists, and fans once again have to face change. But, if history is any indication, this new change raises more questions about where the band can go next, as opposed to what it might have lost.

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Saby Reyes-Kulkarni