Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mayhem - Esoteric Warfare

Any mention of notorious black metal forerunners Mayhem, whether written or spoken, is almost immediately qualified. "Aside from the suicide and the murder…" or "I know they're a bunch of crazy assholes…" or "Euronymous was a kook, but…" are all conceivable lead-ins to any discourse on the band that spearheaded the infamous black metal scene of Bergen, Norway. While Mayhem and the Bergen scene of the early 1990's remain more steeped in folklore than the inner contents of Dave Mustaine's tangled mane, the band finds itself still relevant for the right reasons (read: actually releasing new music) over 20 years after the release of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Despite the departure of longtime guitarist Blasphemer following the release of 2007's Ordo ad Chao, Mayhem have returned with an even stronger release in Esoteric Warfare, with a lineup that for once seems like it may be stable if wooden inverted crosses are heartily knocked.

When Blasphemer parted ways with Mayhem, it was conceivable that they may not recover from his departure. After all, few bands, especially those that carry such weight throughout heavy music, can withstand the loss of so many integral members (founding member and guitarist Oystein "Euronymous" Aarseth, vocalist Per "Dead" Ohlin and vocalist Maniac being the most noteworthy) and push their efforts to places that continue to influence in the manner audiences hope for. Esoteric Warfare proves in probably the most convincing way possible that if there is any act that can withstand that sort of turmoil and deliver, it's Mayhem. And while the efforts of sole-remaining founding member and bassist Necrobutcher and Blasphemer's call-from-the-bullpen Teloch, also of Nidingr and NunFuckRitual, cannot be discounted, it is unsurprisingly vocal masterdemon Attila Csihar who pushes the album into a place beyond commonality.

The first two tracks, "Watcher" and "Psywar" establish the tone and pace that Mayhem have become known for, but without Csihar's agonized intonations and stylistic accuracy of his lyrics, the first ten or so minutes of the album would likely border on "expected." That being said, if it's not pummeling, faster than the pacing of a low budget 90s porno and uncomfortably dissonant, it simply isn't a Mayhem record. But by the fourth track, "Pandaemon", it becomes clear that this isn't simply a Mayhem record.

The combination of grindcore and what can be best described as staccato minimalism on "Pandaemon" serve as the backbone of Esoteric Warfare. The new sounds discovered on this Mayhem's fourth full length studio record, which have only been tinkered with and hinted at on past releases, diverge from what made Ordo ad Chao a brave step forward but ultimately short of the mark in terms of innovation. While Csihar's performance on the 2007 effort was the exact kind of brilliance he's become known for, the album lacked a sense of cohesion with the bold steps it took. Esoteric Warfare fixes that issue in spades. Maybe even aces of spades? You see what I did there.

The track following "Pandaemon", "Mylab", extends the calling-card breakneck riffage and tremolo overtones and their combination with drawn-out, haunting silence and slower-paced passages that would make Tom G. Warrior blush. Possibly the album's strongest track, both in terms of how it fits in the album itself and simply from a standpoint of quality, is the seventh, "Corpse of Care", as it showcases everything that will make Esoteric Warfare a high water mark for modern releases by groups from the ever-aging second wave of black metal. The absolutely punishing speed is there; the chilling performance of Csihar is there; and most importantly, the sort of variance that makes the album full and ultimately satisfying from front-to-back is there as well.

The album closes with "Aion Suntella", which offers Teloch and Necrobutcher's best performances on the entire record, and offers a glimpse of why everyone this side of sanity thinks Varg Vikernes can piss right off and bow down to the real masters, ethically and sonically, of Norwegian black metal. Not to be forgotten, drummer Hellhammer also provides a stunning performance on the closing track. And while his reputation of being a racist and homophobic prick may be what most casual or erstwhile Mayhem listeners may know him for, Hellhammer's work on Esoteric Warfare, like Csihar's, is nothing short of top of the line.

The few shortcomings of Esoteric Warfare lie in it's pacing in the front third of the album and the general blending together of the faster passages. But these are hardly complaints, as any Mayhem or old school black metal record devoid of numbing dissonance and uniformity of blast passages simply wouldn't fit. The real shining (Or maybe not shining? Is that more of a compliment?) moments on Esoteric Warfare come in the more progressive moments, where Csihar is allowed to take the reigns, and the instrumentalists of the band provide a more subdued accompaniment that in some cases are more eerie than the furiously quick parts of the album. Simply put, Esoteric Warfare is more than a return to form for Mayhem; it's a bold step into the future of the black metal genre by the dudes who made the genre fucking scary to begin with.

- Jack

Mayhem - Esoteric Warfare
Season of Mist
1. Watcher
2. Psywar
3. Trinity
4. Pandaemon
5. Mylab
6. VI.Sec.
7. Throne of Time
8. Corpse of Care
9. Posthuman
10. Aion Suntella

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