Mayhem's first full-length, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, was one of the first Norwegian Black Metal albums that I picked up. I got this around the same time that I was acquiring my first albums from Darkthrone and Burzum. Some people seem to have a hard time digesting this album, but I was drawn to it, instantly. I didn't hear any of the material with Dead until a couple months later, so I had nothing else to compare it to; thus, I wasn't disappointed. Thanks to my best friend, I'd heard one song from this album already, and the melodies haunted my mind to the point where I had to get this album as soon as I could. One cold October night, my search was over and I retreated to the shadows to listen to this, in its entirety, by the light of black candles. I knew I was about to experience something amazingly dark and I wanted no distractions. The following night, I attempted to share this dark magic with a girl that I knew. She was so creeped out that she asked me to turn it off. Suffice it to say, she wasn't welcome in my home after that. But I didn't need her. I didn't need anyone. During a time of solitude, I had all that I really needed: music.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas shall forever stand as a seminal piece of Black Metal history. For six years, Euronymous laboured over this album. Riffs were worked on and then thrown away because they weren't dark and evil enough. The lineup changed, considerably, from Deathcrush. In 1988, Dead and Hellhammer joined the fold. After recording some rehearsal tracks and playing legendary gigs across Europe, in very obscure places, the band suffered setback after setback. Euronymous opened a shop, called Helvete, and was seen as somewhat of a mentor to the Norwegian Black Metal scene. Mayhem was the first Black Metal band in Norway, and they had the respect of the younger bands. However, the shop wasn't doing so well. His record label, Deathlike Silence Productions, released albums from Abruptum, Merciless and Burzum. He even re-released the Mayhem E.P., yet the label wasn't fairing much better than the shop. Dead, who had contributed so much, regarding the whole direction of the band, from lyrics to aesthetics, killed himself in April 1991. Shortly thereafter, Necrobutcher left the band. Euronymous was forced to sit in the background as the younger bands, such as Darkthrone, Burzum, Immortal and Emperor all released albums. As the others took the underground by storm, the members of Mayhem were living in poverty, too poor to even record their debut L.P.
Finally, in the summer of 1993, Mayhem entered Grieghallen Studios to record their masterpiece. Euronymous and Hellhammer were joined by Attila Csihar, from Hungarian Black Metal band Tormentor, and Varg Vikernes, of Burzum. Additional guitars were handled by Blackthorn. The Prince of Death had assembled quite a cast for this album. Sadly, for reasons only known to Varg, himself, Euronymous would not live to see his creation released. That would come only after his brutal demise. After the media blizzard died down and all of the hype faded away, nothing was left but the music. The music is what's important.
"Funeral Fog" bursts forth like the bitter cold winds of a Winter storm, with blasting drums, fast tremolo riffs and a haunting lead harmony, weaving throughout the controlled chaos. Attila's vocals can only be described as horrifyingly grim. The music is utterly dark and one can easily see that Euronymous took advantage of all the time he had to perfect every note.
"Freezing Moon" is next, and the title could not be more appropriate as this begins with one of the coldest riffs ever. As with the rest of the lyrics, these were written by Dead. They are all very morbid and possess an obsessive quality. They imbue the listener with darkness and fear, conveying the fragility of life and the ease with which it can end so quickly. The simplicity of the lyrics masks very dark and troubled depths and a yearning for peace which, unfortunately for Dead, only his demise could bring. As the song slows down, the atmosphere is that of doom and an inhuman bloodlust. Varg's bass lines can be heard clearly, at this point, as well. There is an eerie solo that suits the song, perfectly. Attila's tormented and possessed vocals and Dead's morbid lyrics make for a good match. The song speeds up once more, with the freezing riffs carrying it to its end.
The next song begins with more of the same cold and dark riffing, as the drums take a moment to build up. "Cursed In Eternity" was actually the first Mayhem song I ever heard, and I remember being drawn in by the haunting melodies, though the very grim vocals, droning on in an inhuman way, took another listen to fully grasp. Everything comes together to create an atmosphere of mortal terror. The riffs are so important to this album, yet Attila's dramatic vocal approach also aids greatly.
"Pagan Fears" starts out with a, somewhat, unorthodox rhythm. It sounds more like something from Deathcrush, yet this doesn't last very long. The song speeds up and Dead's dark tale unfolds. This album is a good example of what Black Metal is supposed to be. Guitars, first and foremost.
"Staring obsessed at the moon..."
"Life Eternal bursts forth with fury before quickly settling down into a mid-paced tempo. The riffs here seem to be very similar to what one would find on an old Burzum album, and I often wonder if he was either influenced by this song, or if he had some sort of influence on the song. This is the longest song on the album, and possesses a very dark and mournful feeling. Near the end, there is a moment where there is nothing but a freezing tremolo guitar riff that is cutting through your flesh... This riff is brilliant and this is one of the best moments on the whole album. The riff is then accompanied by blasting drums and insane vocals. Some of Dead's most poignant lines follow:
"What will be left of me when I am dead? There was nothing when I lived."
"From the Dark Past" follows and features somewhat of a Thrash riff, as the song builds up. This is cast aside in favor of typical tremolo riffing after a brief time. More grim moans and screams from Attila carry the listener into a nightmare from which there is no escape. The most atmospheric part of the song comes as most everything else stops and leaves the guitar all alone. Unfortunately, Hellhammer keeps interrupting with unecessary drum fills. He should have taken his cues from Fenriz and understood that less is more. It doesn't ruin the song, but it does work against the feeling that was being created with the melody.
As the album approaches the end, "Buried By Time and Dust" speeds through with great intensity. This song is very straightforward and features some of the best riffs on the whole album. The lead harmony is absolutely brilliant and the song works well in this sped-up version, as opposed to the way it had been played on the live recordings.
"De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" begins with the single best riff on here. The gates of Hell have been opened and demons now flood the earth. This song is an epic of pure evil and an excellent way to end the album. The riffs are cold as the winds coming off a glacier, and the lyrics tell of a sacrificial ritual in the dead of night. Attila's vocals are at their most theatric, here, and they work very well.
There has always been much debate, regarding the vocals. Personally, I've always felt that it was a shame that Dead was unable to record the vocals for this album as I really liked what he did on the studio tracks, "The Freezing Moon" and "Carnage". However, it was impossible for him to do the vocals for this album and I think Attila was a fine choice. His voice is unique and he truly seemed to put forth a lot of effort to channel the darkness intended for these songs. In truth, he sounds fucking possessed, and that suits the music, as well as the lyrics. Besides that, I read in an old interview that Dead was a fan of Tormentor, so it would seem all the more appropriate. All in all, this is a very solid album. Is it the best Black Metal album ever recorded? Probably not. However, it is every bit the classic that it is hailed as and one of the most important Black Metal records ever made. No one can deny the importance of Mayhem for the Norwegian scene, and beyond. It's a pity that the band name was resurrected after the two most important members were long gone.