State of the Black | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

State of the Black 

On the mystery of Norway's most notorious black metal band, Mayhem.

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If email interviews were a game, I'd be kicking Attila Csihar's ass by a score of 562-124 words. Not that you should expect most black metal musicians—who trade on a certain austerity—to be chatty. Especially when that band is Mayhem, Norway's notoriously murderous, (ostensibly) cannibalistic, arsonistic, trophy-keepin' musical combo.

Mayhem is the band your parents, preachers and the PMRC should have warned you about when they were preoccupied with Kiss, Zappa and 2 Live Crew. Their original lineup included singer Per Ohlin, guitarist Øystein Aarseth, bassist Jørn Stubberud and drummer Jan Blomberg, known, respectively, as Dead, Euronymous, Necrobutcher and Hellhammer. In addition to playing some of the speediest, shriek-iest metal around, Mayhem also lived up to its name, taking the Satanic aesthetic and ideology seriously.

That's kinda how Dead got dead. That's kinda how Euronymous got dead. "Kinda" because Satanism is only the philosophical excuse covering up for general depression and narcissistic jackass-ery.

Dead's suicide note said—besides "excuse all the blood"—that he intended a melodramatic end in a forest, slowly bleeding out from self-inflicted wounds made by a dull knife and, if that didn't work—shotgun in the house. Plan B proved necessary, which led to Euronymous discovering and photographing Dead's body, calling Necrobutcher with the "really cool" news, claiming (falsely) to stew and consume some of the grey matter and (verifiably) getting crafty by making necklaces for his friends from skull fragments. That was in 1991. In 1993, new bass player (replacing the grieving Necrobutcher) Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes, a prolific church-burner, stabbed Euronymous 23 times, leading to a 21-year prison sentence that ended four years early in 2009.

In metal, there's nothing worse than a poser, right? Nah. Heavy metal's hallowed halls are lined with photos of "more metal than thou" dudes who were all show and no grow. Black metal originally seemed to have higher standards, until the evil shtick got in the way of real-world concerns like eating non-brain food, staying out of prison and breathing. But if you're Mayhem, what do you do?

Before Euronymous became the stone to Grishnackh's sword (rumor: the knife got stuck in his skull), he and the new lineup—with Csihar on vocals—recorded Mayhem's first full-length album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (About the Mystery of the Lord Satan). Afterward, Necrobutcher and Hellhammer finished the record. It's a black metal classic, a blueprint for extremity in a genre where it's paramount, and also because it features lyrics by Dead, guitar by Euronymous (the victim) and bass by Grishnackh (his murderer). That's metal.

But Mayhem, what with all that drama, was dead—until Hellhammer resurrected the band in 1995. Subsequent albums found them messing with their sound, looking for and finding extremity beyond Beelzebub and denying they were actually Satanists while retaining some of the devilish imagery. Mayhem carved out a career, and remains atop the heap as one of black metal's most successful acts.

Black metal itself has come to encompass Satanism, paganism, right-wing politics, warfare and individualism. Hell, there's even Christian black metal. And musically, the genre has split into derivations like ambient, symphonic, blackened and blackgaze (as performed by Alcest, who play the Metro on Tuesday night). And the bands aren't nearly as scary. Today, Mayhem is touring behind a live re-recording of De Mysteriis, performing the album nightly—a welcome, but positively normal thing to do.

Which, if you're Mayhem, must feel about right. That could be why (aside from English being his second language) Attila's end of the interview—in which I attempted to draw parallels between the mysteries of the world, devils red and orange, the music industry and Mayhem's past and present—was what it was. And that's boring ("We got approached by a promoter from Sweden," Attila says), breathless ("We wanted to share that night's magical atmosphere"), fragmented ("Poor Aleppo. Mind controlled and misleaded. Mad house!"), monosyllabic ("Push") and trite but true ("To me, our music is supreme itself. I don't like too much ideologies around it").

Fair enough. Let's call it a draw.

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