Review Summary: Black metal purists can go to hell; this is Mayhem's best.
Mayhem, as whole, is a vastly overrated black metal band. They have always contributed more to their genre through notoriety than through the actual substance of their music. Perhaps as a result of this notoriety, they were also incredibly disorganized and slow at getting their material released. By 1994, the year of the release of their oft-praised opus De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, the band had gone through four singers, two drummers, and a bassist. In addition to this, their two primary songwriters were dead. From the period of 1987 to 1994, Mayhem had managed to release only a single and a live album, featuring mostly the music that would later appear on De Mysteriis. By comparison, we can look at the timeline of their Norwegian black metal contemporaries Darkthrone. In the period from 1990 to 1994 Darkthrone had written, recorded, and released four albums, recorded demos for a fifth, undergone a radical change in genre, and shown no sign of slowing down.
One wonders if there would have been a follow-up to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas at all if Euronymous had not been murdered, and if there was, how long it would have taken the band to get it released. Even with the reformed Mayhem that replaced Euronymous with Blasphemer and brought back previous members Maniac and Necrobutcher, it took the band another six years to release another full-length studio album. It turned out to be well worth the wait, for the band’s 2000 release, Grand Declaration of War, stands as Mayhem’s triumph, their best work and an essential listen for any black metal fan with an open mind.
The title of the album essentially says it all. This is Mayhem’s formally announced war on Christianity, led by the lunatic general with the appropriate name of Maniac. On Grand Declaration of War, Maniac expertly leads his troops through a 45-minute battle of furious tremolo picking and triggered drums, addressing his warriors in myriad tones. Maniac really shines as vocalist on this album, showcasing his diversity with a variety of strong vocalizations. The styles featured on this album include a reptilian rasp, sections of eerie whispering, the vocalist’s classic “vomiting into the microphone” style that had been featured on 1997’s Wolf’s Lair Abyss, and an interesting clean shouting style present on a majority of the album’s tracks. Surprisingly, the most effective method of vocalization on this album is the last style mentioned. With the clean vocals, Maniac is able to create a powerful mood for the album, a mood that would not have materialized with harsh vocals alone. On the album’s second track, “In the Lies Where upon You Lay”, Maniac declares to his victim triumphantly “all your life is DEAD, priest!” The clarity of the vocals in these sections contributes greatly to the atmosphere of the album, and when combined with the retching vocals, makes for a truly engaging listen.
While the vocals are the key element to this album, there is some brilliant musicianship present as well. Blasphemer manages to create a dark, militant atmosphere perfect for the album with his tremolo-picked tritone melodies and minor triads played in his precise style. Hellhammer is as strong as ever, contributing to the chaos with his impeccable triggered blast beats. Interesting to note on this release is that although the production for this release is crystal clear, Necrobutcher’s bass is almost completely inaudible, just as it had been on previous releases. Guitars are clearly the musical focus of this album, with bass given little to no attention.
One of the album’s standout pieces, “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun”, shows Mayhem at their most experimental. The arrangement begins with a spoken word introduction featuring dark lyrics, leading into a slow groove for the rest of the piece, a groove dominated by synthesizers, processed vocals, and electronic drums. The song serves to give the listener an interesting break from the black metal chaos that starts the record.
Atmosphere really is a central aspect of this release. The band (minus Necrobutcher, as he can’t be heard) works well together to present their message clearly, to give a sense of the hatred the band feels towards all things religious. Mayhem presents their declaration of war to a wide audience in the metal world, given the album’s crisp production. It is also clear that every track on this album was given a large amount of attention and painstakingly perfected down to the last detail. Every aspect of the album serves a purpose, including the five minutes of silence present toward the end of the album. The silence gives the listener time to reflect on what they have listened to, and sets the mood for the two minute outro that completes the album.
All in all, this is a fantastic album, and the only truly essential Mayhem release. It’s a shame that they were never really able to follow this up, with 2004’s Chimera being decidedly mediocre and the inexcusably awful Ordo ad Chao in 2008 serving to destroy what little credibility the band had left by that time. I urge anyone who is interested in Mayhem to start with this release, and then give De Mysteriis Dom Satahans a listen. De Mysteriis is a certainly an important album historically, but Grand Declaration of War is unquestionably the group’s creative peak.
Album highlights: “In the Lies Where upon You Lay”, “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun”, “View from Nihil”