De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

Introduction

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is the name of the first full-length studio album released by the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. Potentially excepting Nargaroth's Black Metal Ist Krieg, DMDS is probably the most overrated black metal album of all time. Because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding its creations, it has been unduly thrust to the forefront of black metal as the be-all and end-all of that genre. This is unfair not because Mayhem is just that bad, but because there are countless other albums out there that are superior to this one in every conceivable way. That's not to say it's a bad album; on the contrary, it's a pretty decent listen. But "decent" is all. People have unfortunately come to buy into the sensationalism surrounding this album and they see that as either an indicator of its quality or (probably more accurately) a surrogate for it. Neither happens to be the case. Its infamy will allow it to survive the test of time for quite a while, but that's not necessarily a good thing...


Background

I discussed the formation of the Norwegian black metal scene here, so I won't go through and type all of it out again. However, there are some other points that need to be addressed here that have specific relevance to this album. When Mayhem formed in Oslo in 1983, it was comprised of Øystein Aarseth (who originally went by the name Destructor) on guitar and vocals, Kjetil Manheim on drums, and Jorn Stubberud (who went by and still goes by the name Necrobutcher) on bass. Later, a man called Messiah (whose real name is unknown to me) joined the band as a session vocalist so Aarseth could focus solely on doing the guitar work. This lineup produced a hellish demo entitled Pure Fucking Armageddon. This demo featured five so-called "songs," including a cover of Venom's anthemic Black Metal. This is particularly interesting because the music sounds less like black metal and more like death metal -- this would make sense, given the fact that it was made in 1986, before Aarseth set out to define what he called "total death metal" and what would later be deemed "black metal." This sound of this demo resembled a vacuum cleaner with drums moreso than actual music, but what did it matter? It was extreme and people in Oslo were taking notice. Another demo followed and the band recruited Sven Kristiansen (who went by the name Maniac) to serve as its full time vocalist. This lineup went on to produce the 1987 Deathcrush EP. Deathcrush was the release that firmly solidified Mayhem's position as the de facto "leader" of the scene. This release fulfilled Aarseth's (who now began calling himself Euronymous) concept of total death metal. The music here is hard to describe, but I'm convinced that if Hell had a national anthem, it would sound a lot like something from this EP. The music is a demonic combination of atonality, blistering distortion, and positively inhuman shrieks courtesy of both Maniac and Messiah (the latter of whom appropriately took on a new version of the Pure Fucking Armageddon song). Deathcrush even included the requisite Venom cover (despite the fact that it's barely recognizable as such), though the band chose to perform Witching Hour this time around. The production was much clearer than the demos, but still vague enough to create a very unsettling atmosphere.

After Deathcrush's (relative) success, Manheim and Maniac either left the band or were kicked out. Jan Axel Blomberg, a very technically proficient drummer, joined up under the pseudonym Hellhammer. In 1988, Euronymous invited Pelle "Per" Ohlin (under the simple pseudonym Dead) of the Swedish death metal band Morbid to fill the empty vocalist slot left after Maniac's departure. This lineup is widely regarded as the best that the band ever had. The four of them began to write the music and lyrics for what would later become De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas


1988-1994

As Mayhem's popularity and prominence grew in Norway, so too did the lore and the mystique surrounding them. Other bands and personalities began giving up the death metal racket to get in on the ground floor of the second wave of black metal. Bands like Darkthrone, Emperor, and Old Funeral began to gain prominence and influence as well. Old Funeral (a pretty standard death metal band with a penchant for changing its lineup pretty frequently) broke up in pretty short order and three of its luminaries went on to form a band called Satanel. This band lasted for all of a week and broke up. Two of this band's members -- Abbath and Demonaz -- went on to form Immortal. The third and final member -- Varg Vikernes -- went on to form a little band called Burzum. Euronymous heard some of Burzum's demo material and was suitably impressed by it. He offered the young Vikernes the chance to sign onto his own label, Deathlike Silence Productions, and Vikernes readily agreed. In 1991, however, Dead committed suicide in the apartment that he shared in Oslo with Euronymous and Hellhammer. Although they had most of the music and the lyrics written for their as of yet unnamed new album, the only recordings they had of Dead's vocals were some very crude demos and a couple of live shows. Two live albums were subsequently released (Live in Leipzig and Dawn of the Black Hearts), one of which featured as its cover a picture of Dead's body with his head blown off. After this somewhat poor decision, Necrobutcher, who had been Dead's only good friend in the band, quit. Euronymous then started a rumor that he himself had killed Dead and then devoured his brains. Half of that was true, anyway; before calling the police, Hellhammer and Euronymous collected fragments of Dead's skull and brain matter. They each made small necklace pendants out of the bones they had and Euronymous apparently made some soup out of Dead's brain and ate a little bit before tossing the rest of it out. Later, Euronymous made several statements about the "true reason" for Dead's suicide. He claimed Dead had killed himself because he was so infuriated and depressed with the shittiness of the metal scene. Euronymous then made it his mission to correct the "wrongs" that he said led to Dead's suicide.

Hellhammer was not impressed or even happy with Euronymous's claims; he insists the real reason that Dead killed himself was because he suffered from terrible chronic depression and that he was homesick for his native Sweden. Vikernes took exception to these claims as well and said the idea that Euronymous would do anything in Dead's honor was absurd. Vikernes says the two bandmates hated each other and that Dead had even stabbed Euronymous during a fight. Regardless of this, Euronymous invited Vikernes to join the band to take Necrobutcher's place as bassist. Vikernes agreed, but the tranquillity was not to last. The following year, Aarseth, Vikernes, and Samoth from Emperor took it upon themselves to go around Norway and burn down its old churches. These events led to an incredibly sensationalistic series of articles published in the British rock magazine Kerrang!. Now with the international spotlight on them and their activities, Euronymous decided it would be best to seize the moment and record their new album.

In either late 1992 or in early 1993, the three men recorded their musical tracks without vocals as they had yet to find a suitable replacement for Dead. Euronymous asked Attila Csihar, the vocalist of the Hungarian thrash band Tormentor (Dead's absolute favorite) if he would perform session vocals. Attila agreed, and went to Norway to record his parts. After he returned to Hungary, tensions reached an all-time high. Vikernes had been arrested for his complicity in some church-burnings, and while he was trying to stonewall the police, Euronymous began making rather public pronouncements that directly implicated Vikernes. He was released, but not cleared of the charges. Vikernes then discovered that while he was in custody, Euronymous had been giving away free copies of Burzum albums to people that came into his Oslo record store called Helvete. Euronymous already owed Vikernes and his mother, Lene Børe, a few thousand dollars to finance the recording of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas on top of the now nonexistent Burzum royalties he couldn't pay for. Not only that, word apparently got around to Vikernes that Euronymous was planning on killing him after consulting a psychic in Oslo that claimed Euronymous himself would be killed if he didn't take steps to rectify the situation. The specifics of the antagonism between the two are completely obscured at this point, so attempting to discern the whys and wherefores is a fruitless task. What matters is that one day in August of 1993, Vikernes and Snørre Ruch (aka Blackthorn of the band Thorns and a session rhythm guitarist for Mayhem) went to Euronymous's apartment and when they left, Euronymous was dead with more than 30 stabwounds in his body. Vikernes eluded suspicion for a brief period of time, but was eventually arrested after someone he had belittled as being a "less intelligent" lackey and "just this anonymous male guy...a real zero" gave the police information about Ruch, who immediately cracked under pressure and gave them Vikernes. Vikernes denied killing him at first, but when it became clear they had pretty substantial evidence implicating him, he admitted it while claiming it was preemptive self-defense. When he was found guilty of the murder (as well as several weapons chrages and some of the church arsons) and given 21 years in prison (Norway's maximum sentence), he laughed. To this day, he agrees he committed the crime and that he probably ought to be in prison for it, but that he should have been convicted of the Norwegian equivalent of either manslaughter or second degree murder. At least he admits it.

As you can probably imagine, all of this put the release of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas on hold. With two members dead, one in prison, one still pissed off, and another in Hungary, Hellhammer had to basically pick up the pieces on his own and release the album. When Euronymous's family discovered Vikernes had played bass on the record, they demanded that it be removed. Although it's widely claimed that Hellhammer complied and rerecorded it himself, Vikernes says that Hellhammer didn't even know how to play the bass and that he just turned the volume on the existing bass track down. Considering he's been in jail since before the release of the album, I'm not exactly sure how he knows that. Then again, he and Hellhammer were always on fairly good terms, and the latter often served as sort of a buffer zone between Vikernes and Euronymous when the two would get into arguments. Maybe Hellhammer just covered for him as a personal favor. Regardless of what the case may be, a copy of the original mix (the one that featured the more audible bass and no vocals) was made and distributed as a bootleg entitled From The Darkest Past. From The Darkest Past is highly sought after, and I suppose as an historical oddity, it's a neat find. Still, it sounds as if it was recorded onto a boombox and has a very noticeable and expected "incomplete' feeling to it. I honestly don't recommend it unless you don't mind shelling out lots of money for something unfinished on eBay.


Review and Analysis

But enough background and mood-setting. I'll start with the album's good points. By black metal standards, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is well-produced. It's got more spacious production than all of its predecessors and the very cold atmosphere created is highly appropriate. Even if you heard this record without knowing all of the drama that went into making it, it still has a very desolate aura to it. Although I've never been a huge fan of Mayhem, I will give them credit as being one of the few black metal bands that could create an authentically chilling atmosphere without the use of keyboards (Darkthrone and early Graveland are two others that come to mind). Musically, this is Mayhem's best material ever. It lacks the youthful immaturity and almost punk-like exuberance of Deathcrush and has a more pronounced sense of arrangement and overall technicality. Euronymous was a competent guitar player with a good ear for writing and playing things that just sound wrong. As always, Hellhammer's drum-work is impeccable. I've read that he actually won a Norwegian Grammy for something he did...given his prolific career (he's been in 9 other bands that I know of), I'm not at all surprised.

Now for the bad. While this is Mayhem's best album, it's really not that incredible compared to many other works in black metal, and it's definitely not the "greatest black metal album ever," as some people have seen fit to dub it. It's far from perfect and it's probably turned more people off of black metal than on. More deserving and inventive bands like Beherit and Sacramentum unfairly have to take a backseat to this band because of the publicity surrounding it. Even Burzum gets neglected, despite Varg Vikernes's very central role in all of the hype surrounding this band. Some people flat out refuse to listen to Burzum because they've posthumously devoted themselves to Euronymous. The fact of the matter is that Burzum, while not perfect, was song-for-song, album-for-album better and more mature than Mayhem. Compare De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas to Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Det Som En Gang Var and tell me that you honestly think DMDS is the better album.

External factors aside, the biggest complaint that most people have about this album is Attila's voice. I used to hate it myself and I sometimes still do. He sounds nothing like he did in Tormentor, which is baffling considering he sounds great with that band. On this album, however, he sounds like a wounded animal, letting out these reptilian gasps in a horrendous death rattle. Maybe that's the point. In any case, it's something that's nearly impossible to derive satisfaction from in the conventional sense of the word. I used to think Dead was highly overrated as a vocalist until I heard him do versions of some of these songs on various bootlegs and on Live In Leipzig. His death metal vocals are far more appropriate than Attila's komodo dragon impersonation. On a scale of 1 to 10, this album rates about a 7.5 with me. Better than average, but hardly the greatest album of its sort ever made.


Conclusion

As it stands, Mayhem has never been able to replicate this album, no matter how hard they've tried. Without the two major creative forces and with Hellhammer's massive ego, it doesn't surprise me in the least that they've been unable to recapture the creative energies that powered them so effectively more than a decade ago. Four years after De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Mayhem released an EP entitled Wolf's Lair Abyss. It was not received very well. A lot of people accused the new guitarist, Blasphemer, of stealing unreleased material from tapes that Euronymous had made before he died. This is possible, considering a reference Euronymous made to "nine songs" in an interview conducted with him during the original recording process. The finished album only has eight and it's widely believed that the missing ninth song showed up on Wolf's Lair Abyss as Ancient Skin. Considering it resembles something from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas moreso than anything else on the EP, I would agree to that proposition. But what does it really matter? It surprises me that people would complain about it, since many of them venerate Euronymous as though he were God (or Satan, depending upon who you ask). In the time since Wolf's Lair Abyss, Mayhem has officially released 7 full-length albums. Only 2 of them have been made up of original material. The 5 others are live recordings (as if they need any more of those) and compilations.

To many, Mayhem seems like the Metallica of the black metal scene: recognized for their valuable contributions to the genesis of the artform, but neither particularly loved or respected now. Like the Ottoman Empire -- the so-called "sick man of Europe" -- Mayhem is the sick man of black metal. They trudge along in a somewhat embarrassing quest for relevance in a world that no longer takes them seriously or values their input. Maybe Venom said it best before it even happened in their famous tribute to the genre they helped create:

Open the door, enter Hell's core
Black is the code for tonight
Atomic force, feel no remorse
Trunk up the amps, now it's night
BLACK METAL
Lay down your soul for the gods' rock'n'roll.


Tracklists

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas 1993, Deathlike Silence Productions

  1. Funeral Fog
  2. Freezing Moon
  3. Cursed In Eternity
  4. Pagan Fears
  5. Life Eternal
  6. From The Dark Past
  7. Buried By Time And Dust
  8. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas' roughly means "the mysterious rites of lord Satan."

From The Darkest Past Bootleg

  1. Freezing Moon
  2. Pagan Fears
  3. Buried By Time And Dust
  4. Life Eternal
  5. Funeral Fog
  6. Cursed In Eternity
  7. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

A Tribute To The Black Emperors 1994, Bootleg

  1. My Dark Subconscious
  2. Winds Of Funeral
  3. From The Dark
  4. Disgusting Semla
  5. The Freezing Moon
  6. Necrolust
  7. Funeral Fog
  8. Carnage

Note: These are the two most sought after and popular Mayhem bootlegs. The first is the rough instrumental version of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas I mentioned earlier. The second is the most popular and best-produced of the "in the studio with Dead" bootlegs and features the most beloved lineup of the band. The first four tracks are from Dead's days as the vocalist of Morbid and can be found legitimately as the December Moon EP/demo from that band. You of course will recognize the Freezing Moon and Funeral Fog from the tracklist of the album itself. Necrolust is from the Deathcrush EP and Carnage is from the original Pure Fucking Armageddon demo.

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