Along with their countrymen(man) Burzum – to which this band are, for many reasons inextricably linked – the Norwegian act Mayhem was for some time the leading light of the black metal movement. The band is said to have taken its name from the Venom song ‘Mayhem With Mercy’.
Formed in 1984 by guitarist Øystein Aarseth, who adopted the stage name Euronymous, Mayhem came to be the center of the Inner Circle, a disorganized group of vaguely Satan-worshipping youths who planned the overthrow of Christianity in Norway from the confines of Helvete, Euronymous’ Oslo record shop. Helvete also later became the headquarters of Deathlike Silence Productions, a record label run by Aarseth whose first release was The Awakening by the local band Merciless. The first two Burzum albums also saw the light of day through Deathlike Silence.
The original Mayhem line-up consisted of Euronymous plus Manheim (drums) and Necrobutcher (Jorn Stubberud – bass). A session singer, Messiah, was used on two demos, Voices Of A Tortured Skull and Pure Fucking Armageddon. However, neither caused many ripples in the metal swamp and a new singer, Sven Erik Kristiansen – Maniac on stage – was recruited for the first full length Mayhem album, Deathcrush, released in 1987. Neither he nor Manheim had any desire to remain in the band after the album, however, and were replaced by one Per Yngve Ohlin – known professionally (and as we find out ominously) as Dead – and the drummer Jan Axel von Blomberg – Hellhammer. The latter’s incredible talents place him in the same league as Slayer’s Dave Lombardo.
A live album Live In Leipzig was recorded but due to the course of events wasn’t released for some time i.e. until 1993. The first Mayhem tragedy struck when Dead, a depressive who had sometimes claimed that he ‘felt dead’, committed suicide by slashing his wrists and then shooting himself with a shotgun. Ironically – in the light of later events – the bullets in the gun had been sent to him as a present by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes. Euronymous and Hellhammer discovered the body and took pictures of the scene before alerting the police. Hellhammer went as far as making himself a necklace from some of Dead’s skull fragments, while Euronymous claimed to have actually cooked and eaten pieces of the dead man’s brain. The infamous photos were later used as artwork on Mayhem recordings.
Necrobutcher, having been a friend of Dead, left the band and his place was taken by the young Vikernes – at the time a protégé of Euronymous – who played bass on the third Mayhem album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. The session vocalist Atilla Csihar was used on this album and Snorre Ruch (a.k.a. Blackthorne) of the band Thorns also played guitar.
However, the record remained unreleased for some time due to contractual complications caused by the death on August 21, 1993 of Euronymous, who was murdered outside his apartment by Vikernes. Having gained access to the guitarist’s flat on the pretext of wishing to discuss a Burzum contract, Vikernes stabbed him several times in the flat and on the landing outside. His motive is said to have been jealousy at Euronymous’ central role in the Inner Circle, although since his arrest and incarceration, Vikernes has claimed that he acted in self-defense. The murder has since become the stuff of tabloid legend; a grim reminder of the reality behind the gory fantasies of black metal. In a bizarre twist, it has emerged that Euronymous visited a psychic shortly before the murder, who warned him of his impending death.
Vikernes was given 21 years (maximum under Norwegian law) in prison where he remains to this day*, and the dead man’s parents requested that the bass tracks he had recorded for De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas be removed. They were duly re-recorded by Hellhammer and the album was released late in 1993. This turn of events proved to be not the end of Mayhem the band, but rather the demise of Mayhem Part Two (Dead era Mayhem is generally recognized as Part One). Hellhammer took over the day-to-day running of the band, recruiting a new guitarist, Rune Erickson (also known as Blasphemer) and calling in Maniac and Necrobutcher once again. An EP, 1997’s Wolf’s Lair Abyss, was released and the band resumed more or less ‘normal’ activity. The year 1998 saw the release of a live video, Live In Bischofswerda, through the UK label Misanthropy, which also handles Burzum releases.
A couple more releases followed. In 1999 the second live CD was released, Mediolanum Capta Est. This was followed by the successful, yet very much different Grand Declaration Of War, which for the first time included ambient sections and electronic instruments. Mayhem continue to play and record to a high standard to this day. Evidence of the regard in which they are held is shown in the tribute album which was released a few years back, featuring contributions from heavyweights such as Emperor, and the immediate selling out of a London Show in 1999 with Marduk in support. Although Maniac’s penchant for cutting himself onstage can make a Mayhem show hard going, the band are clearly still very much to the public’s taste. Maniac has recently been charged with assault after an incident of flinging a sheep’s head into the crowd, which fractured the skull of one of the concertgoers. So be warned more than vocal assualt awaits at a Mayhem concert!
*In October 2003 he escaped from jail. After hijacking a car and apparently driving around with no purpose he was apprehended by the police a few days later