Mayhem, from Norway to Buenos Aires | The kings of black metal play on March 19 at El Teatrito
“Ibsen, Grieg, Munch and Mayhem”
The phrase-slogan can be read on the back cover of The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-94, the 2018 memoir by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore covering the first decade of the group that brought Norwegian black metal to international spotlight. The owner of the phrase is also its author, Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, bassist, founding member and a guy who has plenty of confidence to rub shoulders with the heroes of the great history of Norwegian culture. After all, with almost forty years of career behind them, Mayhem is the greatest exponent of a musical genre that has become one of the most important export products from the Scandinavian country. And as such, on March 19 the group will visit Buenos Aires for the fourth time, one of the last stops on their Southern Ritual 2023 tour.
Of course, history was not always like this. Necrobutcher and Mayhem’s other founder, drummer Kjetil Manheim, grew up in Langhus, an Oslo suburb that still lingered in austerity before the economic boom that would make Norway one of the wealthiest and most modern countries in the world. The desolate territory of gray tenements and conservative parents from which every teenager wants to escape.
They found their escape in the heavy music that began to proliferate during the early ’80s. Fascinated by the filth of Mötorhead and the satanism of Venom, but also by the hardcore speed of GBH and the rebellious rage of the Dead Kennedys, Necrobutcher and Manheim formed Mayhem with the express idea of playing the most extreme and ugly music possible. With the addition of Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, the band found its perfect leader: a visionary guitarist, full of charisma and drive to go against everything and everyone.
In 1987, Mayhem recorded and edited deathcrushan independently produced mini-LP that compiled some of their earliest songs: bursts of sonic violence that barely exceeded three minutes and exuded a rawness rarely seen, even within the underground metal scene, where lo-fi productions they were the order of the day.
For deathcrush, Mayhem invited two friendly vocalists, Eirik “Messiah” Norheim and Sven “Maniac” Kristiansen. It was especially in the piercing screams of the latter where a new standard began to be glimpsed; a redefinition of the limits with which heavy metal could collide. For several future Norwegian musicians, coming across that strange vinyl wrapped in a cover with a giant logo of the group and illustrated by two amputated hands hanging on a pink background (product of a printing error) was quite an epiphany: the understanding that they they could also create something this extreme, this horrible, in their rooms.
Many point to the arrival of the Dead as the turning point in the Mayhem story. Born Per Ohlin, he was a young Swedish singer who came to Norway to try out for the band after sending them a cassette demo which he accompanied with a crucified mouse. His obsession with the occult and death endowed the group with a decidedly more dangerous aura. A change in sound and attitude that was seen as a radical reaction to the exposure and commercial success that other branches of heavy music such as thrash or death metal were having, which by the early 90s sold hundreds of thousands of records and they had been accepted by MTV.
Dead’s presence was magnetic: he buried the clothes he wore on stage, breathed in the aroma of death from bags of animal remains rolled on the road, put on makeup to look like a corpse, and mutilated himself. Eccentricities that he accompanied with sophisticated poetry −one of the best of the genre− and some screams that really sounded like they had come from beyond the grave. But beneath his iconic image was also the story of a teenager who suffered from depression and had been beaten up in high school in which his spleen was kicked out and he nearly bled to death.
Only a handful of recordings of Mayhem featuring his voice exist, and virtually all of them are live. On April 8, 1991, Dead blew his head off with a shotgun blast in the cabin the group used to rehearse. Euronymous, the first to find the body, immortalized the image in a photograph that, in 1995, one of his contacts in Colombia published as the cover of the pirated album. The Dawn of the Black Hearts. In addition, the guitarist sent his closest friends splinters of the skull of his former partner, macabre souvenirs that spoke of the increasingly thick atmosphere in which the band moved. As he himself would later say, “when dealing with the dark side it is important to learn one thing: there is NOTHING that is too sick, evil or wicked”.
Dead’s death further deepened the Mayhem mythos. On the one hand, the group’s music definitely moved away from primitivism and mutated into a strange mixture of speed, technical prowess, dissonance and, above all, an indescribable aura of evil. True Norwegian black metal. On the other, Euronymous opened the Helvete (“hell”) record store in downtown Oslo, created the independent label Deathlike Silence, and became the godfather of a generation of teenagers who formed their own groups, many of them destined to become icons.
Inescapable names such as Darkthrone, Emperor, Immortal or Thorns are closely linked to the influence that Mayhem and its leader had at the time. But the one that would forever be associated with the band’s history was Burzum, the one-piece band formed by multi-instrumentalist Varg Vikernes in 1991.
A native of the city of Bergen, Vikernes soon became one of Euronymous’s closest associates. So much so that the Mayhem musician added him to the band as a bassist (Necrobutcher could never get over Dead’s photos) and released his first album for him in 1992. Varg was also passionate about weapons, Nazism and fire, and that same year he burned down some of the country’s remaining historic Viking-age stave churches, sparking the local equivalent of the American Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
In this context, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Mayhem’s full-length debut, was recorded.
Filled with intricate riffs, lightning-fast rhythms and the operatic voice of Hungarian session player Attila Csihar – who came to the band as one of the Dead’s favourites – this is a record that still sounds futuristic. Its pristine production and at the same time a terrifying reverberation was the result of the group’s visit to the emblematic Grieg Hall concert hall in Bergen. The finishing touch that an album needed, against which, to this day, all other albums in the genre are measured.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas It was the will of Euronymous, who never saw it published because Varg Vikernes stabbed him to death on August 10, 1993 for reasons that were never entirely clear, but among which are jealousy, power struggles within the most extreme circle of Norwegian musicians and unpaid debts. The following year, Vikernes was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison and became the cuckoo of Norwegian society until the appearance of the neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Breivik.
With the death of Euronymous the band disappeared, but only for a while. At his funeral, Necrobutcher and drummer Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg decided to revive Mayhem, who spent the latter part of the ’90s reinventing their sound, changing line-ups and living an unlikely rock star life. Suddenly, its members appeared on magazine covers, gave terrible concerts so saturated with drugs and alcohol that they were and even faced pastors who wanted to exorcise them on television.
With the turn of the millennium, the release of their less celebrated albums and black metal at its worst moment of popularity, it seemed that the story of Mayhem was heading towards an announced end. However, the band continued to record and tour the world and slowly the world paid attention again.
The last decade found Mayhem enjoying their legacy. The additions of guitarists Morten “Teloch” Iversen and Charles “Ghul” Hedger gave the group’s music a certain old school vibe, and today they give the best shows of their career. Whether celebrating the legacy of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas Playing the album in its entirety, presenting new songs or recording an EP of punk covers with their former vocalists, they are finally comfortable in their skin; working with a professionalism that no one would have imagined they could have.
Of course, the myth is still profitable. Added to the documentaries and books on the band’s history that appear from time to time, is the fascination that Mayhem (and all black metal) continue to generate in circles outside of the style. Today a first edition of deathcrush with its failed pink cover or De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas they sell for thousands of dollars and Neseblod, the record store located where Helvete operated, is a pilgrimage site for fans from around the world.
There is also the premiere of the film Lords of Chaos (2018) on Netflix, with Rory Culkin as a Hollywood version of Euronymous. A film that went unnoticed but which is a symptom of that strange phenomenon whereby the genre sometimes rears its head in the least expected places, like Kanye West and Billie Eilish’s t-shirts, or Ed Sheeran wanting to record an album. with Cradle of Filth.
In 2021 Mayhem received an honorary Spellmann Award (the Norwegian Grammy) for their career, with the jury calling them “a legend and a greatness of Norwegian music”. Far from being the country’s number one public enemy, they are embraced with a pride they could never have imagined.
They are the true ambassadors of the dark side.
The book is available at the Jedbangers store: tienda.jedbangers.com.ar/productos/nacidos-para-arder-la-historia-del-black-metal/