Seventeen years and three full-length albums separate Mayhem from its landmark debut De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. In the intervening time the band has become an influential force in modern heavy music, often cited as the leader of the Norwegian black-metal movement, which spawned a new genre and some of the most appalling band mythologies in popular music.
In Mayhem's case, the latter often dwarfs the former. Two of the band's former members died between 1991 and 1993. Singer Per Yngve Ohlin, better known by his stage name, Dead, committed suicide in 1991. Two years later, bassist Varg Vikernes inflicted 23 stab wounds on original guitarist Øystein Aarseth, a murder that has become one of the most infamous moments in metal history.
The story gets worse in the details, but it's important to emphasize that the band's music is significant and often quite great. The 1987 EP Deathcrush is one of the earliest examples of black metal — a shock-and-awe introduction to a genre in 18 brutal minutes. The psych-ward shrieks of original singer Maniac are paired with searing riffs that import the ferocity of death metal, while allowing tones to spread out into an oppressive roar.
De Mysteriis is a marvel. Riffs build endlessly as Attila Csihar bends his amazingly malleable bark in ways only devils are supposed to be capable of. Mayhem's work since has been spotty but engaging, never afraid to tackle dramatic statements or complex concepts in service of an explosive sound.
"We wanted to do something really aggressive, dark — take the music genre to the extreme," founding drummer Kjetil Manheim says in the 2008 documentary Pure Fucking Mayhem. Manheim left the group shortly after Deathcrush's release, a decision for which he's understandably grateful today.
It was during Dead's reign as lead singer that Mayhem took on its infamously dark stage demeanor. The band would take the stage flanked by pig heads on stakes. Dead, who kept himself gaunt and dressed in corpse paint and ragged clothing to look as though fresh out of the grave, would cut himself on stage and sling blood and pig heads at his audience. For inspiration, he would collect dead animals and inhale their stench before taking the stage.
His suicide was more gruesome still. After penning a suicide note and the words to "Life Eternal," which ended up on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, he slit his wrists and throat, wandering around the house he shared with Aarseth before finishing himself off with a shotgun. The most heinous bit comes courtesy of Aarseth, who, upon finding the body, allegedly arranged it for a picture, which became the cover for the 1995 live bootleg Dawn of the Black Hearts.
Aarseth, who went by Euronymous on stage, was an important and divisive figure in the scene. He owned and operated Helvete (translation: Hell), an Oslo black metal record store that became a central meeting ground for the Norwegian movement. He was slain after a disagreement with Vikernes, who stabbed him multiple times, including two blows to the head.
Shocking stories are by no means a rarity in the annals of '90s Norwegian metal. Black metal musicians from that scene have been linked to at least one other murder and instances of arson on churches. But Mayhem's saga is so grotesque and so inexorably linked to its most famous music that it's hard to listen without thinking of the band's horrific story. In black metal, such evil street cred can be as much a blessing as a curse, but for anyone outside this circle, it makes Mayhem hard to stomach.
It doesn't help that Mayhem's best work is in the past. The most recent LP, 2007's Ordo ad Chao reunites the band with Csihar, and it's a fittingly powerhouse affair. Big riffs lumber chaotically throughout as Csihar waxes demonic as only he can. But the nuance that made De Mysteriis so great is gone. No matter how evil Aarseth may have been, he was a fantastic guitarist. His riffs on that album reach for the stratosphere while crushing the listener to the ground. Ordo pales in comparison, settling for rote guitar and relying on Csihar to provide the intrigue.
Mayhem's best work was born from its darkest period. That's why neither the band nor its listeners are able to get past it. To appreciate Mayhem, you have to be willing to take the atrocities in stride. Good luck.