ALBUM REVIEW: Mayhem stays hellish and heady on ‘Daemon’

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Norwegian black metal band Mayhem’s groundbreaking career is often overshadowed by the macabre events that defined its early years. The murder of founding guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth and the suicide of vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin only scratch the surface. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason this band and the scene it spawned inspired a movie more than 30 years after its inception.

Century Media Records, Oct. 25

In spite of all odds, Mayhem endures to this day—with several forward-thinking albums under its belt. The band’s lineup has changed a lot over the years, but the personnel behind 2014’s Esoteric Warfare now present the sixth Mayhem LP, Daemon.

This incarnation benefits from founding bassist Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, powerhouse drummer Jan “Hellhammer” Blomberg and vocalist Attila Csihar—known most for his maniacal performance on 1994’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Morten “Teloch” Iversen and Charles “Ghul” Hedger have also admirably fulfilled their roles as guitarists, so Daemon has a lot going for it. Look no further than the ferocious single “Worthless Abominations Destroyed” to see how much gusto Mayhem still has.

Hellhammer’s blast-beats refuse to relent, driving Teloch and Ghul’s classic black metal riffage forward. But the real showstopper is Csihar’s operatic approach to black metal vocals. He sounds more confident than ever, crossing inhuman shrieks and demented vibrato to a harrowing effect. In fact, his performances often elevate the otherwise standard instrumentation.

This isn’t to say the speedy tremolo riffs and thrashy double-bass drumming on “Falsified and Hated” and “Of Worms and Ruins” are boring—just that Csihar’s unpredictable delivery leaves a lot more room for dynamics. His atmospheric croaks and possessed wretches help the band divert from the black metal norms.

It’s very much classic Mayhem to charge out the gate like opener “The Dying False King.” With production as murky as it is tight, the band can break the mold of surging brutality with chilling ambiance and demented melodies. It’s not unlike Mayhem’s modus operandi, but the following “Agenda Ignis” starts a pattern of solid songwriting. Maybe it’s something about playing with the legends themselves, but the guitarists create some of their most compelling material on this album.

“Bad Blood” and “Malum” manage to incorporate some of the raw primitivism of Mayhem’s Deathcrush era without sacrificing technicality. Necrobutcher’s chunky bass tone beefs up the old-school passages of both songs, but it also balances things out with mathematically chaotic riffs. While the velocity of Hellhammer’s drumming is impressive, these songs also highlight his groovier side. In the case of the latter track, Csihar’s bombastic singing voice takes more precedence within the dissonant chords. Mayhem clearly isn’t ready to let its music ride on past reputation.

Possibly more than any of its brethren, Mayhem has constantly been able to increase the bravado without getting corny. It’s easy to see how the intros of “Aeon Daemonium” and “Daemon Spawn” could become goofy in their theatrical nature, but their potent sense of dread cannot be denied. Even the use of timpani and throat singing in “Invoke the Oath” feels natural against shrill tremolo lines and jackhammer drums.

Daemon ebbs and flows from moody interludes and face-shredding assaults, guided by diabolical sonics and a propensity for believable scariness. This is why “Everlasting Dying Flame” and closer “Black Glass Communion” live up to Mayhem’s fatal legacy. The riffs evoke the spirit of early Scandanavian metal, while maintaining spontaneity and vibrancy. Whether it’s the former’s contrast of maddening savagery and skin-crawling atmosphere or the latter’s basis in more rock-style playing, Mayhem’s grandness and sinisterness is as potent as ever.

Even those who have minimal familiarity with Mayhem’s history and sound will recognize a lot in Daemon. Still, it doesn’t sound like it’s treading water. Through insane vocal performances, incredible drumming and addictive riffs, the band’s dynamism and authenticity keeps it going strong.

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