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De Mysteriis dom Safethanas: Mayhem’s Solid-but-Cautious Esoteric Warfare

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I jumped at the chance to review Mayhem’s Esoteric Warfare. It’s one of those Big Releases that pretentious wordmongers like me love to pick apart (then reassemble as whatever we want it to be). But I found myself having a strange problem: it’s the band’s first album since guitarist and composer Blasphemer left. Mayhem’s last album, Ordo ad Chao, was one of the band’s most divisive releases (it may actually be my personal favorite of all their records, and I know a ton of people who think exactly the opposite). Writing about “the true Mayhem”’s latest involves framing it in a way where one can compare it to the three decades’ worth of history that came before it. So there was one thing I was ignoring: did I actually like Esoteric Warfare?

And I did. And do. Granted, a big part of that comes from liking Ordo ad Chao as much as I did. Warfare utilizes that album’s muddy production to make Mayhem sound like a tangible live band summoning the kind of evil some of their more polished work couldn’t pull off. It also maintains Ordo ad Chao’s classic(ish) trio: vocalist Attila Csihar, bassist Necrobutcher, and one of black metal’s finest drummers in Hellhammer. In doing so, a lot of their last album’s disjointed, proggy black metal remains present. Teloch, the Norwegian black metal session guy who’s been with Mayhem since Blasphemer’s departure, both rolls with the punches and uses the tremolo-picked fierceness he employed with 1349 to add a faster, meaner sheen to the band’s trademark grimness. This is definitely a latter-day Mayhem album: nothing here solidly resembles “Freezing Moon” or “Buried by Time and Dust.” But instead of the strides forward taken with Chimera and Ordo ad Chao, the band opt to shuffle to the side.

This works both for and against Esoteric Warfare. On the whole, it’s much more focused than its predecessor. The record’s first four tracks—“Watchers,” “Psywar,” “Trinity,” and “Pandaemon”—are uniformly lean and fierce. Csihar’s vocals, compared to his previous work with Mayhem, are somewhat restrained; he sounds like a straight-up black metal frontman more often than not. But Esoteric Warfare’s restraint deprives us of the batshit peaks that Ordo ad Chao had by the metric ton. While “Illuminate Eliminate” or even “Wall of Water” bordered on meandering at times, Mayhem could pull them out of self-indulgent nosedives. But by avoiding any kind of nosedive altogether, the band keep things level instead of soaring by trying anything daring.

The lull in the middle of the record—“MILAB” and MetalSucks-disapproved “VI Sec”—is quickly righted by some more vicious avant-garde black metal by way of “Throne of Time.” But the noxious lulls and frenzied highs of the rest of it are merely very good instead of taking the sort of chances that would make Esoteric Warfare great. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is Mayhem’s Gary Cherone stage (or that version of Genesis from the ’90s without Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins), but there is something less epochal about their latest. Even the Cold Lake-grade flop  A Grand Declaration of War was a statement of purpose (though that statement coming from someone who had recently been kicked in the face by a horse). So, to answer the question posed 400 words ago, yeah, I like Esoteric Warfare. It’s an interesting combination of Blasphemer’s Wagnerian hugeness and Euronymous’ black metal traditionalism. But there’s nothing especially unique about it, something Mayhem had always managed to pull off on all their previous full-lengths. But even if we are entering Mayhem’s cruise control stage, Esoteric Warfare at least provides a good listen despite the lack of urgency.

Mayhem’s Esoteric Warfare comes out June 10 on Season of Mist. You can listen to the track “VI Sec” here and pre-order the album here.

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