I’m sure you are looking at the title of the review and my name being attached to it, and getting all sorts of nervous and anxious. Well, don’t be. We all know that Mayhem is one of the most influential black metal bands around, but we also know that their name is synonymous with both divisiveness within the fanbase and severe fluctuations in quality. My opinions on black metal’s sacred cow, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, are well-documented and passionately debated, and I personally enjoyed post-murder follow-ups Wolf’s Lair Abyss and Grand Declaration of War, with guitarist Blasphemer taking the mantle from the late Euronymous quite capably before quitting in 2008 after the controversial Ordo Ad Chao. So how is Mayhem‘s first album in seven years, and the first with new guitarist Teloch (Nidingr, NunFuckRitual) taking the reigns?
If opener “Watcher” is any indication, not too many steps were lost in those years of dormancy. Teloch’s trebly chords bleed into the infamous drumming of Hellhammer, whose feet move like Mavis Beacon’s fingers on a keyboard after being fed crack and caffeine intravenously, and the very multi-faceted voice of Attila Csihar shining during the slowed-down midpoint of the song with his croaks and throat chants. Teloch’s riffing and choice of melodies throughout the song keep things interesting throughout, which was a big concern of mine with Blasphemer gone. “Psywar” is what Kerry King should aspire to post-Hanneman, with Teloch providing one helluva tasty rhythm riff over Csihar’s croaking and whispering. “Throne of Time” just rages from start to finish, featuring some of the fastest riffing and drumming Mayhem has delivered to date.
Csihar’s vocal formula that’s equal parts cawing crow, mad scientist, Tibetan throat singer, and Orgazmo‘s Sancho character, have always been a point of derision within Mayhem‘s fanbase. Personally, I think his unhinged performances add some demented spice to the cold, frost-bitten soup. Midpoint crawlers “Milab” and “Vi.Sec.” are narrowly kept afloat from certain boredom by his performances, with him gasping and bellowing in the former (and some jazzy fills by Hellhammer), and going full-on squawking bird in the latter. One thing about Csihar is that he keeps things interesting throughout the entirety of Esoteric Warfare, for good (the aforementioned tracks) and goofy (his spoken word “The Mark… of the BEEEEEE-AAAAAAST!” in the 1:31 point of “Posthuman,” and the 2:00 sung part of “Corpse of Care”).
And like all of Mayhem‘s albums, there is a rollercoaster of qualitative peaks and valleys. Oddly enough, the album only drags when things slow down to a crawl (“Posthuman,” “Vi.Sec.,” “Milab”), and that’s due to stretching the actual songwriting out too long. I’m all for atmosphere, but there comes a time when you have to switch things up to keep one’s interest before boredom occurs. Production-wise, I’m mostly impressed by the quality of the recording. Teloch’s trebly guitars shimmer, Csihar is front and off-center, and you can hear bassist Necrobutcher! My gripe is the production of Hellhammer’s drums. Again, his kick drum sounds like a damn typewriter on here, and his snare could use a better sound.
Let this be known; Esoteric Warfare is a grower, as it took a few listens for the album to gel. Teloch is a capable replacement for the underrated Blasphemer both as a songwriter and a guitarist, and if you enjoyed Csihar’s off-balanced warbling and cooing, you will love his schizophrenic performance here. I found the album quite enjoyable despite some production and songwriting snafus. Will it be heralded as one of their classics? Time will tell, but again, this was a good return to form after Ordo Ad Chao. Now you can all go back to hating me for not enjoying De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.