“Militant men in peaceful times attack themselves.” So says and shrieks Maniac during “Vortex Void of Inhumanity,” the introduction to Mayhem’s 1997 EP Wolf’s Lair Abyss. Psychologist-philosopher William James wrote of what he called the moral equivalent of war, inspired by seeing entire countries in wartime come together and demonstrate a powerful single-minded focus on a goal, specifically victory. He was subsequently inspired to harness this focused fervor in abstract thought and allow it to be exploited for socio-political ends in peacetime. One need look no further for an example of this in reality than the Revolutionary madness of college students: militant professors, active in the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, gave “intellectual” “clout” to the youthful idiots, who would later become professors and preach cranked-to-eleven militant Revolutionary inanity to their students, making a self-perpetuating echo chamber that always needs a fight. In effect attacking themselves, the various traditions of their nations were assaulted through the smokescreen of Foucault’s “power structures” and other bad philosophy. Intellectuals in our day never run out of enemies.
Wolf’s Lair Abyss deals not with these exact topics, but these opening lyrics define the whole EP, at least as I understand it. Mayhem repeatedly went to “war” with anything in sight: what they perceived as a weak and decadent metal scene with Euronymous’s famed “No Mosh No Core No Trends No Fun” ideal, Christianity with their despicable and morally abhorrent arsons, and the conventions of the budding black metal scene with De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, specifically in electing to use Attila Csihar’s unconventional vocals that differed greatly from both his alma mater Tormentor and Dead’s Live in Leipzig performance. What or whom was the enemy on Wolf’s Lair Abyss, then? We’re never really sure, and neither is Mayhem. This is the key to what makes this brief EP so compelling.
The most telling line appears near the conclusion of the record in “Symbols of Bloodswords,” the best song on offer: “one war remains – war of everything.” Through the amateurish Nietzsche-isms that populate Wolf’s Lair Abyss, Mayhem attacks religion as a whole with a focus on Christianity, morals, untermenschen, and what seems like decency in general. Here, however, the mask slips: the Mayhem of Wolf’s Lair Abyss is at war with life itself while simultaneously wanting to worship, grasp, and dominate it in its seemingly infinite possibilities with no restrictions. This plays directly into the cold, sterile, and abrasive instrumentation and production present on all of the songs, as while Mayhem is attacking everything in their blood-red sight, they’re still clearly trying to demonstrate a sort of mastery, an ability to control the destructive chaos they’re summoning forward. They want, in other words, to channel Nietzsche’s ubermensch.
Maniac’s hymn-like vocals that appear in “I Am Thy Labyrinth” make that section one of the few legitimately unnerving pieces of black metal in existence. The affirmation of life in traditional hymns is replaced with a denial bordering on contempt, and the screeching over the top sounds like an effort to violently impose meaning where there’s only debris. “Ancient Skin” clings to the past, coming across as an effort to shed the “old” Euronymous Mayhem sound and usher in the “new” Blasphemer era. Fittingly, “Symbols of Bloodswords” appears after this with the unforgettable clean vocalization of “all the stars in the North are dead now;” the “Ancient Skin” has been shed, and there are no more guiding lights in Mayhem’s world. The Grand Declaration of War, the beginning of the “war of everything,” will soon be made, its propagandistic anthem being that perfect ending riff, which remains one of black metal’s all-time best to this day.
Friedrich Nietzsche was not a nihilist, and Mayhem seems to have missed that point entirely on Wolf’s Lair Abyss. It appears to me that they latched on to the iconoclastic aspect of Nietzsche’s thought, the destructive and warlike elements, and tried to summon up strength merely from those. This yielded tremendous results, as Wolf’s Lair Abyss is one of the most nihilistic black metal records I’ve ever heard. And yet there’s no nihilist chic, no formula; Mayhem simply did it, and few have done it since. This isn’t the best black metal record of all time, but it deserves immense credit for being that cold and unforgiving music so many bands in the genre aspire to.