Review by Xephyr for Mayhem - De mysteriis dom Sathanas (1994)
The Malevolent Aura
De mysteriis dom Sathanas is undoubtedly one of the most important Black Metal albums from a historical standpoint, but for me it marks the turning point for the genre where it came out of the obscure, lo-fi shadows and paved the way for the modern style Black Metal I'm familiar with today. The stories about Mayhem during this period of Black Metal are legendary as well, and I urge you to go and read up on it as it's an incredibly interesting piece of music history, but as of right now I'm sticking to the actual music itself, which is a beast to tackle in of itself. While I consider Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark to be the rawest and purest expression of classic Black Metal, De mysteriis dom Sathanas serves as a necessary evolution to the sound, becoming even more complex, furious, and sinister. The songs are longer and have a more developed structure with a larger variety of riffs and tremolo chord progressions compared to the thrashy beginnings of the genre, and I'm a big fan of the approach. Even though Mayhem doesn't fully ditch the grinding and slightly thin Black Metal style production, many of the common lo-fi recording elements some have come to expect out of their classic Black Metal are nowhere to be found, leading to way more clarity in the guitar riffs and a better, echo-y punch from the drums. There's tons of by-the-books, mid-90's Black Metal out there though, so what sets this album so far apart from the rest?
From the drumming, to the riffing, to the vile and off-the-cuff vocals, everything in De mysteriis dom Sathanas fits together and compliments each other in a way that stands out from other Black Metal at the time. Hellhammer lives up to his name and delivers an absolutely insane performance on every single track on this album, with blisteringly tight blast beats and a fantastic sense of accents to add just the right amount of emphasis onto the furious riffing. Black Metal drumming has a tendency to sound a bit deranged and unorganized sometimes, but it feels like not a single kick or cymbal is missed on this entire album, which is impressive in of itself. The percussion is constantly pushing every song forward at a mile a minute with every square inch being filled with something interesting. Mayhem had a knack for Black Metal riffs as well, with almost every single riff on this album being some of the best that the genre has to offer with their intricate approach to the normal tremolo riffing you'd expect. Each riff feels like it has so much progression to it without losing any of the aggression, thanks in part to the drum accents. "Funeral Fog" wastes no time and gives a taste of how sinister tremolo chord progressions can be right at the start, "Freezing Moon's" slower section showcases their adept takes at slower Black Metal chugs, and "From the Dark Past's" off-kilter groove shows that there's some much needed variety hidden behind all the tremolo and double bass. The bass is also given some time to shine through in "Pagan Fears" and "Life Eternal", even though it's pretty easy to miss the first time through.
As much as Mayhem nails the Black Metal riffing with stellar transitions, the vocals are where my patience can start to run thin on this album. I've grown to really enjoy Attila's vile delivery since it's so unique, but there are still some areas where I wish that he'd gone for a slightly different approach, especially on the closing title track. For the uninitiated, Attila's performance is one of the most random and dramatic I've ever heard, with him not so much growling or screaming as he is vomiting words out of his throat. Given Black Metal's evil nature, I think it fits wonderfully well on most of the tracks in here, with the spoken word-like delivery being especially chilling on "Freezing Moon" and "Pagan Fears". However, he definitely goes overboard with what I can only presume to be his attempt at throat singing on "From the Dark Past" and some extremely awkward sections in "Funeral Fog" and "De mysteriis dom Sathanas". Even though it can feel incredibly aimless at times, the vocals are what cap off this album as a one of a kind Black Metal experience that still sounds as malevolent and sinister as ever.
I very much regard this album as a classic, even though it's not technically perfect in my eyes. The album still wears itself thin for me by the time I get to "Buried by Time and Dust" due to slight sameness of the riffs getting a little old, but that doesn't take away from the fact that all 8 tracks are extremely high quality classic Black Metal. Mayhem were able to turn Black Metal up a notch with extremely precise drumming and a whirlwind of riffing as Attila croaks at you, sounding like he's from beyond the grave. There's a ton of complexity hidden beneath the fast, technical performances that honestly rewarded me for getting so invested in this album in an attempt to understand Black Metal's evolution. While I enjoy other classic Black Metal offerings a bit more overall, De mysteriis dom Sathanas will always have a unique and evil aura to it that other albums fail to fully capture.