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Mayhem is the band's name and most definitely mayhem were the circumstances in which this first full-length album was recorded and released in 1993 which help to explain why, when you clear away the mythology, the rumours and other baggage around this record, you find a pretty good if not technically accomplished black metal album. Your first impression can be that the music is fast, furious and frenzied and all over the place and on repeated listenings you realise you have to accept it on its own terms as a raging vibrato guitar noise drone that complements the brutal drumming. The production of the record is quite basic yet fairly clear. Drummer Hellhammer thrashes away on the skins at several hundred BPM and guitarist Euronymous, accompanied by bass player Count Grishnackh aka Varg Vikerenes concentrate on whipping up the intense strings-based sandstorm drone out of which Euronymous may play a chilling, spiky lead melody that pierces straight to the bone. In those early days, singer Attila Csihar, who replaced Dead as vocalist after that fellow's suicide, had a, uh, less refined vocal technique than he does now but his dulcet tombstone tones lend a special brand of psychotic madness and darkness to the recording, and there are even moments of camp in his singing in tracks like "Cursed to Eternity". In the title piece he carries on like a demon-possessed Pavarotti howling the Latin lyrics. Csihar doesn't even pretend that he can sing as fast as the others can play so he proceeds at his own leisurely pace (though he manages to keep in time with everyone) and slavers over the lyrics with a relish that is almost cartoony and verges on the pornographic.
Penned by Dead originally, all the lyrics are creepy and possess an obsessive quality: they draw little sketches of darkness and fear, and of the fragility of life and the ease with which it can end so quickly and so soon. The title track describes a sacrificial ritual performed in the dead of night. The simplicity of the lyrics masks very dark and troubled depths and a yearning for peace which, unfortunately for Dead (I've seen rumours that he could have been a borderline schizophrenic), only death could bring.
The album conveys an overall impression of intense and never-ending rage, psychosis and frightening evil. The production does not make the music as raw as it could be but all the same it is unstoppable with a life and force all its own, and this is perhaps the main achievement of the record. The style of music is free-flowing metal drone close to minimalism with no regard for song structures or other song-based conventions and in the early 1990s this would have been unusual. The musicians play so fast their playing becomes all intuitive and they seem to be possessed by an alien spirit. The ambience of the record is so sinister, even the spaces between tracks are ominous.
In its own way, "De Mysteriis ..." is an important piece of black metal history as the style of the music here helped to define black metal as distinct from other forms of heavy metal. It seems to be the only full-length album Euronymous made before he died (if the earlier "Deathcrush" is counted as an EP) and it happens to feature the man who would later murder him. (There is of course the story that Euronymous's parents tried to get Vikernes's contribution to the album erased. Certainly the bass parts aren't very high in the mix.) The album also helped to cement Attila Csihar's reputation as a singer of sinister repute and Csihar rejoined the band in 2004. The album's cover is of interest too as it features a silhouette of one of Scandinavia's largest cathedrals, Nidarosdomen in Tronheim, Norway, where the Norwegian crown jewels are kept. I have heard that Vikernes once wanted to blow up this cathedral but haven't seen any information to support this rumour.
When you consider the unstable and tragic context in which the album was made, you realise it's a wonder that it ever got released at all.