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Mayhem, as whole, is a vastly overrated black metal band. They have always contributed more to their genre through notoriety than through the actual substance of their music. Perhaps as a result of this notoriety, they were also incredibly disorganized and slow at getting their material released. By 1994, the year of the release of their oft-praised opus De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, they had gone through four singers, two drummers, a bassist, and the band’s two primary songwriters were dead. From the period of 1987 to 1994, they had managed to release only a single and a live album, featuring mostly the music that would later appear on De Mysteriis. By comparison, we can look at the timeline of their Norwegian black metal contemporaries Darkthrone. In the period from 1990 to 1994 Darkthrone had written, recorded, and released four albums, recorded demos for a fifth, undergone a radical change in genre, and shown no sign of slowing down.
One wonders if there would have been a follow-up to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas at all if Euronymous had not been murdered, and if there was, how long it would have taken the band to get it released. Even with the reformed Mayhem that replaced Euronymous with Blasphemer and brought back previous members Maniac and Necrobutcher, it took the band another six years to release another full-length studio album. It turned out to be well worth the wait, for the band’s 2000 release, Grand Declaration of War, stands as Mayhem’s triumph, their best work and an essential listen for any black metal fan with an open mind.
The title of the album essentially says it all. This is Mayhem’s formally announced war on Christianity, led by the lunatic general with the appropriate name of Maniac. On Grand Declaration of War, Maniac expertly leads his troops through a 45-minute battle of furious tremolo picking and triggered drums, addressing his warriors in myriad tones. Maniac really shines as vocalist on this album, showcasing his diversity with a variety of strong vocalizations. The styles featured on this album include a reptilian rasp, sections of eerie whispering, the vocalist’s classic “vomiting into the microphone” style that had been featured on 1997’s Wolf’s Lair Abyss, and an interesting clean shouting style present on a majority of the album’s tracks. Surprisingly, the most effective method of vocalization on this album is the last style mentioned. With the clean vocals, Maniac is able to create a powerful mood for the album, a mood that would not have materialized with harsh vocals alone. On the album’s second track, “In the Lies Where upon You Lay”, Maniac declares to his victim triumphantly “all your life is DEAD, priest!” The clarity of the vocals in these sections contributes greatly to the atmosphere of the album, and when combined with the retching vocals, makes for a truly engaging listen.
While the vocals are the key element to this album, there is some brilliant musicianship present as well. Blasphemer manages to create a dark, militant atmosphere perfect for the album with his tremolo-picked tritone melodies and minor triads played in his precise style. Hellhammer is as strong as ever, contributing to the chaos with his impeccable triggered blast beats. Interesting to note on this release is that although the production for this release is crystal clear, Necrobutcher’s bass is almost completely inaudible, just as it had been on previous releases. Guitars are clearly the musical focus of this album, with bass given little to no attention.
One of the album’s standout pieces, “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun”, shows Mayhem at their most experimental. The arrangement begins with a spoken word introduction featuring dark lyrics, leading into a slow groove for the rest of the piece, a groove dominated by synthesizers, processed vocals, and electronic drums. The song serves to give the listener an interesting break from the black metal chaos that starts the record.
Atmosphere really is a central aspect of this release. The band (minus Necrobutcher, as he can’t be heard) works well together to present their message clearly, to give a sense of the hatred the band feels towards all things religious. Mayhem presents their declaration of war to a wide audience in the metal world, given the album’s crisp production. It is also clear that every track on this album was given a large amount of attention and painstakingly perfected down to the last detail. Every aspect of the album serves a purpose, including the five minutes of silence present toward the end of the album. The silence gives the listener time to reflect on what they have listened to, and sets the mood for the two minute outro that completes the album.
All in all, this is a fantastic album, and the only truly essential Mayhem release. It’s a shame that they were never really able to follow this up, with 2004’s Chimera being decidedly mediocre and the inexcusably awful Ordo ad Chao in 2008 serving to destroy what little credibility the band had left by that time. I urge anyone who is interested in Mayhem to start with this release, and then give De Mysteriis Dom Satahans a listen. De Mysteriis is a certainly an important album historically, but Grand Declaration of War is unquestionably the group’s creative peak.
Album highlights: “In the Lies Where upon You Lay”, “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun”, “View from Nihil”
Undoubtedly one of most heavily anticipated albums ever in the black metal scene (or what's left of it), this album has been a very long time in development, and serves to mark the first really cohesive statement of the new Mayhem, or rather, Mayhem without the steadying dark influence of its founder, Euronymous. How interesting that this album should come out now, when the black metal scene is definitely on the wane (stylistically, and in terms of enthusiasm, audience participation, and compositional originality) worldwide - as a sort of bookend, much in the same way that the album 'De Mysteriis...' could be seen as one of the scene's founding works of art ten years ago. Mayhem, as a band, survived the entire black metal movement, trend, and its subsequent exploitation, even while the two most important members of the group (Dead and Euronymous) passed into the next world before they even got to see the flourishing of what they had fostered. Ironic? So here we have what could be easily summed up as the ending salvo for the black metal movement, the last gasp, a dying final exhalation (although the band probably doesn't see it that way), a death rattle prolonged over the course of thirteen songs and almost fifty minutes. Is it worth listening to? I believe so.
Already this album has been attacked on a wide scale because of its stylistic departures from what Mayhem had accomplished in the past - people (self-styled metal 'critics', yawn) are saying that Mayhem has moved too far ahead of the scene's common grounds of evolution, too fast, too much, too soon. That's ridiculous - there are no limits on a band's sense of personal progression and evolution, other than internal cohesion and the legibility of the resulting material. What this album offers is not really that far advanced from the material they had showcased on their last release, 'Wolf's Lair Abyss' - it just pushes the ideas encapsulated on that (admittedly excellent) EP even further, to their logical conclusions. If you are confused by this, or fail to understand, go back and listen to that release and then compare it to the new one. The guitar sound, the riffs, the drumming techniques - are they that different? Has the progression here really been that radical? I'm sure that a fairly knowledgeable black metal enthusiast could have extrapolated the sense of that album's aesthetics and, using his imagination, come up with something in his understanding very close to the sound of this new album. Besides, with a band as enormously influential as Mayhem (and you can be sure they are aware of their position) would anything less than 'revolutionary' really be acceptable?
Mayhem have stripped their sound and sense of melodicism down to its very essentials, its basic elements, and rebuilt their approach from those characteristics - achieving a very machine-like, cold, ruthless, misanthropic, sterile feel to their music (much like the new Satyricon): a sense of melody and a concentration on building song structures that doesn't really offer any concessions to the listener. The guitar sound is remarkably lifeless, arrogant, robotic, and aloof. Playing this over and over, I never arrived at the conclusion that Mayhem were really trying to communicate anything to me, whether it was malice, hatred, anger, disgust, or whatever. The melodies on this album are all very small, shriveled, stunted, rambling, and without any sense of warmth - on purpose, of course. At their worst they seem to just be challenging technical exercises for the guitars (a little like Meshuggah), oscillating through preset patterns, following completely idiosyncratic themes of development. At their best they are beautifully depressing, isolated examples of musical solipsism - almost as if Mayhem are playing completely for themselves, and this album was captured through eavesdropping on their rehearsals. Much like the last EP, the music here really only serves to remind you of this band's complete separation from anything and everything, wrapped up in a cocoon of hatred, misanthropy, and despair. To listen to this work is to feel your isolation and loneliness made manifest.
Because this is a concept album of sorts, centering around the band's rabid hatred of Christianity, all the songs are connected not only through their internal stylistics but also through a very loose running narrative that stretches through the entire album. It is difficult to pick out individual songs and analyze them - this album is better heard all the way through, as a progression from the first moment to the last. The songs are more easily understood in that context.
There is a very strident sense of militaristic efficiency throughout this release, starting from the pulsing march of the first song, where the rhythms are meant to evoke a sense of a battle being joined, a war initiated (or at least declared), or a challenge being offered. Hellhammer's stupefying drum work is never less than perfect, and it sounds here like he has even increased his potential for speed while widening his range of rhythmic techniques. Never satisfied to just blast in a straightforward manner, his hyperactivity is translated here into multiple fill techniques (the sheer speed of which you probably will not believe), an original approach to changing patterns and beats beneath the guitars almost schizophrenically (but with a freezing precision that belies any sense of madness), and an effort to do as much as he can to expand the evocative range of the music. His contribution here is as great as it was expected to be, and shows very effectively once again why he is considered the best drummer in black metal.
Maniac has tried here to expand his potential for drama by using different techniques as well. Sticking most of the time to a mid-ranged shout or scream (when he's not reading off the lyrics like an apocalyptic apostle preaching to a damned congregation), his vocals, for the most part, fit in very well with the music as they offer very little in the way of emotion, even though his black snarls are some of the most bestial ever heard from this band, reminding me a lot of Attila's work on the 'De Mysteriis..' opus. If Dead's motivation in Mayhem was to 'create a style of emotionless, flat, singing' then Maniac is following in his footsteps in a professional manner, not abandoning his legacy, while trying to advance the possibilities his position offers him.
About the inclusion of 'electronic influences' on this album: they are not as important in the style of this release as they are being represented to be. In fact, they are hardly ever present except on a few songs, and on those they are used to spread an atmospheric effect more than anything else. Yes, there is a 'darkwave' or 'industrial song', with a slow techno feel to it, but that is only one song out of thirteen. 90% of this album is pure new wave Norwegian black metal and features no keyboards or added industrial elements, and while stylistically it may not be what you would expect from this band if you only knew Mayhem from recordings that are now almost ten years old (this really is a completely different band, after all), it is directly in the pattern of progression that they offered for perusal on their last release, as I stated above.
So, in my final summation, I think this is a very worthy release - not really what I would have wanted from this band, but something that doesn't surprise me at all. I believe the logical outcome of a sense of aesthetics that calls for a blistering, isolating, misanthropic sound is a type of music that is more machine-like than human. That makes sense, doesn't it? I don't know how much farther Mayhem can press this sort of concentration and musical commitment, but right now this is state of the art (for Norway) and makes perfect sense in the greater scheme of things. I recommend listening to it, and I am sure it is going to be massively influential.
For Mayhem, Grand Declaration of War was THAT album. You know, the one that nearly every Norwegian band releases to the dismay of a fraction of its fanbase, provoking cries of alienation and disrespect, spurned lovers wiping tears from their eyes as they turn their backs on the present and commence endless cycles of fellatio with the past. Yes, THAT album. Sure, some might argue that this had already occurred with their previous EP, Wolfs Lair Abyss. Hell, a handful of people will tell you that they sold out on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but I think at large, Grand Declaration brought a lot more change in the band's songwriting than any of their other major works. As for myself, it took a few spins to really let the album sink in, but I laud the band's ambition and experimentation here. As much as I do like it, I've never thought of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas as a remarkable or top shelf album from this scene, so I've never had any aversion to their shifting compositional landscape.
Essentially, this a grand, philosophical exposé against Christianity, a Nietzschean rally against weakness, and I daresay a convincing argument. Maniac had decided to incorporate a wealth of spoken word passages that more clearly deliver the messages, and this was first distinction that the audience will be slapped in the face with. I rather admired the technique, it's sort of like a political and ethical speech set to metal, a Winston Churchill for the Abyss. Often these are set against a series of salacious, traditional rasped vocals for an odd effect, and I can see where this might turn some off. But if there was one gripe I actually had about Maniac's performance here, it would be the constant elevation of pitch near the end of many of his clean lines. It eventually grows a little cheesy and predictable. Where it actually comes across the most poignant is in the interlude track, "A Broadsword and a Colder Sun (Part I of II)", where he whispers the prose with some added distortion.
But this is not the only difference you'll find between this and the earlier albums. Blasphemer's performance is my favorite on the entire disc, and it's here that in my opinion the guy has really earned his keep with this band. Clinical, technical and incredibly dynamic, he tears along these varied courses with crisp, fulfilling tone, and it's fascinating to follow his the splicing of his rhythm tracks. There's a surgical penetration to this material that wasn't present on Wolfs Lair Abyss, and tracks like "Crystallized Pain in Deconstruction" and "In the Lies Where Upon You Lay" are saturated with superb riffs and nuances. In fact, I'd go so far that he's channeling a bit of tech thrash from the late 80s, ala Watchtower or Deathrow, and it runs marvels as a contrast to the pomp of the vocals. Probably my favorite guitars on any Mayhem album, to be honest. The rhythm section also deserves mention, particularly Hellhammer who proves he's as great at jazz or progressive rock percussion at blasting (I found Necrobutcher more interesting on Chimera).
There is yet another layer of experimentation on Grand Declaration of War, and that comes in the pair of two of the band's most eclectic cuts to date. On "A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun (Part II of II)" they create this mesmeric electro/industrial piece with whispered vocals, light thumps of bass and these great, fading and rising guitar patterns behind the pulse of the synthesizer. I can see half of their early 90s audience heading for hills within 30 seconds of the opening, but as a fan of all manner of electronica, I rather liked this even more than several of the metal tunes. "Completion in Science and Agony (Part I of II)" is another bizarre standout, a hybrid of black metal, classic doom and even some progressive rock, Hellhammer turning in beats that remind me of some of Fates Warning's stuff circa Perfect Symmetry with Mark Zonder. The vocals are freakish, a pair of arching and unnerving melodies in which Mayhem is joined by Øyvind Hægeland of Spiral Architect (and numerous other bands), and I really dug the minimal electroscape near the end.
Like a white avian ensnared in barbwire, I found myself glued to this album's eccentricities, and took no real issue with its deviations from the predicted, or expected. Most of the larger names in extreme metal delve into the avant-garde, and Mayhem deserve some credit for doing such in a daring exhibition that no one had really tried before. Sure, progressive rock traits had been incorporated into other such albums, and spoken word passages, but never assembled with this precarious a balance. Grand Declaration of War is not perfect by any means. I've already noted how the spoken vocals can grate on the ears due to their pitch, and the guitars do not feel 100% inspired in their entirety, but nonetheless this is a curious collection of compositions that in no way plays it safe.
Like most things, the correct appraisal of this album is somewhere in the middle- it's neither a complete, inadvisable misstep for Mayhem nor a brilliant, forward-thinking masterpiece. However, I will say that it's significantly closer to the latter than the former, and though I'm loathe to use this argument, I would say that in many cases the album's detractors are significantly missing the point of the release. A discussion of why most poor opinions of this album are incorrect will actually tell you just what it is better than anything, so let's go on:
This is absolutely not 'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas', nor is it in any sense of the word a traditional black metal album. Hell, calling it not black metal at all would be somewhat questionable but not entirely out of the ballpark of possibility. There's blast beats, some tremolo riffs, and some screeching vocals, but that's where the proximity to black metal really ends, and everything else on this album seems stitched together out of whole cloth. What the hell could the influences this album draws from be? Yes, electronic and industrial music is one of them, but not as great as one might think (contrary to popular belief, a single short trip-hop track does not in and of itself constitute 'trip-hop influences' on the level of the album); if Thorns' only full length album had been released a few years previous to this one, it would be an obvious candidate, but its 2001 release date puts it out of the scope of possibility. Early Thorns, however, is definitely one, as would some of the other strange outliers of the Norwegian black metal scene, but overall, 'Grand Declaration Of War' is one of the few albums where I can say that much of its content seems to spring entirely from itself rather than others. Regardless of your opinion on the release, it was, and continues to be, quite unique.
Other reviewers have suggested that this was Mayhem's attempt to fully change black metal in the way that 'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas' arguably did, and I'd say this is a distinct possibility: 'Grand Declaration Of War' is massively (and in many cases to a fault) forward-thinking and 'progressive', and you can see in the songs that Mayhem did their best to avoid anything approximating 'normal' black metal. Mayhem was on this release clearly attempting to sound ahead of their time, which comes through hugely on how dated much of the material on this album sounds; a decade later, there are moments here which are distinctly cringe-inducing with the benefit of hindsight, but at the same time, I can't help but admire the balls it took to write and record something like this as a sophomore full-length album, particularly for a band like Mayhem which could have easily written 'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas' part two and still rolled in money. You have to respect the kind of nerve it takes to write something so unfriendly and possibly poisonous to their fanbase.
I don't think there's a single 'normal' riff on this album; as much of a self-aggrandizing douchebag as Blasphemer might be, he most certainly pulled out all the stops on this album to make it sound as alien and unlike anything else in metal as possible. Few of the riffs are straightforward tremolo are thrash numbers, and those that are are envenomed by a completely peculiar and off-kilter sense of mischievous, demonic melody, the sort of thing the cyberdemon in 'Doom' would play if his left hand wasn't occupied by a rocket launcher. Flurries of arpeggiated chords are tucked into streams of tremolo or thrash rhythms, and even the thrashier sections are corrupted by strange, non-intuitive rhythms as well as more typical, rocklike ones. The actual structure of the riffs is a marvel; mostly non-repeating and extremely long in musical terms, the melodies go places that black metal rarely does and are thoroughly written to an extent almost unheard of in extreme metal. Say what you will about the quality of the riffs, but they're some of the most ambitious I've heard.
The quality of the riffs varies considerably; unlike a lot of people I find some of them perfectly hummable, the rockish main riff that pops up throughout the opening track being a major one, with isolated other instances existing elsewhere. They're extremely technical throughout and merge very well with Hellhammer's typically flashy and demonstrative, which is a little more unobtrusive on this album than usual given the music it's surrounded by. Hellhammer's kit is completely sampled on this album; it's played by a human but every voice, possibly even the cymbals, is triggered, making for something just as clinical as the ultra-clean production and guitar playing would suggest. The lack of warmth in the drum performance makes sense given the somewhat futuristic and sterile feeling the album embodies; it's a declaration of war, yes, but not so much 'Braveheart' as a forgotten, much more violent than usual short story by Isaac Asimov.
A lot of fuss is made over the vocals on this release, and I'll admit that they're probably the weakest element here. Attila Csihar is really the only worthwhile vocalist Mayhem has ever had, and everyone else in the position of frontman is just varying degrees of bad, with Maniac being one of the worst. Admittedly, his black metal snarls aren't unlistenable; a tad weak and goblinish, perhaps, but I don't think the goal is for them to be particularly savage. The spoken word sections are pretty awful, though, and probably the cheesiest, most dated part of the album, sounding anachronistic even for 2000. Maniac's lilting, too-emphatic voice in these sections reduces monologues which might have been compelling if delivered by a better voice (such as Csihar's) to elaborate and straight-faced self-parody. Fortunately, Maniac is surprisingly quiet during most of the album, and the instrumental compositions can really be taken at face value.
The result of all this weirdness is an album without any real songs; I don't think it's entirely possible to listen to any one track on this release and have it retain the meaning that it would in the context of the album. Every track bleeds into the next as far as melodic sense goes, and Mayhem did succeed at creating something that really does feel like a complete work. Every track is just that: a section of something larger, which is a technique that seems mostly forgotten in the modern metal scene, and really, hard as it might be, the only way to listen to this release is to swallow it whole like a too-large pill. Of course, this does result in individual tracks which aren't particularly memorable- the tracks which stick to your head the most are either the openly idiosyncratic ones (the trip-hop tracks) or the excruciatingly embarrassing ones ('Crystalized Pain In Deconstruction' with what might be the worst monologue on the release). Enjoying this album tends to require some work on the part of the listener, so if you're going into it with the desire of getting something out of it, be prepared to use your mind and do some of the legwork yourself.
This album is, of course, not very effective as a black metal release, but that's not really its plan, or at least it's supposed to be such a massive reinterpretation of black metal convention that you can't judge it like you would 'Deathcrush'. There's little 'riffing' on this album, the song structures are linear and kind of amorphous, and the whole thing does have a somewhat pretentious 'performance art' aesthetic about it that I can imagine would be somewhat hard for many people to stomach. It's a listen for a certain mood; I can't put this on when I just feel like hearing something fun, but given the appropriate atmosphere (late night driving seems to work wonders for it) it's much more compelling.
I guess this is the point where I say whether I like the album or not, but frankly I don't think this is a release that's intended to be liked so much as appreciated. I listen to this probably a tenth as much as 'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas' but I can't say that 'Grand Declaration Of War' is really any worse for that fact. I even have trouble calling it a failed experiment because I have no idea what the benchmark for success was supposed to be with this release; if Mayhem was planning on redefining the whole genre of black metal, well, that didn't work out very well at all since nothing since has really sounded like this. If they were just trying to make something which sounds (for want of a better term) weird, well, it's definitely that. I think the truth, like the nature of the album itself, is somewhere in between; it's a serious album but there's more than a little playfulness to its construction, a tongue-in-cheek quality which both makes it easier to stomach some of the more bizarre elements and harder to take it seriously as a release by one of black metal's most enduring artists. It's SOMETHING, definitely, but I'm not sure I'll ever know what that something is.
In any case, you should listen to it at least a few times.
Mayhem is among my favorite black metal bands. I like nearly everything they have put out. Everything except this misguided heap of hooey. When I critique a black metal release, I judge it by intrinsic value of expectations and standards held by the genre. Which means when I hear a black metal band, I expect to hear black metal music. Grand Declaration of War fails as black metal and as something else. Whatever that else is that Mayhem tried to do with this album I do not know but it failed.
The first thing I will say about GDoW is that it is one big fucking tease. I will give it a little bit of extra points for the first four and half songs or so because Blasphemer does a good job with the riffs on those songs and Maniac sounds like he should. Wolf's Lair Abyss is one of my favorite EP's of all time and this album is supposed to be an expansion of that concept I gather. So, those first few songs do provide a decent continuity to it. They are respectable to good but not great. At best, it sounded promising. I guess this is supposed to be a concept album. But guess what? I don't like concept albums in black metal either.
Because of the relative merits of the aforementioned parts in the beginning, this will rate slightly higher than it deserves. That being said, considering this line-up of Mayhem contains the talents of the very worthy guitarist Blasphemer and the great Hellhammer, this sure is one empty war chest. How this album just completely plateaus into utter drivel is so infuriating that I would just as soon to forget the band released this altogether. It stops just short of being categorized into the Cold Lake class of what-the-fuck.
Whatever message about nihilism and war the band tries to convey gets lost. It's no big deal at all. It certainly isn't "Grand." As a matter of fact, if this is about destruction and combat, then this is one war I will sit out. Oh! What an un-lovely war! I will take my interest in war metal elsewhere, thank you very much. That was my first thought as soon as the song A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun Part II of...eh I lost count. The point is, this is where the record gets really asinine. Maniac just whisper sings in a suave style backed by a Devo-like electronic arrangement that reminded me of anything but fallout of war. Crystalized Pain in Deconstruction follows shortly after it. To say it's an improvement on the prior song isn't saying much but it is a little better. By this point though, Maniac just yelps out spoken word like inanities that becomes quite annoying. How he says, "Where instruments of genetic distortion is me!" is pretty amusing. This album could use a bit more instruments of distortion and less of the electronica, true. Then there is the Daimonion series of songs. The first one is just more of a rockish type bit with Maniac singing like Mark Mothersbaugh with the raped cat screeches behind it. However, let me skip down to the worst song of the album. Well, it's not actually a song at all. That's right, except for the spoken line at the very beginning, the song is just...yep, silence. Now I have heard this kind of thing done before in some other album by somebody but here, it is just a complete debacle. It is about four full minutes of dead air. I'm sorry but that is not content. How could they have thought this was clever? Ah, that's right, this supposed to be avant-garde. If that is avant-garde, then I'm Ava Gardner and I say that pretentiousness like this has no place in black metal from here to fucking eternity.
This album goes out with a whimper too. After that non-song (actually there are two of them with the latter being a full seven seconds of nil!) that is called Daimonion, it just ends with an inconsequential guitar chord by Blasphemer that seems tacked on from a demo somewhere. It fittingly sums up what this album is: A grand declaration of...nothing. Not war. Not annihilation. Certainly not combat. Just nothing. After the first shots are fired, you will find that it was nothing more than a negligent discharge. Stand down, it was just a drill.
“Grand Declaration of War”, the mere mention of the name provokes strong reactions throughout Mayhem’s fan base and the whole black metal community. Liking this album is often attributed to “open-mindedness™,” a sad fact indeed. “Grand Declaration of War” is not about being musically open-minded; otherwise I myself would not like it so much. “Grand Declaration of War” is not about YOUR OPINION, “Grand Declaration of War” is just “Grand Declaration of War”. There’s nothing there to it, you like this album, or you don’t. You might be a diehard “Transilvanian Hunger” love child, eager to suck the nipple of the style for eternity, yet still like this album. The next person who has the same musical taste may hate it. It’s strange in that way, and, at least in my mind, misinterpreted. “Grand Declaration of War” appears to be something so abstract on the surface, and it very well may be. The thing is though, the abstractness is calculated, and it’s there. You can’t change this album, it doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t care about any of us.
As said, “Grand Declaration of War” is downright abstract in its construction as an album. You’ve probably read the previous reviews on this very website. An electronica song (NOT techno, but I’ll get to that later), a song with two sentences of spoken word followed by silence, a track with a mere seven seconds of silence, and that’s it. Indeed, as I type this the slow electronic pulse of “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun [Part II]” is coming through my speakers. How could a band such as Mayhem make such an album? Heck, the same line-up produced the straight-forward, and damn dark “Wolf’s Lair Abyss” EP just three years earlier. If one could argue anything for this album, it’s that it has vision. “Grand Declaration of War” is not composed as a series of songs, one after another. It’s an album, somewhat of a concept album in actuality, which must be listened to as an album to appreciate. I was once conversing with a detractor of this album. Despite our differing opinions on the album, the one thing we agreed on is that this works better listened to in full. Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that the album is almost approached in a similar manner to how many noise and ambient artists approach their live performances. It has that “calculated improvisation” feel to it and as the album continues on, it becomes more abstract, culminating in the “silent” tracks mentioned before, and the outro, “Completion in Science of Agony [Part II].”
This same approach applies to the way the instruments are played and utilised as well. Often the rhythm of the songs is buried underneath multiple layers of guitars. That by the way is my favourite element to this album. The guitars almost seem to “fly in,” leaving the bass to continue the song as the guitars do their thing. Anybody who’s heard Emperor’s “Prometheus” album may have a general idea of what I’m talking about, though on “Grand Declaration of War” it sounds much more natural and significant in its execution. The drumming varies immensely as well, from slow beats on “Completion in Science of Agony [Part I]” (an amazing beast of a song, showing a combination of black metal and doom that results in one of the most eerie and COLD tracks ever heard by this reviewer’s ears), to the powerful marching beats in “A Grand Declaration of War” and “View from Nihil [Part I].” Marching beats have always been a favourite of mine, and pretty much guaranteed this album a high score from the beginning, but on Grand Declaration of War this simple idea is taken to the next level. “A Grand Declaration of War” uses them in a more atmospheric manner, helping to build up for the rest of the album. To follow the concept of the album, the war is about to be declared, the band is preparing. Continue listening to “View from Nihil [Part I]” and the marching beats have taken a more prominent role, a call to war accompanied by the amazing spoken word performance of Maniac creating a truly war like atmosphere. This logically brings me to my next point, Maniac’s vocals, which are a roughly 50/50 split of spoken word and traditional harsh black metal shrieking. Much like the rest of the album, you are going to like his vocals, or hate them. Maniac was often described as a charismatic front man around the time of this album’s release, which shows in the album. The charisma is put to use in an absolutely stunning spoken word performance, bringing to mind a general marshalling his troops to war. “View from Nihil [Part I]” is the best example of this, it’s almost disappointing when the spoken word and marching beats end to bring in the blinding speed the rest of the song possesses. Accompanied with the frequent use of the man’s harsh vocal styling, the infamous “raped cat,” Maniac provides a truly memorable vocal performance. Whether you hate this album or love it; THAT will be the thing you remember after listening to “Grand Declaration of War.” Lyrically “Grand Declaration of War” follows an aggressive anti-Christian theme/concept. The title is perhaps the best summary of the lyrics; it’s a declaration of war against Christianity. The lyrics are well written yet incredibly (and genuinely) hateful. It may seem pretty cliché, but Mayhem actually sounds like they mean what they say here and later interviews with Maniac and the rest of the band most definitely confirm this.
To give a sort of summary to the individual tracks of this album (I tend to prefer the term “track” over “song” in reference to this album, for obvious reasons) would be difficult, and an injustice to the album. As I previously stated, this album must be listened to as a whole, not as “songs.” The album progresses quite logically, starting with “A Grand Declaration of War,” a track that falls somewhere between an intro and a traditional song. Marching beats accompanied by a raspy whisper set the mood for the rest of the album. It’s one of my favourite tracks of all time, and the perfect way to open the album. This opens the floodgates and progresses into “In the Lies Where Upon You Lay,” an extremely fast song accompanied by one of Maniac’s spoken word performances. The shout of “your life is DEAD priest!” is awe-inspiring, testament to the sheer hatred that Maniac holds for Christianity. “A Time to Die” starts turning the album more abstract. It’s actually quite simple underneath all the guitars, but the speed is absolutely amazing in this song. It remains a live staple even in 2008, as it should be. Aggression is paramount to “A Time to Die,” which makes “View from Nihil [Part I]” even more shocking. In my opinion, this is Mayhem’s greatest live song. When Maniac performed this song with conviction, it showed. Bootlegs and live albums show a crowd immersed in the energy of the song, and it’s perfectly placed on this album as well. Once again, the album becomes more abstract here, with a transition through “View from Nihil [Part II].”
“A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun.” The first part of this highly controversial two part piece is essentially a whispered introduction before sequencing into the cold electronic beats of Part II. Here it must be stated, though a song belonging to the “electronica” genre, this is most definitely not techno. If you’ve been off put from listening to this album because you’re expecting a bouncy pop song, then you’ve been misinformed. In fact, this is one of Mayhem’s darkest and most haunting tracks, but in context it is amazingly abstract and completely unexpected for a first time listener. You may have noticed that “Grand Declaration of War” is split into “Part II” and “Part III” (“Wolf’s Lair Abyss” is “Part I”). “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun” is the first piece in “Part III,” and sets the standard for the rest of the album, which is Mayhem at their most abstract and, watch out here, experimental. This is shown further on “Crystallized Pain in Deconstruction,” which although a return to metal, is no less abstract or complex than its previous tracks. “Crystallized Pain in Deconstruction” features the most of the “fly in” guitar technique described earlier, so much it’s almost confusing on the first listen. There is a good three guitar tracks, with the possibility of a fourth present in places in the song, lending it an extremely “complex” sound. It’s almost strange how it progresses into “Completion in Science of Agony [Part I].” The track before was aggressive, fast, yet we get… a doom song? Yep, it’s slow and atmospheric, unheard of by Mayhem to this extent. It’s probably the coldest song I’ve ever heard, and sends chills down my spine every listen. It’s haunting, scary and eerie. It’s every synonym you can find in the thesaurus for those words and more. You might also like to look up the word “awesome” in your dictionary, because that’s never fitted more to a song. Finally, “To Daimonion” is presented. “Part I” of this three part piece is a somewhat “rockish” song, it’s puzzling like much of this album, especially coming off a song like “Completion in Science of Agony [Part I].” “To Daimonion” has, much as with “A Time to Die,” become a live staple for Mayhem well into 2008 (and hopefully well into the future!). “Part II” is where the abstract component of “Grand Declaration of War” finally presents itself wholly, with Maniac speaking “I remember the future. A new beginning of time”, then followed by nearly five minutes of silence. To top it off, “Part III” is just seven seconds of silence, and nothing more. I used to dislike this, it just seemed like a stupid wasted of a track; but when put into context, the idea just seems to work. The album closes “Completion in Science of Agony [Part II],” an outro that rounds of the album perfectly. On a side note, the “bonus track” (found BEFORE “A Grand Declaration of War” on the CD, rewind the disc from the start to listen to it or download it from the band’s website) is essentially a rawer version of this outro.
“Grand Declaration of War” is a unique album within metal. Nobody, not even the band themselves is ever going to attempt to make this album again. It’s calculated down to the finest details; just take a look at the cover for proof. On the first look, it’s just a dead bird. But look at it closely, it’s a dove impaled on barbed wire. Killing a prominent icon of piece with war time equipment? Great symbolism and it simply adds to the album’s feeling before the first song even sounds. I love this album, you may or may not. I cannot give any comparisons to other bands or albums, because there is none. Don’t approach this album with an “open-mind,” don’t approach it with any opinion at all. Going into this album with any sort of expectation completely ruins the point of the album, if there is indeed one at all. I’m glad I did this, I just thought “let’s give it a listen and see what it’s like” and then I listened to it. If there’s one thing I want this review to convey to the reader, it’s that point, because you’ll be all the better for it. If you hate it, you hate it. If you love it, you love it. Perhaps the best way to experience this is first hearing it without even knowing what it is. Listen to the album, not the people nor the reviews. Listen not to other’s opinions of this, go into the listening session with absolutely no expectations whatsoever, for good or bad, listen to the album, and make up your mind. Of course, that might render this review completely pointless but at the end of the day remember one thing; it doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t care about any of us.
As much I hate to seem like I am simply jumping on the bandwagon here, I must admit to this album being a major disappointment. As most know, after De Mysteriis was released, Mayhem as a band disbanded, obviously due to the murder of Euronymous, Vikernes being sentenced, and Attila's distance, Hellhammer was the only remaining member. He chose to continue the band in 1995, with past members, Maniac on vocals and Necrobutcher on bass, with a new guitarist, Blasphemer. After recording the vicious Wolf's Lair Abyss EP, this newly formed lineup seemed to be promising.
This album is very experimental, incorporating electronic and industrial elements, and other effects, along with black metal elements. Just not what you would expect from a band like Mayhem considering their past works. I think it was great that they decided to attempt at something original, I just wish they hadn't chosen this path. With Euronymous dead, Maniac seems to have taken creative direction.
Grand Declaration Of War is rather vicious at times, especially with Maniac's black metal vocals, as they are quite brutal. This, however, does not mean they are good. I have never been a fan of Maniac's vocals, mainly because they are very uninteresting and uninspired, in my opinion. Vocals aside, Blasphemer however, does seem to be a suitable replacement for Euronymous, although not as good, does a decent and respectable job. Some of the riffs in the songs Crystalized Pain in Deconstruction, In The Lies Where Upon You Lay, and View From Nihil are decent. The drums are quite fast, and decent as well on some songs, yet at sometimes can be aggravating also. Some songs have passages where Maniac is talking, which I don't like at all. Perhaps the worst song on here is A Bloodsword And A Colder Sun, which uses odd whispering vocal effects, and all instruments are absent, replaced with digitalized beats instead, which is a disgrace in my opinion for such a band.
The whole album is a concept album, with lyrics about future destruction of the world, society decaying, war, and related topics. I wouldn't say the lyrics are terrible, just truly nothing new really. I assume Maniac wrote these, which is not surprising, as he is also not the most original in this department either.
I've sure fans of industrial metal would enjoy this, but for traditional fans of black metal and earlier Mayhem, this is truly not for you. What saved this review from a serious low rating was some of the musicianship, namely by Blasphemer. The whole idea of this kind of experimentation by a band such as Mayhem though was a very bad idea. I am just happy that Maniac is out of the band now, and with Attila back on vocals, perhaps we can look forward to some decent material in the future.
Whether a person loves or loathes this release, there's no denying that it shattered barriers, for better or worse. Mayhem transcended not only their physical past, but also their musical past on this album. Maybe that was the point, though. "Wolf's Lair Abyss" showed us that Mayhem was an entirely new band, and most took to that EP rather fondly. But maybe we didn't get the message clearly enough; GDoW is Mayhem's proud proclamation of rising above the hordes of "kvlt" black metal to forge something entirely their own that not only set them apart from the rest of BM, but seemed to spawn a revolution.
The song structures and writing methods on this album are incredibly unpredictable and amorphous. Strange, dissonant guitars swoop in and out of the mix, and are often layered to create a certain apocalyptic ambience. Blasphemer and Hellhammer coincide perfectly to create jagged, unorthodox time signatures and rhythms, as on "Crystallized Pain in Deconstruction" or the middle section of "In the Lies Where upon You Lay." It's safe to say that Mayhem use a very technical approach here, even on the simpler songs; For instance, while the second half of, "View From Nihil, Part I" may seem to be a straight barrage of blast beats, there are a ton of nuances in the guitar rhythms that make it a challenging listen. I truly believe that Blasphemer composed his most challenging material on this album, both listening-wise and playing-wise.
However, the avant-garde nature of the album doesn't stop with just the structures of the songs. There is a high use of electronics here, whether it be the unsettling vocal effects, weird guitar splices and harmonies, or even ominus trip-hop beats. (The latter of which caught a lot of flack from reviewers.) Mayhem have been one of the few bands to correctly utilize these things to work to the advantage of the music, since it aids in creating a war-like, post-apocalypse atmosphere that permeates the whole album. Songs like "Completion in the Science of Agony" offer startling, eerie soundscapes with high experimentation while maintaining a degree of brutality. The experimental nature of the album goes even further with Maniac's lyrics and vocal performance. He still uses the gut-wrenching scream that he's become so infamous for, but there are just as many sections on the album that use spoken-word dialogues, synthesized vocals, and and a semi-yell, as seen on "View From Nihil." Lyrically, it may be a bit on the pretentious side, but lives up to the album's name by making references to modern technology and warfare.
GDoW's production is damn near flawless. Blasphemer's guitar tone is icy and seething, but maintains a good amount of clarity; Necrobutcher's bass lines are finally audible on songs such as "To Daimonion"; and Hellhammer's drums, even with being totally triggered, are flawless. HH's technical prowess is rivalled by few, as seen on the ripping "A Time to Die" or "In the Lies Where Upon You Lay." The mixing job here is incredibly clean without coming off as sparkly or over-produced, which I think was essential in putting forth the aesthetic of the album.
Overall, GDoW is a bit stuck-up and self-indulgent; but if you broke the mold of an entire genre, wouldn't you be the same way? Fans of experimental metal and tech-death alike will enjoy this album, or maybe just people looking for a challenging listen.
Favorite tracks: "In the Lies Where Upon You Lay", "A Time to Die", "To Daimonion."
2000's Grand Declaration Of War signifies Maniac's tentative return to full time recording with Mayhem. The band's infamously volatile lineup is mirrored by the sheer unpredictability of this album, a composition with roots in black metal but with aspirations to something far grander.
There seems to be a climate in the black metal scene that causes key artists to transgress and produce recordings that are musically contradictory to the primitive nature of their past output. Recent avant-garde work from the likes of Arcturus, Burzum, Samael and Ulver are among the many examples of this. Mayhem could easily have traced a similar route with this piece of 'Post-Black Metal', but they can be commended for their retention of the brutal elements of their earlier works.
Much like Akercocke's latest output, they break the mould by introducing sprawling progressive elements into the nihilistic blast. While black metal is always physically demanding, this album also manages to engage the listener on a mental level. The tracks are still riddled with the standard BM rasps, but the band's inclusion of militant speeches and rousing narration conveys their intentions like never before. The military vibe of their new style is further enhanced by Hellhammer's sharp insistent drumming, tight prog-tinged riffing and occasional industrial samples.
Their disregard for traditional song structure is still present and is manifested this time around by the epic nature of the songs. This could be seen as a drawback as the music is very much album-oriented and not very accessible (puzzling stretches of silence occupy a number of tracks). However, a clinically balanced and tight production prevents its descent into a tangle of chaos.
Lyrically, the album attacks the herd mentality that the church represents, and it seems apt that Mayhem are very much going against the grain themselves with this album. Groundbreaking, sprawling nihilism for those with good attention spans.
The other day, I decided I would buy a cd on a whim. I was at an FYE store and I was browsing the metal section when I came across Mayhem's "Grand Declaration of War", so I scanned it and listened to the sound samples. Having never heard anything by Mayhem before, I was surprised that it was not true black metal, like I had heard that they were. It sounded rather impressive, yet at the same time ... very weird. I noticed, looking at the case, that the booklet for the cd was only one page, so I was not expecting lyrics or anything special. Even though the case was not well-done, I bought it.
Upon my first listen I seemed to focus upon the things I found to be original and impressive on the album. To name a few: the technical drumming, the fret-searing guitar work, the abrupt tempo changes, the experimentation, and the overall feel of the album. This cd sounds like nothing I have heard before. It IS black metal, but at the same time, it isn't. I took the cd out of my cd player with the impression that I had bought a cd that I would only listen to occasionally.
The next day I listened to it upon awakening. This time around, it seemed as though all of the things I found to be impressed by the last listen were overpowered by the things that are out of the ordinary, and in a sense, unnecessary. To name them: the clean vocals sound (to me) as though he is just yelling triumphantly, he doesn't seem like he knows english very well and it sounds like he is reading from a teleprompter, so it is an aquired taste. "Completion In Science of Agony" is a very long, drawn-out song that seems to go on forever, without much change at all. It gets boring over time and I think the cd would have been better without it. "A BloodSword and a Colder Sun" is the electronic/ ambient song that most people hate, I myself agree, but it is gloomy and dark, so it fits the album. Occasionally it is an alright listen, so it belongs on the cd.
After those two listens I seemed to enjoy everything about the album. The vocals grew on me, and now occasionally crave them. "Completion In Science of Agony" is easily skipped, and "A BloodSword and a Colder Sun" is a good song to listen to occasionally. The fact that the lyrics are not enclosed in the case bothered me at first, but the internet solved that problem for me. I gave the album an 89 because: the sung/spoken vocals are quite un-nerving to the un-trained, and the album gets boring on tracks 6-9.
Overall, I do recomend this album to anyone who is looking to broaden their landscape of musical taste. If you do not have an open mind, or only like true black metal, then you should probably steer clear.
Favorite songs: "A Time to Die" and "To Daimonion"
Let’s just forget that the Mayhem logo’s on the cover of this one, okay? There are probably some Phil Anselmo/Killjoy projects out there on Baphomet that feature more members of The True Mayhem than this album does, and they might very well sound more like Mayhem’s old music as well (but I can’t be bothered to check).
I can only guess what the flow of logic was that brought the musicians here to the sound on this album, but I tend to imagine that they thought black metal needed a change and that under the Mayhem name they could make a ubiquitous statement. If they had just wanted to make some easy money off of their name, there are certainly much simpler and easier ways of doing it than creating a monstrosity like this thing: other Norwegian bands have proven that without a doubt. Also, it doesn't sound like a prank or a bunch of distracted creative doodling the way that DHG's 666 International album did, or others in that vein. Mayhem aren’t fucking around here; for better or worse, they really are giving the old college try at somehow reinventing black metal.
On the odd chance that you know nothing about this album, here’s a short list of the sorts of things you’ll encounter over its running time: very clean production, dissonant technical black metal guitar (!), extravagant drumming and flashy blast beats, harsh vocals, shouted vocals, ranted vocals, whispered vocals (all courtesy “Deathcrush” singer Maniac), one vaguely trip-hoppish electronic track (that’s right, only one, and no other techno elements anywhere, in spite of what you may have heard), a generally “modern” aesthetic… yes, there’s something here for everyone to hate. Furthermore, the composition of these tracks actively eludes anything resembling a “song” in the usual sense of the word, and they sort of blur into one another, each seemingly an evolution into the next, so any notion that you might end up humming them in the shower is right out. So, yes, traditionalists are annoyed and novelty-seekers are delighted. But that’s predictable, and not a terribly difficult thing to accomplish. Obviously Mayhem knew that they were going to offend people with this one; after all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, as they say, and if black metal is going to have some glorious artistic future that moves beyond its murky past, some people are going to get left behind. But now that the smoke’s cleared, well, does this thing have any real answers or just a lot of hot air?
Well, perhaps it’s got a little bit of both. All of the general strangeness here I can swallow – you’re going to have to go a lot weirder than this if you want to lose me. While there are some really effective moments in here, there’s a stumbling block in the move towards a more theatrical, “performance art” ethic in their aims and songwriting. Observe in particular things like the marching intro to “View from Nihil”, or Maniac’s speeches amidst the songs, or the way the album as a whole seems out to satirize black metal convention. Much of it feels too demonstrative to me, frequently sounding less like musical compositions and more like experimental sound collages put together by avant-garde ambient or noise artists. The guitar work is sort of interesting in that it breaks out of the clichés of rock-based forms into strange cascades of dissonance, but in and of itself, it often appears to say nothing – just “we have moved beyond black metal”. It’s less like listening to music and more like listening to some kind of comment *about* music.
As a follow up to the creative explosion that occurred in Norway in the early 90s, I don’t think “Grand Declaration” is quite a move in the right direction. Nevertheless, the truth is that I’d rather listen to this than most of what’s come out in the wake of the Norwegian scene’s collapse. What can I say? It’s an ambitious album and an interesting listen, and unlike so many other bands, Mayhem can honestly say that they tried. I wonder if things in the black metal scene would be any different right now if this album had worked out a little better?
As much as I respect bands trying to stretch out and try something different due to being artists and all, something just ought not to be tried. Like this extensive experiment in electronica meets black metal, for example. I am not one of these closed-minded black metal geeks who thinks Mayhem ought not to have continued after Euronymous' death or for that matter that Dead was the better vocalist (he wasn't--all hail Csihar Attilla!), but I like to think that know a forced effort when I hear one. And this CD does not flow naturally at all. It feels more like a collection of isolated moments instead of songs, and that seriously affects its momentum. Just when you think it's getting a good riff going, it jumps to a totally unrelated part and then another, and goes on to totally lose my interest. It was interesting at first, but after a few listens it lost me.
On the bright side, Maniac shows himself to be quite the vocal chameleon on this CD, going from BM 101 screeching to chilling whispers to a pseudo-Southern preacher delivery, and does it all well. Blasphemer started really stretching out as well with dissonant Voi Vod riffs and the occasional wailing solo (like on "Completion of Science in Agony", with Maniac's searing screams of "Yesss, yeeeessss, YEEESSSSSS!!!!!" accenting it nicely), unlike the typical black metal tremolo picking, which only rarely shows up here. Hellhammer, well, he's Hellhammer, but so damn triggered they may as well have used a drum machine. Strong musicianship aside, though, that is not enough to save an album if the coherence is lacking, which it is in this case. I appreciate that Mayhem tried something new and different on this album, but damnit, it just isn't the same. Sorry, guys, though "Chimera" is actually a little better...