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“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.