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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?