without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
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.