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It was a cold November night in 1990 when, arguably, the most influential band of the Norwegian Black Metal scene took the stage in Leipzig, Germany. For Dead, Euronymous, Necrobutcher and Hellhammer, it was, most likely, an ordinary night. Mayhem was at its creative peak, and in the midst of changing how Black Metal was perceived, yet none present were aware that they were taking part in a performance that would later be deemed legendary and of great significance. The show was captured on tape and bootlegged to the point where it came to the attention of Euronymous, himself. Following Dead's suicide, a deal was made with a small Italian label, Obscure Plasma Records, to release the performance as an official tribute to their former vocalist. And thus the Live in Leipzig album was given birth, in 1992.
My first experience with this record came several years back, in the days when such music was not so readily available. One could not just jump on the internet and find anything and everything within mere moments. It was late at night and I was listening to a college radio program. I called in to request some old Mayhem material that featured Dead on vocals, and was put off for a couple weeks. Finally, I spoke to the DJ and he was preparing to play some that night. I had to go out, but left a tape in the stereo and recorded the remainder of the show. When I returned, it was around two in the morning and the room was lit with only candles as the cassette recounted the tale of that night's program. The majority of the songs were rather mundane or things that I was already familiar with. However, as the live rendition of "Funeral Fog" began, I could feel something stirring within me. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was an album that I knew very well, yet to hear the song in such a raw and primal manner caused it to take on a new meaning. However, once Dead's vocals began to bleed forth from the speakers, the whole atmosphere of the room changed. The shadows that danced upon the walls, from the flickering of the candles, now seemed to move in an ominous rhythm. I knew in that instant that this man's death was a tragic waste of potential and left the Mayhem L.P. as a mere shadow of what it could have been.
Though he was in the band for nearly three and a half years, Dead's legacy lives on through various bootleg recordings of live shows and rehearsals, as well as the December Moon demo from his previous band, Morbid. The fact that only two studio tracks were ever recorded with this classic line-up is all the more disappointing. And yet therein lies the primary appeal of Live in Leipzig. This is the only official Mayhem release to feature Dead's versions of some of the songs that ended up on their debut L.P. What one finds upon listening to this is something quite different from the aforementioned Morbid demo. In a live setting, many of the subtle effects are not as practical, and what the listener is exposed to is the sound of a man possessed. From the opening moments of the record, as his voice cuts through the crowd noise, proclaiming "Only death is real", throughout the tracks from the 1987 Deathcrush demo and on to half of the songs from the upcoming De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas release, it is impossible to not feel the dark essence and force of evil that was conjured up by this otherworldly being. Regarding the old material, Maniac's efforts on the demo are completely destroyed and forgotten, though where Dead truly shines is on the new songs. As one that actually appreciates Attila's work on the studio album, it is still somewhat saddening to hear the potential that these songs once had, Dead had poured himself into these compositions and through his vision had the truly risen from the rotten graves. Without him, they are clearly lacking something. Few things match the ferocity heard in his voice on "Funeral Fog", or the morbid chill that runs up your spine as he introduces "Freezing Moon" with the haunting line:
"When it's cold... and when it's dark... the freezing moon can obsess you!"
One has to wonder how accurately this live performance reflects his true vision for these songs, as one would assume that the tactics that he employed on the December Moon demo would have played some part in the final recordings and that the extra rawness in his voice may simply have come from the necessities of the live setting.
As for the music, itself, there are some notable differences when compared to the proper versions of these songs. The Deathcrush material has been slowed down and takes a somewhat doomier approach. Perhaps this was just to give them less of an upbeat feel, or maybe to emphasize the vocals and give Dead a chance to really get into the songs without screaming to the extent that Maniac had done. While enjoyable, the older songs are really just filler when compared to the new stuff. Songs such as "Freezing Moon" and "Pagan Fears" just seem to flow much better, showing the growth that the band had experienced and the increased talent in songwriting. Due to the inability to record a proper album for so many years, the band lived and breathed these songs for quite some time and had plenty of opportunities to make changes as the years passed by. This is quite evident in the song that stands out as the highlight of the entire record, "Buried by Time and Dust".
"Many years had passed since the funeral... buried ages ago..."
The studio version contains some brilliant riffs during the middle section, yet what is found here is quite different. It sounds as if one of the riffs is still there, in a much cruder form, accompanied by something completely different from what made it to the album. In several interviews, Euronymous made mention of tossing out riffs that were not good enough and constantly working on the material to make it as dark and evil as it could possibly be. In this case, a great riff was tossed out, which makes these older versions of the song all the more valuable. During this particular riff, Dead's voice sounds more evil and possessed than at any other part of the record, and these brief moments stand as proof that utter genius was lost as this band began to fall apart. The atmosphere that is creating by this passage is difficult to describe, as something powerful reaches out of the dark and grips your heart. In those moments, you can feel the experience of crawling through six feet of rotten dirt and rising among the graves in the dead of night, under the full moon, consumed with some inhuman need for blood and death.
The various feelings that the listener is imbued with are all the more impressive when one takes into consideration the sound of the recording and the production values. This does not possess the crisp and cold sound that is present on the full-length, but the mix is not bad at all. Unlike the tracks that appeared on the "Projections of a Stained Mind" compilation, the drums do not dominate the sound and the guitar riffs are quite audible. There is a healthy balance between the two, which combine to provide the perfect backdrop for Dead's barbaric frenzy. In a sense, the overall sound here is very appropriate, as the rawness of the recording keeps alive the 80s spirit in which these songs had begun to be crafted, and offers a different perspective than the later versions. One can really feel the energy and passion that each member is playing with, as if the entire band is under the spell of the dark gods. The level of intensity stands in sharp contrast to the dull sounds of the crowd, probably caught completely by surprise at what they were witnessing.
From the iconic cover image to the classic songs and the legendary performance by a band that was in its prime, Live in Leipzig is a great example of what Black Metal is supposed to be about. It's raw and dirty and dripping with evil, yet not without its more epic and memorable moments as well. Don't be tempted to listen to the fools that tell you that this is merely a novelty item that should be checked out once or twice or simply purchased for its supposed cult value. This is the true representation of Mayhem and a view into the dark past of a band that was crucial for the development of Black Metal at a time when most of the old ones had gone silent or mutated into something unrecognizable. Seek this out at all costs and, if you already own it, don't let it sit on the shelf and collect dust. Put it in the stereo, turn the volume all the way up and allow the true essence of black purity wash over your pathetic spirit.
Written for http://ritesoftheblackmoon.tripod.com