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Just one look at the cover of Mayhem's The Dawn of the Black Hearts is enough for even a black metal novice to realize that something had gone horribly wrong with this band. During the peak of the Norwegian scene, for better or worse, many lines were crossed. Death threats were hurled against someone for the slightest offense. People were murdered, with little or no provocation. Churches were burned down, which was the most positive of these actions. And yet, despite all of this, many felt that a more significant line was crossed following the suicide of Mayhem's vocalist, Dead. Euronymous felt no sense of loss for his fallen comrade, who had succumbed to a severe depression and a morbid desire to leave this world. The band's founder simply saw an opportunity to continue building the cult-like mystique around Mayhem, taking photos of Dead's corpse (after taking the time to position him a certain way and to lay the instruments of his demise nearby, as if they were props). He then claimed that the suicide was, partially, to protest the fact that Black and death metal had become too trendy. Even his own bassist, Necrobutcher, was disgusted enough with this behaviour to quit the band that he had helped to form. While Euronymous, himself, was murdered before getting the chance to use the photos for future Mayhem releases, one of the pictures survived long enough to be used for a bootleg, a few years later. The compilation includes two live recordings, one from 1990 and another from 1986.
The first recording was done in Sarpsborg, Norway in February 1990, which was about nine months prior to the material that is on Live in Leipzig. This performance is the main focus of The Dawn of the Black Hearts, as it features the classic Mayhem line-up of Dead, Euronymous, Necrobutcher and Hellhammer. The set list is exactly the same as that of the aforementioned live album, except for the absence of "Pagan Fears". Otherwise, all of the same tracks from Deathcrush and the upcoming full-length, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, are present and in the same order. The sound quality is lower, to an extent, though this actually allows one to get a slightly different perspective on Mayhem's live shows, from this period. Whereas the vocals and drums were the loudest elements on Live in Leipzig, everything is buried at an equal depth, here. The guitars seem thicker and more powerful, rather than the thinner sound of the later recording. As bad as the production may seem, it is still superior to the majority of the offerings from the LLN bands. It may take some time for your ears to become attuned to the necro sounds; however, once you make this adjustment, the dark and morbid atmosphere consumes you and takes you back in time to a special period in the history of black metal.
Regarding the actual execution of the material, it does seem a bit more primitive, in some cases. It could be due to the poor quality of the recording, but it sounds as if the drumming is sloppy and inconsistent, as if the songs had not been fully worked out. Thankfully, the guitar playing holds everything together and gives the music a sense of structure. It is odd to think how influential Mayhem was, yet few in Norway cared to utilize the serpentine lead solo style. While the slower tempos utilized on the Deathcrush material helps to create an ominous feeling, the true darkness is found in tracks like "Freezing Moon" and "Buried By Time and Dust". The cold tremolo riffs, mournful arpeggios, doom-ridden bass and possessed vocals work well to create a pitch-black atmosphere. It is common for people to be idealized once they die, leading many to claim that they were far better than they actually were. This is so common that when it is actually true, as in the case of Dead, there are those that come out of the woodwork to try chipping away at his legacy with their cynicism. But those words are entirely worthless, as all it takes is for one listen to hear the maniacal and possessed fervor with which Dead approached his role as vocalist for Mayhem.
As for the other recording, it is from a 1986 performance that featured Messiah and Manheim, on vocals and drums. The sound quality is bloody awful and there are times when only the vocals and bits of percussion can be heard. The set consists of a couple of cover songs from both Venom and Celtic Frost. This is quite difficult to enjoy, even for hardcore fans. It is mostly useful just to satisfy curiosities as to what the band's live sound was, back then. Oddly, Messiah sounds much more in line with the likes of Cronos and Tom Warrior, rather than the harsher vocalists that followed him. It is too bad that this set did not include any original material, though it may have been even harder to discern. At least, with the cover songs, anyone familiar with them can more easily pick up on what is going on.
In the end, The Dawn of the Black Hearts is another significant part of Mayhem's legacy. Nearly all recordings from the band's classic era are worth listening to and showcase a group of musicians that were in their creative prime. So unfortunate that they were unable to record a full-length album with this line-up. The older stuff is interesting as well, but certainly the less important of the two. The only real complaint would be the cover art, which cannot be considered anything less than dishonourable to anyone that had any respect for Dead. This image should not be available for everyone's eyes, definitely not for every poser on the internet to use as decoration for their web pages. Somehow, this photo makes the record seem more like exploitation than a proper tribute. Either way, all Mayhem fans should hear this, one way or another.
Written for http://ritesoftheblackmoon.tripod.com