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Subterranean masterpiece - 100%

blackoz, April 28th, 2007

“Ordo ad chao” – from order to chaos. At last, Mayhem has done it, revived and reshaped the rawness of the glory years and provided everyone from fans to doubters the album that projects the band forward once again to the sharp end of extreme metal.

There’s significance in the title. Initially announced as “Ordo Ab Chao” (order from chaos), the band revealed the true title closer to release. The change is appropriate: rather than compromise and try to restore some convention, predictability or “order” to their music to placate increasingly perplexed fans, Mayhem took the bold step, veered off and created something startlingly different yet again. From chaos to further chaos!

Most Mayhem fans will agree that the last album, “Chimera”, didn’t quite cut it, although it pointed the way forward to an extent. Rather than restate the riff-heavy formula of “DMDS” or follow the misty mountain prog path of “GDOW”, “Chimera” took the bestial blast of “Wolf’s Lair Abyss”, hammered it into layers and textures rather than riff-based song structures, gave it a super-clean and surgically precise attack and then … kinda didn’t engage. It was as if the effort to slay with power and extremity couldn’t quite gel with the pristine sheen of modern studio reproduction. If only Mayhem could somehow return to the necro sludge of the past without slavishly repeating old formulae …

Well they’ve achieved it, and with integrity intact. The album’s signature is principally in its low-fi sound. It’s not the brittle attack of “Deathcrush” or the cavernous Grieghallen reverb of “DMDS. It’s definitely old school but … different. How did they do it? Did they use some low-budget demo studio or book time in Darkthrone’s Necrohell? It sounds to me like Mayhem recorded in the best quality studio, then processed the tapes/files through the audio equivalent of PhotoShop, painting in the molten reds and basalt greys, grinding the mids and meat-tenderizing the bottom end, turning out the most satisfying leaden crunch. Hellhammer sounds like he borrowed Fenriz’ toms, yet his cymbals shimmer through, like glints of sunlight through a volcanic cloud. Blasphemer turns down the treble to get closer than ever to Euronymous’ classic somber tone. Necrobutcher disappears once more back into the mire, fusing with the muted kick drums to deliver a bass-heavy mix. Even the voice of newly-returned Atilla (no longer, it seems, spelled “Attila”) is made to serve the overall atmosphere, mixed down to compete with the backline.

There’s no doubt that Blasphemer’s influence as composer has pushed Mayhem towards more texture-based music, away from clearly defined riffs. The opening track, “A Wise Birthgiver”, is the shot across the bows, a true statement of intent. Rather than blow the listener away with a riff-driven metal overture, Blasphemer has chosen to create a dark, broiling vista, a first look into Mayhem’s magma chamber of horrors. The second track, “Wall of Water” sees the band get down to business with characteristically savage attack, rolling and careering like a black sea of lava. Atilla’s voice is the perfect instrument to complement the murky mix, his theatrics – once reviled – now brought into play to shape, define and ride the music. Basal growls, strangled rasps, mournful tortured cries and his favourite demonic operatic howls – Atilla has expanded his repertoire since DMDS and his choice of vocal devices seems to match the music appropriately at every twist and turn.

“Illuminate Eliminate”, at nearly ten minutes, is the longest track on the album and one of the longest ever recorded by the band. Again, it confidently shows which way Mayhem is heading – towards a more modernist symphonic approach, crafting longer atmospheric works built on shifting textural patterns.

The concluding track, “Anti”, is probably the closest to the older Mayhem in style. The pace is accelerated, driven by furious drumming and the whole band lets rip. Interesting, then, that label Season of Mist and Mayhem’s website should pre-release this, the final album track, as a downloadable mp3 rather than another track more in the new mid-paced, moody style.

Season of Mist’s packaging and the album cover’s designers deserve a special gong. The limited edition’s metal slipcase is impressive enough, but beneath it, the jewel case’s slick and back tray reveal no text, logo or illustrations, only an expressionist spray of dark, igneous patterns, just the right visual representation of Mayhem’s new music.

I’ve listened to the album half a dozen times and cannot fault it. Mayhem is minority music, so extreme that few will admit to enjoying it. This new atmospheric approach, yet another departure from the “classic” DMDS sound and style, might possibly further alienate the (dwindling?) faithful. But, to me, “Ordo Ad Chao” is a modern masterpiece and, placed alongside the band’s back catalogue, shows that, despite the serpentine and restless changes in style over twenty years, Mayhem answers to no one and continues to reign as the number one extreme band on the planet.