“We were repulsed by music about love and kindness – we just hated it,” says Jan Axel Blomberg, drummer for the pioneering Norwegian black-metal band Mayhem, who is known better by the name Hellhammer. “We wanted to make music that was the extreme opposite of that.”
“I guess there’s a lot of good things in life,” offers vocalist Attila Csihar, who pronounces his last name “chee-har” in a thick Hungarian accent. “The sun comes up every morning, and it’s beautiful, and there’s nature and family. But if you look at what’s going on in the world … we are living in a nuthouse with fucking wars and governments controlling people. So it has been my personal path to understand and embrace the darkness.”
More than 20 years ago, Mayhem put out an album that radiated the sort of angst that spoke to Hellhammer, Csihar and their bandmates at the time: De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, the title of which roughly translates to “Lord Satan’s Secret Rites.” Its lyrics speak of growing darkness, bottomless hellholes, pagan fears and the undead returning to recount their damnation. It’s pure Stoker with a side order of Poe, uniquely orchestrated to caterwauling gothic guitar and death-rattle drums and topped by Csihar’s avant-garde combo of growls, grunts and operatic howling. And it set the tone for musical extremism for a generation, inspiring legions of disaffected headbangers to dress in black and hail Satan literally. But for all its importance and mythos, the group was never able to tour behind it.
In August 1993, around the time when the LP was originally slated to come out, Mayhem’s then-bassist, Varg Vikernes (who also went by Count Grishnackh in those days), brutally stabbed his bandmate, guitarist Øystein Aarseth (stage name: Euronymous), 23 times, killing him over what he claimed was a contract dispute. The murder effectively ended the group. That, combined with coverage surrounding a spate of church burnings in Norway, carried out by black-metal bands, and an unrelated murder, established black metal as the most dangerous musical genre since gangsta rap. By the time drummer Hellhammer could put out the album in the spring of 1994, he was Mayhem’s sole remaining member. The band re-formed in the mid-Nineties and now have a lineup that can play De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas live and separate the group’s music from its bloody past.
Mayhem kicked off a world tour, playing the LP, in 2015, and late last year, they put out the live recording De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas Alive – captured at Norrköping, Sweden’s Black Christmass Festival – which documented their first time ever playing the record in its entirety. Now they’re in the middle of a North American run where the group, whose lineup is rounded out with guitarists Teloch and Ghul and founding bassist Necrobutcher, has been playing nothing but the album at concerts in grand, theatrical spectacles marked by some band members wearing monk-like robes and Csihar – morbidly dressed like a living corpse with rotting flesh – manning an altar. It’s an otherworldly experience that gives the singer goosebumps, especially when he looks back on the bizarre path that brought him to this point.
After spending most of the Eighties refining their sound and weathering lineup changes, Mayhem had found a steady groove by the Nineties and a consistent membership with vocalist Dead (real name: Per Yngve Ohlin), Euronymous, Necrobutcher (Jørn Stubberud) and Hellhammer. They’d previously put out a death-metal–leaning EP, Deathcrush, with a prior lineup and by 1991 they were previewing their full-length debut, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, in the metal press. “We won’t delay it anymore unless something extreme happens,” Euronymous told Slayer magazine at the time, as he reported they were still writing about three more songs. His examples of things that could be radical enough to halt progress on the LP were “if Hellhammer disappears again, if Dead cuts himself too much at a gig or if I lose my passport in Albania.”
He was referencing the group’s recent tour of mainland Europe, which Hellhammer remembers as particularly arduous. “It was horrible,” he says. “It was the worst experience in my whole life actually.” The band had decided to travel via the continent’s robust rail system, rather than with a bus, with all its equipment. Hellhammer remembers having his money stolen and nights without a place to sleep. In Turkey, police arrived at the gig with machine guns and shut off the group’s power. “I could never do it again,” he says.
Onstage, it was another kind of horror: Dead wore black-and-white face paint that has become known as “corpse paint” to evoke the look of death and he reputedly buried his stage clothes to give them a death-like aroma. “We had some impaled pig heads, and I cut my arms with a weird knife and a crushed Coke bottle,” the singer told Slayer of one gig in an interview compiled in the book Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries. “We meant to have a chainsaw but the guy who owned it had left when we came to get it. That wasn’t brutal enough!”
Regardless, the tour gave the group a chance to test-drive some of its new material. The album Live in Leipzig, recorded in Germany in 1990, captured the group performing four De Mysteriis songs with Dead onstage. As fate would have it, though, he would record only one of them in a studio. In April 1991, he committed suicide by slitting his wrists and throat and then turning a shotgun to his head. The first line of the suicide note read, “Excuse the blood.”
Euronymous took photos of the scene before calling the authorities, which disturbed founding member Necrobutcher enough that he left the band. The guitarist filled the bassist’s vacancy with Vikernes – who recorded black-metal LPs as the one-man band Burzum for Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions record label – and he dispatched a typewritten letter that year to Csihar, Dead’s favorite singer, who lived Hungary. The guitarist told Csihar he had two initiatives for writing: an opportunity to put out the Anno Domini album the singer recorded in the mid-Eighties with the thrashy black-metal group Tormentor and to ask if he would want to perform Dead’s lyrics in the studio. “They loved my stuff,” Csihar says. “It was great.”
Csihar had formed Tormentor in Budapest in 1985, inspired by tapes of metal bands that his friends had smuggled into the communist country. The genre of black metal had gotten its name from Venom’s gritty yet campy 1982 thrash LP Black Metal, and groups like Celtic Frost and Bathory respectively gave it a pummeling and classical-music–inspired sinister quality in subsequent years. Tormentor picked up that mantle with ornate flourishes and an eerie atmosphere – best heard on “Elisabeth Bathory,” a song about a Hungarian countess who reportedly bathed in virgins’ blood – and were playing to audiences of 700 to 1,500 people – “pretty much the same crowd size we have with Mayhem,” according to Csihar. But by the time Euronymous had written him, he’d grown away from metal, and was more interested in exploring EBM and industrial music with a group called Plasma Pool.
He listened to Deathcrush, “which was like, ‘OK, cool,'” but he was sold on working with the group – which wouldn’t happen for another one-and-a-half years – when he heard early versions of the De Mysteriis songs. “I was like, ‘Fuck, this is great,'” Csihar recalls. “It is going to be something new. It sounded futuristic. It sounded modern and very dark and cool.”
That new sound was in part due to Euronymous experimenting with another Norwegian black-metal guitarist, Snorre Ruch, who went by the name of Blackthorn, and led the group Thorns. Many in the Norwegian black-metal scene credit Ruch with being the first to do away with the thrash- and death-metal guitar style of playing chunky, chugging chords in favor of a looser, darker sound. “I was listening to classical orchestral music and the tonal progression in some of this music had a lot of drama and pathos,” Ruch says. “I experimented with minor chords and later added the super-fast picking I learned from Euronymous. It then developed to more dissonant chords and tonal progressions.”
“Euronymous was very inspired by that kind of playing, because when I toured with him in ’88, he liked the type of friction in the guitars,” Hellhammer says. “He really changed when he got into Thorns and met Snorre. His approach and style changed dramatically.”
Ruch was a member of Mayhem for only about three months, sometime after Euronymous had recorded the guitar for De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but his influence extended before then. “Thorns had reached a standstill and Euronymous and I had the idea of playing second guitar in each other’s bands for a while, but that evolved into merging my songs into Mayhem and canceling Thorns,” Ruch says. “This was interesting for me since Mayhem was a ‘well-working’ band and Thorns was not.” Nevertheless, two riffs from Thorns’ instrumental “Lovely Children,” the lead track on their Grymyrk demo tape, made their way into Mayhem’s “From the Dark Past.” “Some months later the internal chemistry in Mayhem was so bad that I did not care to participate any longer,” Ruch says.
The guitarist’s main contribution to De Mysteriis was editing some of Dead’s lyrics. “Dead had written lyrics and done vocals on four of the songs for the album, but he had also left behind some sheets with lyrics and ideas,” Ruch recalls. “My job was to make this work with the newer songs that did not [have] any vocal arrangement. Typically, I would change as little as possible. The challenge was to make the relatively short lyrics fit in rather long songs. I don’t remember much of this process, but I thought his lyrics were good.”
“Dead had a dark personality, I suppose, so his lyrics were all very scary, dark and eerie,” Hellhammer recalls. “It really reflected his personality. He really did kill himself later, so to speak.” He laughs. “So yeah.”
Dead explained in an interview with Slayer that he wrote the De Mysteriis tracks “Funeral Fog,” “Freezing Moon,” “Buried by Time and Dust” and “Pagan Fears” as a reflection of how he felt. “I can explain ‘Funeral Fog,’ it’s about a legendary place in the middle of the Carpathian horse shoe, a swampland called Shurlock Basin which is surrounded by fearful superstition and the weirdest beings are thought to haunt the place,” he said. “I started to imagine a heavy fog lit up by a full moon. This fog oozed up from that place, drifting woefully in silence to extinguish the lives of the local people and bring their souls to Lord Satan.”
He said “Pagan Fears” was about the idea that “the past isn’t dying but remains in some faded reality,” and the title track was about an “extraordinary evil coven” from a book that he’d apparently only heard about, but he expected to rewrite the songs. “I [decided] the lyrics weren’t evil enough and it didn’t describe the enormous force enough,” he said. In another Slayer interview, he said he needed to find the book that inspired the song “before some wimpy mainstream jerk” could. “I think I’ll have an expedition on my own around the world to find it,” he said. “It’s so dark, darker than death.”
Asked about the book now, Hellhammer laughs. “You see the newest Evil Dead? You see the book there?” he says, referring to director Sam Raimi’s recently rebooted horror franchise about a hapless man who finds a Necronomicon that summons demons. “Dead wrote his lyrics about that kind of Necronomicon, bound in human flesh and written in human blood. He was sure this book existed.” Hellhammer later jokes that the book is supposedly buried beneath Trondheim, Norway’s Nidaros Cathedral, the church featured on the cover of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. (In reality, the 11th-century cathedral sits atop the grave of Norway’s Saint Olav, the country’s onetime king.)
One De Mysteriis song whose lyrics Dead did not write was “Cursed in Eternity,” which Necrobutcher – who’d written the band’s Deathcrush-era lyrics – penned. “At that time, I was heavy into books, and I read passages in a book about a shaman doing a ritual,” he says. “It’s about the shaman putting on a curse.” Asked which book inspired it, he does an about-face. “You know what? I’m not gonna tell. I don’t want to limit people’s imaginations. The fact that I actually told you where it was taken from, that’s already a lot.”
Although Euronymous often gets credit for writing the album’s music, partially since the artwork contains photos only of Hellhammer and him (“We didn’t have photos of Attila,” Hellhammer explains), the band members have posthumously explained who wrote what. Necrobutcher wrote some of “Freezing Moon,” “Pagan Fears” and “From the Dark Past,” and both he and Hellhammer contributed riffs to “Buried by Time and Dust.” “And Varg did some interesting stuff with the bass there, which inspired Euronymous,” Hellhammer adds. “We just didn’t understand how copyrights or royalties and how the business worked, so I guess it was only Euronymous’ name on it. If it were today, the songwriting shares would be different.”
In sessions that spanned 1992 and 1993, the band, consisting of Euronymous, Vikernes and Hellhammer, converged on Grieg Hall – home to Bergen, Norway’s Philharmonic Orchestra – to record. The studio was located a few floors up in the building, but it had a low ceiling and Hellhammer thought it muted his sound. Then he went into the main hall, where a five-piece drum kit was set up, and loved the sound there. “I says to [engineer] Pytten, ‘I want my drums down there,'” says Hellhammer, who recalls being a big jazz fan at the time, inspired by Buddy Rich. “And he goes, ‘Ha, you’re crazy.’ ‘Yes, I am.’ And then he understood. We took the cable for the microphones and ran them down the elevator shaft.” They set up some candles down there and dimmed the lights and subsequently, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas had one of the most powerful drum sounds in metal.
Eventually, they sent for Csihar in 1993, who arrived with his now–ex-wife. The country seemed like high society to him, but he was immediately impressed by the metalheads who picked him up at the airport. Vikernes was wearing chain mail. “I just hung out for a bit in Oslo,” Csihar says. “Back then, the cops were after everybody. And it was hard to survive because everybody was struggling. The scene was so small and very underground.” The band members shared their philosophies about religion and politics with Csihar, but he was more interested in dubbing albums from Euronymous’ and Vikernes’ record collections.
“It was cool – it was good times,” Csihar recalls. “It was pretty intense, too. Everybody was kind of high on fire somehow. This album had been going on for a long time, and I was the last part of it. So we rehearsed a bit and went to Bergen.”
In the time since the singer had fronted Tormentor, he developed a new, much more experimental singing style that he simply calls a “darker voice.” He’d gotten deep into the music of industrial group Skinny Puppy, especially their Too Dark Park and Last Rights albums, and drew inspiration from the husky growls of singer Nivek Ogre. He was also a fan of the dark balladeering of Current 93, the experimental wailing of Diamanda Galás and metal vocalists like Quorthon – frontman of early black-metal pioneers Bathory – along with more well-known singers like Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Ian Gillan and Uriah Heep frontman Dave Byron. But Csihar’s own vocal cords produced a deep, wraithlike croak that sometimes approximated the heavy throat-singing style he’d heard as a teenager on an adventure in Mongolia, when he and his friends would drink beer and sneak into monasteries. It was a far cry from Dead’s more straight-ahead approach.
“His vocals were something new, totally inverted and bizarre,” Hellhammer says. “It was grim and dynamic. You might not like it much but you can be fascinated by it. It takes time to understand what he’s doing and how he’s singing in different voices, and it really adds to the recording.”
“Attila’s vocals were something new, totally inverted and bizarre.” –Hellhammer
“I once said that this album reeked big time, because the vocals ruined everything, but the truth is that I had only properly heard the vocals on ‘Freezing Moon’ … but the vocals on the other tracks are perfect,” Vikernes said in 2005. “I was used to Dead’s vocals and his way of singing, and I never wanted that to change. Attila … was more concerned about his ‘artistic integrity’ and didn’t want to sound just like Dead.”
Csihar recalls the band giving him a lot of space, both figuratively and literally, to get his vocals right. The studio he sang in was dark with curtains blocking the windows and only a few candles piercing through what he recalls as pitch-black darkness. “I got a hand mic so I could just fucking dance around and do whatever I wanted in the darkness, and no one could see me,” he recalls. “I was stuck in a trance in this dark room. I didn’t want the others to see me so I could cover it up so I could transform. I could shapeshift.”
Nevertheless, the band and their friends hung out in a listening room, and Ruch does remember Csihar making “weird, totally spaced-out gestures” while singing. Asked to describe them, he picked two words: “seaweed airplane.”
Sometime after recording, Csihar departed back to Hungary, where he was a year away from a degree in electrical engineering, so he could resume his college studies. “My exams were coming up, and I didn’t want to fuck up the whole semester,” he says. “My plan was to skip the next semester and go back later, because Euronymous had some plans for touring. I was really looking forward to that.”
Csihar waited and waited to hear from Euronymous but never did. Eventually a friend of his told him that the guitarist had been murdered, but Csihar didn’t believe it until he read it in a magazine. “I was like, ‘What the fuck, that’s why nobody picks up the phone for two weeks now,'” he recalls. “‘That’s fucking insane.’
“I was really depressed,” he continues. “To lose someone like that it’s … We didn’t know each other that much, but we’d been in contact for a long time. We liked each other. It was losing a friend. And then on top of that, you’ve got a fucking great album and it wasn’t coming out. To release something in those days was hard, especially for me from Hungary in the early Nineties just at the end of the old system. I was like, ‘I hope to fuck finally I can be on an album after playing music for a decade.'”
All Csihar had was a five-song tape he’d made of rough mixes in the studio. It would later come out as a limited-edition EP called Life Eternal, but he would not hear the finished version of the album for over a year and would not hear from the band again until then.
Meanwhile, Hellhammer was trying to pick up the pieces of the band in Norway. In 1994, Vikernes received a 21-year sentence for murdering Euronymous, as well as for church arson; he has claimed that he was not guilty in the latter charge and that he killed Euronymous in self-defense. Ruch, who drove Vikernes to Euronymous’ apartment, was charged with being an accomplice to the killing and received an eight-year sentence. So with Csihar unreachable, as Hellhammer did not have contact info, the drummer became the sole remaining member of the group. “It was all up to me to make this record come out,” he says.
He connected with his friend Robin Malmberg of the group Mysticum and used rudimentary computer programs to make the album art. He had some lofty ideas for the packaging – lyrics written in calligraphy on parchment paper, the band’s name stamped in foil – but because of the budget, it became more stripped down. He picked the cathedral photo for the cover because Ruch given it to him and he thought it was cool. The only photos he had of the band were shadow portraits of himself, Euronymous and Csihar, and the only proper portraits he had were of himself and Euronymous, so those were the only credits listed in the album. The other reason, possibly for a lack of credits, was, as Hellhammer recalls, “Euronymous’ father didn’t want it to be released, because the killer and victim were on the same record.”
He went ahead and released it anyway and says he has not been in touch with Euronymous’ family recently. Vikernes was released on parole in 2009 and he has not been in touch with Hellhammer either, though they’ve passed friendly greetings to one another. “There’s no bad blood between us for something that happened ages ago,” the drummer says. “I forgave him. This was the matter of one person wanting to kill the other. Euronymous also wanted to kill Varg. But I thought it was only talk. I could never in my wildest dreams imagine he was actually capable of doing it.
“It was, of course, a big loss,” he says. “But it would have also been a big loss if Varg was killed, because they’re equally great musicians. I haven’t talked anything bad about him over the years in interviews at all, because I saw this as a personal matter between two guys who got involved in a war with each other. I have no reason to go off and bash him.”
Vikernes, who has since gone on to release more Burzum albums and espouse controversial philosophies, declined the opportunity to be interviewed for this article.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas finally came out in the spring of 1994, and its influence was almost immediately apparent. Its songs have been covered by high-profile black-metal artists including Cradle of Filth, Immortal, Emperor and Behemoth.
“It was groundbreaking,” Behemoth frontman Nergal says of the LP. “When it was out, lots of people didn’t like it, mainly because of Attila’s innovatory vocals. People expected it to sound more like traditional black metal, but what Attila did was absolutely revolutionary and it still is. The genre grew up to this. I was mesmerized by it. Listening to this album, you can literally feel how it has this otherworldly effect to it, a deathlike sound and feel from beyond.”
Around 1995, Hellhammer reconnected with Necrobutcher and Deathcrush-era singer Maniac to re-form the group with a new recruit on guitar who called himself Blasphemer. They had hoped to continue with Ruch, as well, but his prison sentence prevented it. In 1998, they crossed paths with Csihar at a festival in Milan and asked him to sing the De Mysteriis cut “From the Dark Past” with them. It was the first time he realized the immense impact the album had on music fans. “The fans were totally crazy about it, and I saw friends from Italy who were into De Mysteriis,” he says. “I always thought it was gonna be a good record. And then I started to meet other bands who liked the album, and I realized this album, it’s strong and more profound.” He officially re-joined the group in 2004, and they have since put out two albums, 2007’s Ordo Ad Chao and 2014’s Esoteric Warfare.
In the meantime, Mayhem’s legend has grown, thanks in no small part to a 1998 book called Lords of Chaos, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind, that focused on the deaths in the band and the wave of church burnings that the Norwegian black-metal scene stoked. It is now in the process of being turned into a feature-length film by director Jonas Åkerlund, who was once a member of Bathory and has since gone on to direct music videos for Madonna, Lady Gaga and others. It has Rory Culkin set to star as Euronymous, and other actors will portray Vikernes, Dead, Necrobutcher, Hellhammer and Ruch, among others.
Necrobutcher released an excoriating statement about the film in 2015, saying he would do everything possible stop the film. Now, two years later, he says he has heard nothing from the production. “They contacted everybody behind our backs, our crew members, all kinds of people associated with us in a very sneaky way,” he says. “It’s the wrong approach. You make a movie of a band? The first people I would contact would be the band and ask for permission to use their music. Don’t come afterwards because we won’t authorize it.”
“I think all that know Norwegian black metal well know that the book was crap, and we are all skeptical and negative about it being made into a film,” Ruch says.
A glimpse of the fictional version of Mayhem was included in Metallica’s recent video for “ManUNkind.” Csihar found it unsettling and likened it to Mayhem making a music video that featured deceased Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, though he said he maintained respect for the band. “The film is a bit controversial for me, because it’s a movie based on our story,” he says. “Like, what the fuck?”
Åkerlund, through a rep, declined to comment for this article.
Although Mayhem have played all the songs on De Mysteriis live over the years, it hasn’t been until now – with Csihar back in the band and a two-guitar lineup – that they felt they could do it justice in its entirety onstage. “What do you do as a band? You release an album, then you promote it, then you tour,” Necrobutcher says bluntly. “That’s the only album we released without touring on.”
“It feels really good to do it,” Hellhammer says, adding that he had to relearn his old style of drumming for it. “It’s been a pleasure. People understand and appreciate it, and it means something to them.”
Ruch, too, had to relearn some of his parts as he joined the group as third guitarist for a gig last fall in Trondheim, steps away from the cathedral on the album sleeve. “It’s been over 20 years since I played these songs and my guitar playing is so rusty, I had to choose the most straightforward song, ‘Freezing Moon,'” says the guitarist, who is currently working on a new Thorns album. “With the robes and Attila’s altar onstage, the atmosphere was very ceremonial, but it all worked out very well. I saw the rest of the show in the crowd and I think it was the best Mayhem gig I’ve seen to this day.”
“Every show, I think about the guys who passed away,” Csihar says. “It’s a very magical experience. I really like the energy and atmosphere. It’s still very emotional somehow.”