Mayhem: Esoteric Warfare

[2 June 2014]

By Alex Franquelli

The Implosion of a Black Metal Star

Let’s face it, everything dies. A body’s energy gets transferred to other bodies or objects, in a process which sees the decaying matter’s fate slowly morph into its legacy. The later stage of this body’s life is sometimes the brightest and, for some of them, it coincides with a creative, desperate apex. It is gravity against fusion. Weight against synthesis. Lack of inspiration against talent. Mayhem’s Esoteric Warfare is, in every way, the finest example of this transformation, containing all the elements that have made this Norwegian band legendary, plus a variable:  their degeneration.

The record is set straight by “Watcher”, the epic opener that confirms the features carefully detailed on the single that came out earlier this year. Do you miss the brutality of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas? You’ve got it. Do you think that the slightly more elaborated Grand Declaration of War added depth to the juvenile masterpiece that was the band’s debut? Don’t worry, it’s all in here.

The problem with Esoteric Warfare lies in the static nature of its ingredients. The fuel is running out and the implosion will probably be as bright as the band’s whole career, only less interesting. Take Attila Csihar, for instance. The vocalist’s creative exuberance with Sunn O))) and Gravetemple is indeed a far cry from the controlled substance that is his performance on Mayhem’s latest effort. There is no strict adherence to the canons of black metal, true, but the boundaries set a series of limitations which flirt with blandness and predictability. However, from the viewpoint of a fan of the genre, Esoteric Warfare is an excellent release that confirms Mayhem as the leaders of what once was a dynamic and thriving scene.

The lesson taught by the carefully daring inspiration that led to Ordo Ad Chaos echoes in tracks like “MILAB” or “Corpse of Care”, which heavily rely on the theatrical aspect of Csihar’s voice. As a result, the progressive digressions remain and are somehow amplified (“Posthuman”) or taken to the extreme (“Throne of Time”) by Hellhammer’s relentless drumming and Teloch’s agile guitar work.

The good news is that Esoteric Warfare is as consistent a piece of work as the average fan would want it to be. The bad news is that nothing takes prominence and the album slowly drifts into the reign of the flat and the lackluster.

For this reason, the highlights of the album are to be found in the first four tracks—two of which were cleverly offered as singles prior to the release of the full-length—with the rest serving as a filler that will continue to impress the die-hard core of Mayhem’s fan base, but which will bore the rest of us. Quite frankly, there is nothing on Esoteric Warfare which has not been conceived, done and reiterated by the likes of Anaal Nathrakh, Ephel Duath, Sigh and Deathspell Omega. Mayhem are clearly trying to push the envelope of their metal, but their efforts are rendered vain by the lack of derring-do which has sealed the fate of other fellow second-wave black metallers.

Everything evolves. In cases in which the realization of one’s limits fails to manifest itself in all its decadent glory, an implosion occurs. Nothing is created, nothing is lost; everything is transformed. No one’s a winner, in an Esoteric Warfare.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/182118-mayhem-esoteric-warfare/